Friday, April 29, 2011

Three Poems by C.P. Cavafy

Poet Constantine P. Cavafy, born on this day 148 years ago, seemed born to torment translators. First there's the matter of his idiom — the crazy veering he did as a Greek in Alexandria between dialect and formal speech, modernity and antiquity, and that special eccentric diction that on occasion led him to coin his own words. But that is just a palimpsest of surface, possible with modern technology to peer through. The conundrum is his nuance, so precise that the normal mode of translators — equalizing semantic resonances on a pair of language scales — always seems to throw everything off. Even one stolen word to fill the vast linguistic chasm changes an entire poem, yet poetic translation is nothing without such stolen words. Cavafy, who also lived and studied in England, must be very pleased to see the frustration caused to us dim-witted Anglos when we try to enter his strange and wistful paradise — one invisible to all but the most refined sensibilities.

So, here are three poems that are not quite epic failures as translations. For more sophisticated mis-translations, one can view Cavafy's entire canon online, which also includes the Greek originals in written and spoken form. Oh, and I also posted my translation of a more famous Cavafy poem, The City, here two years ago. Happy birthday, C.P., you historian of the senses.


In a room small and empty, four walls only,
all green and covered in cloths,
a chandelier shines brightly with fire
and in each of its flames is the smolder
of lust’s sickness, the force of desire.

In that slightest of rooms the light multiplies,
the chandelier trembles with heat.
No ordinary light gets away from here,
it’s not made for timorous bodies
this fever of pleasure.

A December in 1903

And if I cannot tell about my love—
if I don't speak for hair, for lips, for eyes;
your face I hold it still inside my soul,
I hold the sound of your voice in my brain,
September days, erupting in my dreams,
chisel and paint my phrases and words
in every subject I touch, each idea I say.

Cleo's Illness

This Cleo, a nice
kid, three and 20 years old—
aristocratically bred, with a rare knowledge of Greek—
has fallen ill. He caught the fever
going around Alexandria this year.

The fever found him morally exhausted already
heartsick at his partner, a young actor,
who loved him and wanted him no longer.

He's seriously ill, his parents are worried.

The maid who raised him
is also afraid for Cleo's life.
In her fretful condition
she thinks of an idol
she loved when she was little, before she worked as a maid
at this prominent Christian home and became herself a Christian.
She secretly offers some cake, wine and honey
to the idol, and chants whatever supplications
she can remember — scraps, melodies. The silly
doesn't know if the little black demon Meles, father of Homer,
can cure a Christian or not.