|Constantine Cavafy’s poems survive translation better than most. One reason for this is the sheer interest of their content: homoerotic amours in exotic settings, the dooms of tyrants, the various crossed destinies of sophists and drifters and soothsayers – his treatment of such matters is enough to convince a non-Greek readership of his genius. Because of their psychological and political acuity, their unfazed at-homeness with the operations of sex and the city, his poems are immediately persuasive and would probably hold up well enough if translated into prose. Cavafy, in fact, could have altered Wilfred Owen’s famous apologia for his war elegies (“The poetry is in the pity”) and have boasted of his own achievement, “The poetry is in the plotting”.
The truth of this is evident in the work already available in English, but to rest the case for Cavafy on what are essentially prose virtues still sells the poetry short. And this is why Stratis Haviaras’ decision to maintain a general metrical consistency in his versions had a fundamental rightness to it and has produced such deeply satisfactory results. In his translator’s listening post, his bilingual ear picks up the iambic pace of the Greek, measures it in two minds, and more or less keeps step with it in English. Haviaras is himself a poet, so he is at home in his medium and stays equidistant from metronome and monotone. His verse is not on overdrive, but it is still propelled and this sensation of being borne forward by more than character and content is crucial to its success.
Sexual desire, political ambition, artistic need: Cavafy has a singular apprehension of how these forces make themselves felt in individual lives. Their inexorability both enthralls and dismays him, and one of the things that gives the poetry its rare steadiness is his ability to penetrate past circumstance into what is sensed as fate – sensed not only by the poet but by his protagonists and his readers also. Everywhere in these poems there is reverie and hedonism, irony and antiquarianism, but we can never identify the poet himself as a pure and simple daydreamer or hedonist or ironist or antiquarian. Even so, the plane of regard is not over-elevated: the human predicament here is presented neither as divine comedy nor fully blown tragedy, but is seen from a viewpoint located somewhere between Olympus and Gethsemane.
It is not a god’s eye view, nor is it altogether brimming with the tears of things human. He neither says “Father, forgive them!” nor “What fools these mortals be!” There is an indeflectible, locked-on quality to Cavafy’s gaze, and what he gazes at he goes towards, calmly and clear-sightedly, more coroner than commentator, equally disinclined to offer blame or grant the benefit of the doubt. It’s as if everything enters the mirror and is held there, rather as the beauty of the tailor’s assistant is inspected and preserved in the crystalline serenity of “The Mirror in the Hallway” (p. 200).
What frames the mirror, or perhaps better say what backs it, is a voice, and what guarantees the voice a hearing is the melody of understanding, the combination of immediate sympathy and regulated intelligence that informs it. Content may be where these poems begin but they cannot attain their end without this voicing. We are lucky that Stratis Haviaras has been so responsive to its betwitching registers and has been able to transpose them and afford them an extra carrying power in English.
Translation, by definition, entails a carrying over, but the extra dimension here derives from a feeling that the poems have not only been carried over but have been carried off, hugged to the breast, as it were, and held in keeping. It strikes me that Stratis Haviaras is not unlike the speaker in the poem, “Myres: Alexandria, A.D. 340”. Myres, a Christian who nevertheless participated happily in the “all-night revels” of his unchristened companions, has died, and his bereft companion visits the corpse house. There, surrounded by rites very different from those of Poseidon and Apollo which Myres had so often attended but never fully entered, the companion begins to recognize that the friend he cherished is not quite the person being mourned and hurries from the house “before they snatched away, and corrupted / …my memories of Myres”.
Perhaps there is an element of such appropriation in every translation, an implicit staking of the claim, “This much of him is mine”. But in the Cavafy-Haviaras relationship, there is a feeling not of appropriation but of return and repossession. It’s as if Haviaras, who has spent more than three decades in the English speaking world, experienced there a period of displacement analogous to the displacement that Myres’ friend experiences at the wake. We can imagine him in this different anglophone world, in surroundings where the great Greek language poet becomes slightly foreign to him. But then Stratis Haviaras returns to Athens and begins to write again in Greek and when he does, the poet of his native tongue, the one who had almost been “snatched away”, belongs to him again. These translations are guaranteed and informed by the abundance and excitement of that restoration.
Glanmore, March 2004
|Seamus Heaney, “Foreword”. In: C.P. Cavafy, The Canon. Translated from the Greek by Stratis Haviaras, Hermes Publishing, 2004 |