Constantine Cavafy: Collected Poems

April 17, 2009

In the New York Times, James Longenbach reviews Greek poet Constantine Cavafy’s Collected Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn and published by Knopf. So often in mainstream reviews of international literature, translation itself is only discussed in any depth in instances where multiple translations exist and can be compared. Longenbach sees in Mendelsohn’s translation an illuminating new reading of Cavafy’s work:

Earlier translators have, to varying degrees, rightly emphasized the prosaic flatness of Cavafy’s language; the flatness is crucial to the emotional power of the poems, since it prevents their irony from seeming caustic, their longing from seeming nostalgic. But as Mendelsohn shows, Cavafy’s language was in subtle ways more artificial than we’ve understood.

I can’t speak to whether Mendelsohn is actually revealing something in Cavafy’s language or instead contributing something of his own, and I don’t know whether Longenbach has the background to gauge that, either. But that’s one of the things that’s useful about multiple translations: they can free us from a sense of slavish obligation to the original text, in which a translator, especially one working with a heretofore untranslated work, often feels a responsibility to provide a version as “accurate” and “faithful” as possible to represent the original before an audience with no access to it. But that is a social and cultural sense of responsibility, not a literary one — I would argue, at least for the moment — and does not have to guide our approach to a work of literature.

I was intrigued by Mike’s earlier argument that it is not works of literature we are protecting with our demands for fidelity, but instead a translation tradition that has prized it. Not that fidelity vs. infidelity is an innovative point of debate within the field of translation, but I think there is still more that could be discussed and pushed further.

Back to the Cavafy, at any rate: Longenbach judges it a rousing success.

Mendelsohn thinks like a poet, which is to say he inhabits the meaning of language through its movement. Listen to his translation of the famous concluding lines of “The God Abandons Antony”:

Like one who’s long prepared, like someone brave,
as befits a man who’s been blessed with a city like this,
go without faltering toward the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the entreaties and the whining of a coward,
to the sounds — a final entertainment —
to the exquisite instruments of that initiate crew,
and bid farewell to her, to Alexandria, whom you are losing.

The final line embodies the fortitude the poem recommends. While the preceding lines falter, breaking the syntax into edgy pieces, the final line is syntactically complete. As a result, the poem does not pronounce but arrives at its wisdom, making it happen to us. It is an event on the page.



One Response to “Constantine Cavafy: Collected Poems”

  1. Curt Says:

    I just found your blog, and through it your journal. I had the opportunity some months ago to translate Cavafy’s unpublished Julian poems for an essay I wrote for Univ. of Michigan’s Cavafy Forum. I also just got finished translating Lorca’s “Poema del Cante Jondo.” This idea of exactitude is a very academic one – and there is a use for it to be sure. But it usually produces simply dreadful English poems.

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