The canon of C.P. Cavafy — in a new translation

A new translation of the entire Cavafy canon is an event, all the more so when it comes from Stratis Haviaras, an accomplished bilingual poet who writes in Greek and English. Many of his fellow writers were among the crowd that gathered at the Hellenic-American Union on Monday to help celebrate the launching of «C.P. Cavafy: The Canon» (Hermes). Time, as the translator himself acknowledged, will tell which of the many new translations of Cavafy survives – and there are a number of them. «There’ll be a shakedown,» he predicted. If the examples read beautifully in Greek by actress Dora Efthymiou and in English by poet Adrianne Kalfopoulou at the launching are any indication, then Haviaras’s versions will be among the survivors. Kathimerini English Edition talked to Haviaras about the Cavafy project last week at his home in Exarchia. The heart of the idiom Yet another translation of Cavafy. Why? Why – at a time when Cavafy translations are coming out so frequently? Why – after two very good translations, namely the original of Rae Dalven, who has been read in America at least for 50 years, and then the translation of Keeley-Sherrard, which has been around for almost 30 years now? I realized that I’m the only translator-poet, and even though I’m not of the same temperament, or the same magnitude, I thought that I could contribute something unique. And that is taking the substance, the heart of the Cavafy idiom, and transplanting it into English prosody, making that translation a poem that works in the second language as closely as the original works in the Greek language. In other words, I wanted to make poems of them in English. Replicating rhythm I worked with the language, with Cavafy’s selection of words, with his poetics. I tried to replicate his rhythms – all iambic, but so close to free verse because each line has its own metrical integrity – in most of the poems. I even made rhymes. Not all the poems have rhyming schemes; some of them are just impossible, and the strain to the poem would have been too much for the sake of the rhyme. I wanted to make poems that will read as Cavafy, that will imply translation, but will not read as translation, that will read as poems made – or almost made – in the English language. That was a challenge. Where did the idea come from? Let me go back a little bit. At 32, the second time I went to America, I decided to go to college. I felt bad for not having a college degree; well, I didn’t have a high school degree either; I worked in construction here until I was 32. When I went to Harvard, I also took courses there; then I went to a small experimental college in Vermont called Goddard College and got my BA. And the subject of my graduating thesis was the translation of poetry. I used Cavafy, Seferis, and my own poems. My own poems didn’t carry over; it was a disappointing failure. Later on, I founded a little poetry magazine, called Arion’s Dolphin, where I frequently published Greek poems in translation, and later on I founded Erato and Harvard Review at Harvard University, where I quite frequently translated Greek poems into English, increasingly more successfully. In ’72, during the junta, I dedicated an entire issue of Arion’s Dolphin to 35 postwar Greek poets. In the 1999-2000 Harvard Review, I contributed to the translation of two collections of poems by Seamus Heaney into Greek. I was thinking about Cavafy all along. I wanted very much to translate him but I didn’t trust my skills to do any better than others had already done. But in my mind I continued to work on it, to want to do it and to grapple with translation problems. Eventually, I started writing poetry in English and I felt a little bit bolder. What sparked this effort was the Cavafy Year, 2003. The result of the first draft was encouraging and I spent another year fiddling with it. I tried to replicate Cavafy only when the same structures worked in English prosody as well, but then to ignore the original when it did not work, and to redo it from scratch as if I were the poet. Still, there are no radical departures from the original. Don’t misunderstand; the translation is quite faithful. So you give priority to meaning, and then to music and rhythm. Yes. There are so many issues in how we make poetry in English and all the devices that poets use, but being a slave to an original text does not allow that kind of freedom. First you have to look at the original, transfer it to another language and see what happens. If it’s OK, polish it and make it shine; but if it doesn’t happen, then what? Then you have the double task – you are bound to the original, but you – I – still want to make a poem in English. It’s hard work; it’s very challenging. There are headaches and questions: Am I doing it right? Am I betraying the spirit? Am I a traditore [translator] or a traduttore [traitor]? Have you added to the poet’s footnotes to help English-speaking readers? Very briefly, only what’s absolutely necessary, and those are based on the notes of the late George Savvidis. The innovation is to include them on the same page, so that the reader won’t have to scramble to the back pages to find them. What are the greatest challenges in translating Cavafy? Cavafy’s language idiom, first, the kind of language that he made for his poetry, which is a little from Alexandria, a lot from Constantinople, where his family was from, and then from the entire history of the Greek language. Like all great Greek poets, he feels free to roam, but judiciously, throughout the history of the Greek language, and to pick the words that he needs. And those are very difficult to translate, because of their nuances and history. When you read a word in Greek, you know where it comes from and it has the aura of the era. It is very difficult to do that in English, but you still have to do the best you can to retain or to replicate as much as you can in order to do justice to the original and to the poem in its new life in the new language. Something does get lost. My promise was that what is lost in translation is not the poetry. If something must be lost, so be it; inevitably things will be lost – some shades, colors, sounds, relationships – but not the poetry that we want to read in a poem in the English language. English does have its own poetic vocabulary; it has its auras and its echoes. Of course it does, and you try to match as many of those as you can. It’s frustrating because in so many cases you have to compromise, or the English choice is good, and it’s correct, and it works nicely, but it’s not the same. Some people say that every canonical work requires a new translator every generation. Yes, it’s true. But I’m going to have heavy competition, because every other day a new translation comes out. I side with poets translating poetry, that’s where my heart is because I know how things work or refuse to work. If the poet understands and is inspired by that poet, and the poet realizes that there is something equivalent in him that wants to be said, that is the ideal situation and then there is a chance for a second life of the poem. A second life Writing in the foreword to this volume of Cavafy’s «melody of understanding, the combination of immediate sympathy and regulated intelligence that informs it,» Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney adds, «We are lucky that Stratis Haviaras has been so responsive to its bewitching registers and has been able to transpose them and afford them an extra carrying power in English.» This handsome and affordable paperback, edited by Dana Bonstrom, with Heaney’s foreword and a frontispiece by Dimitri Hadzi, is bound to give the poems a second life among confirmed admirers of Cavafy and a new generation of readers. Poet, novelist and translator Stratis Haviaras, born in Greece in 1935, is a bilingual poet, novelist and translator who works in English and Greek. He has published two novels in English, «When the Tree Sings» (1979) and «The Heroic Age» (1984), and has recently completed a third. Of his six poetry collections, two are in English, the most recent being «Millennial Afterlives» (2000), a series of prose poems. His translations of poems by Seamus Heaney are included in two collections by several hands, «The Spirit Level» (1999) and «Alphabets» (2000). Haviaras worked for many years at Harvard University, most recently as curator of the Poetry Room and editor of the Harvard Review. He continues to teach creative writing at Harvard and at the European Translation Center (EKEMEL) in Athens.