On Translating Cavafy

By George Kalogeris

Featured Art: The Trojans pulling the wooden horse into the city by Giulio Bonasone


As long as our efforts, no matter how hard we try,
Are doomed to fail, we’re like the people of Troy.

Just when the tide is finally turning for us
And our confidence swells, as if we were ready to face

Whatever comes our way, Achilles turns up
Shouting bloody murder, and crushes our hope

With one swift leap from the trench. We’re like the Trojans.
No matter what we do, this always happens–

Though right till the very end we still believe
We still might win, if only by being brave

And not giving in. But once we go out to meet
Our fate, behind our back it bolts the gate.

Even at the eleventh hour, we truly
Believe the gods are with us, defending Troy.

But as soon as we resolve to make a stand
That daring spirit dissolves, like a phantom friend.

Now it’s our worst nightmare, but there we are,
Outside the city walls, running for dear

Life as the sweat pours down, though our legs feel frozen.
Already it’s time to start the lamentation.

And then, high up on the ancient parapets,
Priam and Hecuba weep, weeping for us.

Although Cavafy’s poem is not written in iambic pentameter, rhyming couplets, I chose to translate it into that form because it was in that form that I could best hear it, as a poem, in English. The opportunity to use couplets was suggested to me by the opening lines, which are written in a distinct iambic rhythm, and, although they contained only a faint indication of end-rhyme, there was still enough of a chime for me to hear the possibility of making something of it. That is, particularly in the way that rhyming couplets, as a form of aural closure, might be used to enact the poem’s starkly bemused depiction of intensifying entrapment.

In the Greek, the faint chime occurs between the phrase “prone to disaster” (τῶν συφοριασμένων) and the phrase for “the Trojans” (τῶν Τρώων). Since neither phrase stresses the last syllable, ων, the echo is at best an “off rhyme.” But even so, in the Greek one can’t help hearing it repeated in the internal, and perhaps witty, full rhyme of “the” and “Trojans” (τῶν Τρώων). I say witty because of the lugubrious way the phrase tolls on the tongue, ton Tro-ohn. And the way it sounds the thud of a dull, and maybe even implacably dumb, sardonic note being struck, when it occurs again, a few lines later in the poem: ton Tro-ohn. Tolling us back to ton siforiasmén-on. As if just being Trojan must naturally rhyme with whatever disaster just happens to happen to them, time and again.

As long as our efforts, no matter how hard we try,
Are doomed to fail, we’re like the people of Troy.

And a few lines later:

We’re like the Trojans.
No matter what we do, this always happens

My fascination with this poem lies in its double sense of dire, inexorable entrapment, and helpless, comic futility. That is, in the ways in which it places us, as readers, outside the walls with Hector, running for dear life from bloody Achilles, but also in the midst of our common and commonly disheartening, daily defeats, face to face with our own intractable failures. The problem for me, in my rendering, was how to make this “tragico-comico” effect an intrinsic part of the poem’s structure; to get it into the movement of the lines so that the English grammar might take the musical strain of the Greek without showing the linguistic strain of translation. And to do this I tried to make each couplet speak the feelingly way we speak, keeping them tight enough to contain some- thing of both the Trojans’ entrapment and their futile need to resist it, the doggedly foolhardy and the absurdly heroic. The Trojans, who just don’t get it, still taking a stand against the indomitable happenstance they can’t ever, can’t see that they will never, withstand.

I was hoping to capture something of this conjunction of helplessness and haplessness in the opening rhyme of “Troy” with “try”, which calls attention to the pathetic closeness of these two conditions by the closeness of the sound of the words themselves, separated by the omission of a vowel. (A little later in the poem, when the Trojans are again utterly baffled by events, there is a similar effect in the rhyme of “truly” with “Troy”.)

Since modern Greek, like Italian, is an inflected language, its capacity for generating rhymes is abundantly available. Some of Cavafy’s internal rhymes are no doubt unintentional, but others are clearly meant to be registered as vital to the voice of the poem, whose central concern is for doomed Hector, as in the proximate placement and combined force of the words for boldness (τόλμη), spirit (ψυχή), walls (τείχη), and running away (φυγή). I knew I could not reproduce, in English, the devastating implications of these disyllabic words, so tightly entangled in the dark linguistic knot of their fatal nexus, but I tried to imply a similar kind of inescapable pressure through a tight set of multiple rhymes and dense alliteration, in the following couplet:

But once we go out to meet
Our fate, behind our back it bolts the gate.

Here I wanted the gate to lock inexorably shut not only in the end rhyme of “meet” and “gate”, or in the definitive way the monosyllabic words are meant to draw the meter to an exaggerated close, but to reinforce this effect at the start of the second verse, where “fate” and “gate” might serve to clinch the knowledge that Hector and his allotted length of thread have reached the end of their line.

I use a different internal rhyme a few lines later, where Hector turns to the friend and fellow warrior he thinks is there, and who, as Homer tells us in Book 22 of the Iliad, is suddenly not–gone like an evaporating mist.

But as soon as we resolve to make a stand
That daring spirit dissolves, like a phantom friend.

Although Cavafy does not specifically mention this incident, the Iliadic scene is directly alluded to by the details of his poem, and for his Greek audience in particular there would be no need for spelling out this connection. So too, I felt that my experience of translating Cavafy’s poem was also an experience of reading my way back into Homer’s poem, and that my own translation should, in turn, be read with these transactions in mind. My intention, in this couplet, was to have “resolve” and “dissolves” do, at the catch in the breath at the middle of the line, what the end of the couplet would then confirm with a full stop rhyme: Hector’s exposed aloneness, which is, by implication, our own vulnerability as well, when we’re struck by misfortune and feel there’s nowhere to turn. This kind of desperate isolation, the feeling of being abandoned by the gods and by those who are dear to us, is a condition Cavafy’s verse is deeply alive to, and which he conveys simply and profoundly in his elegant cadences, and with his now famous kind of lucidly dry, sublimely plain-spoken intonations–registers that go well beyond my rendering.

Cavafy says that Hector is “paralyzed” (παραλύει), but I choose, here too, to unpack the Greek term, still palpably redolent with the dreadful Homeric scene it draws on. As Hector is being chased around the walls by Achilles, the horror of it breathing down his neck, and as the sweat is running down his legs, at the same time he’s frozen with fear. It is a state, Homer says, that is not unlike the paralysis one feels in nightmares, that feeling of being chased but unable to get away from your pursuer no matter how hard you try, caught in the grip of cataleptic panic. I wanted to get that in, and in so doing to make the poem more personal, in the way that Homer’s simile and Cavafy’s allusion to it feels so personal, personal in that awful sense of feeling both petrified and, because Hector is being watched from the walls, deeply ashamed.

Finally, there is the concluding couplet, with its more distant suggestion  of polysyllabic rhyme: “parapets” and “weeping for us.” Suddenly Priam and Hecuba appear, the great king and the great queen, who are now our parents as well, crying over our mournful circumstance–born losers that our mortality insures we always are, and as the Trojans always are. Priam and Hecuba crying down from the city walls that could not protect us. From high up on the parapets of poetry where they’re forever steeped in sorrow, sorrow for Hector, the best of the Trojans, and whose doomed magnificence is also now ours, by sympathetic proxy, thanks to the generous energies of Cavafy’s art. Our parents helpless to help hapless us. This is the disaster that Cavafy’s masterful voice keeps reminding us can never be mastered, even as the exacting movement of his verse can’t help expressing the joy of having made something exciting out of it.

George Kalogeris’s most recent book of poems is Guide to Greece, (Louisiana State University, 2018). He is also the author of a book of paired poems in translation, Dialogos (Antilever, 2012), and of a book of poems based on the notebooks of Albert Camus, Camus: Carnets (Pressed Wafer, 2006). His poems and translations have been anthologized in Joining Music with Reason, chosen by Christopher Ricks (Waywiser, 2010). He teaches at Suffolk University.

Piece originally published in NOR 13.

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