a feeling on the brow, in the eyes and on the lips

Remember, Body …, by CP Cavafy and translated by Avi Sharon

When I read recently Mathias Enard’s Zone, I made a note of some writers mentioned in the text that I wanted to follow up on. One was the Greek poet CP Cavafy, whom I’d never even heard of before (even the most famous poets tend to be pretty obscure if they’re not studied in schools, and Greek poets aren’t studied in UK schools).

It turned out that presently there are at least three competing major translations of Cavafy. I settled on the Keeley and Sherrard translation, the longest standing of the current crop, but it was a close run thing.

Then though Penguin had it’s rather wonderful Little Black Classics idea, and one of them was an excerpt from its own Cavafy translation by Avi Sharon. I’d already committed to the Keeley/Sherrard, but the prospect of a pocket Cavafy was too tempting to resist.

Cavafy Penguin

Cavafy is a poet of desire and regret. Most of the poems here are very short, a paragraph or two. They exist primarily in memory, a reverie of loves once known and lost. Cavafy was gay at a time when that was illegal, and his encounters are therefore both circumspect and fleeting.

The poems are written from the perspective of age, brimming with nostalgia for moments stolen from the world years before. For Cavafy, youth and beauty are linked. To be old is to be separated from that you most want to possess, leaving only the wistful recollection of pleasures past.

There’s a limit to how much I want to say about what is a very short collection (though a very good one). Some of Cavafy’s “greatest hits” are left out, most notably Ithaka which is his most famous work (a poem I find a bit trite, not true for most of his). Penguin though would obviously like you to treat this as a taster and to move on to the full collected works they publish, and that’s fair enough.

Sharon’s translations are smooth and evocative, reading as if poetry written in English. Whether they’re faithful I can’t say, I don’t speak Greek, but they work here. Put simply, this is a great little collection. It’s a marvellous introduction to Cavafy, and while I’d already bought a larger collection of his work if I hadn’t this would definitely have convinced me to do so.

All that said, there’s no better way to illustrate a poet than by quoting from their poetry. Here are two complete Cavafy poems from this collection, both of which were among those I particularly liked. I had planned to also quote his wonderful The Café Entrance, but WordPress breaks the lines which isn’t fair to the poem.

The Tobacconist’s Window

Near the brightly lit window

of a tobacconist’s shop, they stood amid a crowd of people.
By chance their gazes met
and hesitantly they half expressed
the illicit longing of their flesh.
Later, after several anxious steps along the pavement –
they smiled and gently nodded.

Then the closed carriage …
the sensuous mingling of their bodies;
the hands, the lips coming together.

One Night

The room was shabby and miserable,
tucked above a suspect tavern.
A window opened on to the alley,
narrow and unclean. From the tavern beneath
came the voices of workmen playing cards and carousing.

There, in that humble, commonplace bed,
I possessed the body of love; I possessed
those sensual, rose-red lips of intoxication –
red lips so intoxicating that even now,
as I write these lines, after so many years
all alone in this house, I am drunk with it again.

As a note by the way on different translations, that poem I mentioned above titled The Café Entrance is differently titled in the Keeley/Sherrard translation as At the Café Door, while in the highly regarded Daniel Mendelsohn translation it’s In the Entrance of the Café. Tricky stuff, translating poetry. To illustrate quite how tricky, here’s two other versions of One Night:

One Night – Keeley and Sherrard translation

The room was cheap and sordid,
hidden above the suspect taverna.
From the window you could see the alley,
dirty and narrow. From below
came the voices of workmen
playing cards, enjoying themselves.

And there on that ordinary, plain bed
I had love’s body, knew those intoxicating lips,
red and sensual,
red lips so intoxicating
that now as I write, after so many years,
in my lonely house, I’m drunk with passion again.


One Night – Daniel Mendelsohn translation

The room was threadbare and tawdry,
hidden above that suspect restaurant.
From the window you could see the alley,
which was filthy and narrow. From below
came the voices of some laborers
who were playing cards and having a carouse.

And there in that common, vulgar bed
I had the body of love, I had the lips,
sensuous and rose-colored, of drunkenness –
the rose of such a drunkenness, that even now
as I write, after so many years have passed!,
in my solitary house, I am drunk again.

The Mendelsohn works least well for me here. Having a carouse seems odd, like something from a Carry On film, and I dislike the use of the exclamation mark (though I understand it’s in the original). Threadbare and tawdry too has less impact for me than cheap and sordid or shabby and miserable.

Getting even more specific, Mendelsohn’s choice of the word restaurant is interesting. Taverna is a much more colloquial term, one that for me immediately evokes a certain kind of restaurant. Tavern to a degree does the same, but is less specifically Greek, it’s a halfway house between the Mendelsohn and Keeley/Sherrard versions.

Aguably, however, Taverna is redundant. It’s essentially a word for a small Greek restaurant, but it’s obvious this isn’t a grand establishment from the rest of the poem. Mendelsohn is perhaps being more precise by avoiding the more clichéd term (and there’s no confusion in his version as to what kind of place Cavafy is remembering). I think though that Mendelsohn pays a price for his precision with a certain loss of romance compared to the Keeley/Sherrard. Sometimes, cliché works.

Another point I noted is that the Sharon uses intoxication and intoxicating where the Keeley/Sherrard repeats intoxication and Mendelsohn repeats drunkenness. I think drunkenness loses a sense of liberating joy, but coupled with rose-colored it does bring to mind the famous wine-dark seas of Greek myth which is surely no accident. Sharon avoids repetition, but at a cost to rhythm.

It would be fascinating, though beyond my current appetite, to go line by line comparing each version of the poem. Greek doesn’t map directly to English, what language does? Every translator then makes choices, and every choice carries nuances, and in poetry nuance is everything. I doubt there’s a right or wrong here, just decisions as to fidelity, atmosphere, structure, meaning, and how to balance between them.

Ultimately, all three are very highly regarded translations. The Cavafy reader is spoiled for choice, which is why I spent a good couple of hours in Foyles deciding which version I wanted for myself. I’ve criticised the Mendelsohn here most, but I was actually very impressed by it and while ultimately I thought the Keeley/Sherrard better for me that wasn’t a quick or easy decision. Similarly, the Sharon’s worked well, read well, had power. It’s hard here to make a bad choice.

Other reviews

I don’t know of any on the blogosphere, but if you do please let me know in the comments and if you’ve reviewed it yourself please feel free to leave a link to your review below.


Filed under Cavafy, CP, Poetry

21 responses to “a feeling on the brow, in the eyes and on the lips

  1. Keeley/Sherrard for me! (I do have some Cavafy poems somewhere – Lawrence Durrell mentions them, as does John Fowles (can’t quite remember where, Justine and The Magus I think) haven’t got round to them.)

    I can only echo your qualified gripes about Mendelssohn. Precision isn’t everything, and often isn’t even the point. I’ll go for the seamless cadence and unfussy evocation here, and in most places.

  2. To be fair to Mendelsohn I’ve been a bit tough on him here. I was genuinely very tempted by his translation, and browsing through his collection it did read very well.

    Durrell I think was responsible for bringing Cavafy to wider attention.

    Interestingly, I also found this Don Paterson translation/interpretation:

    The room above the bar
    was the cheapest we could find.
    We could see the filthy alley
    from the window, hear the shouts
    of the workmen at their card-games.

    Yet there on that narrow bed
    I had love’s body, knew its red lips;
    those lips so full, so bloody with desire
    that now as I write, after so many years,
    in this lonely house… I’m drunk with them again.

  3. There are way more than three competing translations. There is a Cavafy industry. it is a strange phenomenon.

    I read the Keely & Sherrard recently and had a great time with it. I had been reading about Cavafy for 25 years without reading him, or just reading what was excerpted in the reviews of the endless stream of new translations. I didn’t do any comparisons at all. Next time. It would be fun, and I enjoyed yours.

  4. I knew of at least one more, and I’m not surprised there’s more than that. Comparing three took long enough though, in the end you just have to go for one.

    I’d never actually heard of him. Odd the lacunae we have isn’t it? He’s hardly obscure after all. The K/S also has the benefit/disbenefit of not being a complete works, which the Sharon and Mendelsohn’s both are. I find complete works a bit much to digest, but for those content to pick up from time to time and browse a volume that potentially makes the Sharon and Mendelsohn better value.

  5. I can’t weigh in on the merits of the translations, but the “odd” lacunae may be due to the overt homosexuality in many of Cavafy’s poems. One thinks of how Whitman and Auden have been taught – and Cavafy is far more overt than either.

    Cavafy was one of those poets about whom a group of us, while in our 20’s, went absolutely nuts. He seemed to give voice to our mercurial passions. A good Valentine’s Day gift, a volume of Cavafy – for the right person.

  6. Good point Scott. There’s no way a teacher could avoid the gay content, it’s at the core of the poetry and it’s not “tastefully” concealed in metaphor. By contrast I was taught Auden at school, and I’m not sure I was aware that he was gay.

    I think he’d have been glad you were in your 20s, he clearly thinks that’s when men are at their most beautiful. I can definitely see why he’d make a good Valentine’s Day gift.

  7. I quite like that Paterson translation, perhaps my favourite: what do you think?

  8. I think it’s excellent. I don’t know much about the background to it though, I suspect it’s more an interpretation than a strict translation. Paterson after all is a gifted poet in his own right.

  9. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Funny how an author can keep coming on your radar suddenly – Cavafy keeps popping up on blogs and I’d considered the Little Black Classic. Think I’ll go for it now. I definitely agree with you about liking the Mendelsohn least here – and I think intoxicating is a good choice to capture that heady feeling of love. Translating poetry must be one of the hardest arts around.

  10. Impossibly difficult I’d think. The LBCs are a great way to try writers out. I had meant to do a combined post of the two I’ve read so far, as you did for the ones you read, but then I thought there was something interesting to say re competing translations so this one sort of grew.

    Leaves me a bit short of material for the Christina Rossetti LBC review I was planning though…

  11. I enjoyed reading your review, Max, especially your points on the different translations. It’s really interesting how one word can change the connotations or impressions you get from the poem.

  12. I’ve always felt that the power of those last verses must have been somehow borrowed from a certain poem by one of the duo of supreme poets whose names a dying Borges shouted over and over to Yves Bonnefoy, Verlaine and Virgil:

    Le soir tombait, un soir équivoque d’automne:
    Les belles, se pendant rêveuses à nos bras,
    Dirent alors des mots si spécieux, tout bas,
    Que notre âme depuis ce temps tremble et s’étonne.

    Evening fell, ambiguous autumn evening:
    The beauties dreamingly clung to our arms
    And cooed such filth that after all these years
    our stunned souls are still trembling with fear.

  13. I’d heard of Cavafy but never read him. Poetry wouldn’t be my usual choice of reading material, but I do like The Tobacconist’s Window and One Night (from the LBC edition). They’re beautifully evocative. As you say, those LBCs are a great way of sampling a new-to-you author. I very nearly bought the Maupassant one a few weeks ago…

  14. I downloaded this little book (heaven knows if the actual little black books will ever show up here). I have not invested in a Cavafy collection yet as I think that the entire Keeley/Sherrard translation is available online. I have noted that their translations are not always consistent. The City is my personal touchstone. I can recite their translation by heart. I am intrigued by the Mendelsohn, simply because his translations evoke a very different, despairing tone. I find that with poetry in translation, one is always looking and comparing if you want to seriously read a poet’s work. I have been on a Paul Celan kick and after examining many versions from the library I chose one I liked, but a new translator who intrigues me.

    As for Cavafy, Damon Galgut re-imagines him in Arctic Summer and that is where he really came to life for me. EM Forester knew him in Alexandria during the First World War (and later wrote about him). Galgut himself, as a gay writer who excels in capturing the nuances of tensions between men, captures an interesting friendship between these two men with vastly different levels of comfort with their sexuality.

  15. It is, isn’t it Gemma? Translation’s a bugger I imagine at the best of times, but with poetry it must surely be near impossible.

    Cleanthess, that wouldn’t surprise me at all, though it’s not a reference I knew. I would imagine a fair bit of poetry involves references to other poet’s works, brief reminders or echoes of inspiration.

    As you can probably tell, I’m not an expert on poetry. Then again, poetry can’t just be read by experts (well, it can be, but it shouldn’t be).

    Jacqui, it is a great introduction, and it’s pretty much risk free. Less than half the price of a coffee and all that.

    Rough, the Keeley is available fully online and legitimately so as best I can tell (http://www.cavafy.com/). I don’t like reading on a computer though, kindle is completely different as it’s e-ink but computer screens I get enough of with work. The City, probably again as it’s one of the greatest hits, isn’t in this collection (though it’s in the full collection this is excerpted from).

    I do plan to read Galgut, though not until after my #TBR20. I have several by him, though not Arctic Summer. Is that then a fictionalised biography?

  16. You mention the difficulty of translation. Cavafy is an example of the impossibility of faithful translation. All one can hope to achieve is something that sounds good in English. In Greek, Cavafy always sounds strange. He wrote in a kind of Greek that does not resemble any other writer, and never quite sounds natural, even he seems to be colloquial. This gives him a sense of bookishness. It’s a strangeness that always reminds me of Forster’s description of him as “standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe”. In order to do justice to him, one would need to translate him into a language that had regional differences, and then pick and choose from them, so that the result did not seem to come from any particular place, and a diction that moved back and forth from the archaic and modern. This last feature comes from the fact that he wrote at a time when there were two types of Greek: demotic (the popular, day-to-day common type that was even in his day favoured by writers who wanted to create a living literature) and katharevousa (a stilted “purified” Greek, an attempt to recreate the stricter correctness of ancient Greek, and which was mainly used in bureaucratic documents and journalism). Katharevousa is more prevalent in the poems that deal with historical themes, and is used more to add an archaic, bookish flavour to his poetry.

    These characteristics are impossible to convey in English, which has a very different history than Greek. I once attempted some translations of Cavafy, where I tried to combine a plain, modern sounding English with something that sounded 18th or 19th century. If I find one, I’ll post it.

  17. I found it. I post it here only to demonstrate the futility I mentioned above. It is not one of Cavafy’s best, and I don’t remember why I chose to translate it. My subsequent translations did not attempt to recreate the odd mixture of levels of diction. I did, however, try to write metric verse. I don’t know why, because one thing that is unusual about Cavafy’s poetry — entirely unique for Greek poetry of that time — is that it is free verse.

    The First Step

    Unto Theocritus did Eumenes,
    The poet young, complain one day: “Although
    Two years have passed since I began to write,
    One idyll alone have I written yet;
    It is my sole completed work. Alas,
    I see it now: too lofty is the way,
    Too high for me the rise to Poetry;
    And never from the first step, where I stand,
    Will I, poor luckless wretch, further ascend.”
    And to him said Theocritus, “These words you speak,
    Unfit for you, are blasphemies severe.
    For though you stand upon the first step still,
    Consider yourself fortunate; be proud.
    This step you’ve reached, it is no little thing;
    What you have done’s a glory great indeed.
    And still, this first step from the vulgar crowd
    Stands very far apart. To stand upon
    This step, one must deserve to be enrolled
    Citizen of the city of ideas.
    For difficult it is to reach this city,
    Enrollment in it is a rare event;
    The Legislators found in its assembly
    Are never fooled by any rogue or scoundrel.
    This step you’ve reached, it is no little thing;
    What you have done’s a glory great indeed.”

    There is an online translation of this poem by Cavafy’s brother

  18. Max, just to follow up regarding Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut, it is a fictionalized exploration of the long period of writer’s block that Forster experienced before he wrote A Passage to India. He was in love with an Indian man he had tutored who was heterosexual and unable to return his affection. He made several trips to India during these years and seems to have transformed his own experiences and frustrations into his most famous novel. More than anything it is a novel about being a novelist. Galgut endeavoured to capture the tone and feel of Edwardian fiction.

    It’s quite good but not my favourite Galgut (and I have read all his work). Typically he is a very spare writer. The Good Doctor, The Impostor and In a Strange Room are all excellent.

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  20. Thomas, thanks for that and for your translation. Fascinating on the issues of language, period and regionality. I’m reminded of the impossibility of translating Eugene Onegin, where one may pick rhythm (as the translation I reviewed here did) or accuracy of language (as Nabokov famously did) but not both.

    There’s a common issue in translation I think of smoothing that which wasn’t smooth in the original. So, a writer writes in a manner that is perhaps partly archaic, or vulgar, or ungrammatical or whatever, for some purpose of their own. The translator then “corrects” the “errors”, and the result is praised as readable and smooth but the original never was those things.

    So, often when we say a translation is good what we mean is that it reads smoothly, but that of course means nothing as to its accuracy.

    rough, interesting, there’s a surprisingly common theme in 20th Century literature that a gay man can only properly be attracted to a straight man, and that his tragedy is that only other gay men will return his love but those are precisely the ones he’s not attracted to. I think many believed it to be true, which is tragic (and probably self-fulfilling). It crops up both in fiction (including my current Proust to a degree) and memoir (you see it a lot in Quentin Crisp’s stuff).

    I suspect I’d have to read more Forster to be able to appreciate that Galgut.

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