"I would also urge interested readers to check out the work of the great Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy. Just this past year I read George Economou's brilliant translation of Cavafy's poetry entitled Complete Plus and was blown away by the insights and the beauty. An intriguing work of Economou's, by the way, is his Ananios of Kleitor. I recommend that outstanding book, too."
—Bruce Pandolfini, Pandolfini's Puzzler #40: The Art of Beautiful Chess Talk
It is perhaps as treacherous an undertaking to review a new translation of C.P. Cavafy as it is to translate him to begin with. This is an exaggeration, of course: the task of preparing a few thousand words of commentary really shouldn't be compared to the dedication and resolve it takes to throw one's hat into the ring and produce a volume of Cavafy in English, with so much competition already crowding the shelves. One can, though, justifiably wonder why we need a tenth translation of Cavafy in as many years—or another review of another such translation—when so many excellent Greek authors have yet to be translated at all. One translator joked to me years ago that anyone wanting to publish a new translation of Cavafy could simply sit on the floor surrounded by a half-dozen open volumes and cut and paste a line here, a word here, and have a Selected Poems, a Collected Poems, a Poems of the Canon ready to go in no time. But what, really, is the point of a translation that gives only a slight variation of what we already have? Ezra Pound's exhortation to "make it new" rings no less urgently now than it did in 1934, and applies no less to translation than to "original" poetry. And for me, as a reader, against all odds, George Economou's Complete Plus: The Poems of C.P. Cavafy in English, did just that.
Having read Cavafy for years from a scholarly perspective, and with my own intellectual obsessions with both the poetic and the material form of Cavafy's work, with the performative nature of the grammar and syntax of his texts, I often lose patience with translations that seem to engage in mere quibbling over the interpretation of this or that word or phrase. I want radically different translations of Cavafy; I want conceptual, experimental translations; I want translations that go out on a limb, that think beyond our customary conceptions of equivalence and try to do something really new. Well, George Economou's translations aren't that. But they are the first English translations I've read in quite a while that put poetry first, and certainly above scholarly debates concerning Cavafy's use of meter and rhyme, his erotic predispositions, his identity as a trilingual diasporic Greek in Alexandria, his peculiar relationship to history, his idiosyncratic mixing of registers of Greek (ranging from quotations in ancient Greek to purist formations to a demotic tinged with Alexandrian usages). Economou knows all that, of course—but rather than getting trapped by the long history of Cavafy translation-as-criticism, Economou seems to come to these poems with a thirst for what it is we read poetry for to begin with: ideas, impressions, sensations, and most of all, newness.
I first read Cavafy when I was a teenager—in English translation, since at that time I knew no Greek—and frankly, these early encounters didn't predispose me to want more. By now it's perhaps heresy to admit this, but I found Cavafy boring, pedantic, unpoetic. His poems seemed more like arguments, like historical commentary, and came accompanied by a critical apparatus that made me feel lacking and unprepared. I didn't know anything about Julian, or Byzantium, or Antony, and I didn't particularly care—and these volumes, with their pages and pages of notes at the back, made me feel like I should care, when I didn't. So I put them, and Cavafy, aside.
Of course those volumes probably weren't created with my teenaged self in mind. And there is much to be said for annotated editions of works as historically embedded as Cavafy's poetry. But from my current vantage point, as someone who spends a great deal of time with students whose knowledge of modern Greek literature is quite literally non-existent, I am grateful for Economou's translation, which offers readers a body of work that can be savored, enjoyed, learned from, to be sure, but is also unburdened by notes and all that notes imply. Today's readers are internet-savvy; devices are omnipresent. What that means for the way books are structured has yet to settle, but for now it might mean that a "responsible" edition of Cavafy might no longer need to provide the same wealth of information we are used to receiving. Perhaps we are indeed at a moment where we can say, as Economou does in his introduction, that "the poetry's the thing." Economou's volume is one I would assign to my students if I wanted them to want to read more, and if I wanted them to come away engaged, with encounters and interpretations all their own.
Economou begins his volume with the poem "Ode and Elegy of the Street," one of Cavafy's earliest, which the poet later rejected as immature:
Footsteps of the first passer-by,
the first vendor's lusty cry,
the first opening of windows
and of doors—these are the songs
that morning streets sing.
The tread of the last passer-by,
the last vendor's last cry,
the closing of doors and windows,
these you hear are elegy's sounds
that belong to evening streets.
This simple poem, perhaps unremarkable on its own, offers a fine opening to the volume. First of all, this clean, lovely translation sets the stage for translation after translation that work as poems. In Greek, the music of the poem rests in part on the homophony of the words for "ode" and for "streets," a homophony impossible to replicate in English—yet Economou's poem has a sonic coherence of its own, with its strong rhythm, its rhyme of "passer-by" and "cry," and the morphing of "lusty" into "last." The poem also signals Cavafy's self-identification of a poet of urban spaces—"I have never lived in the countryside," he writes in one of his notes-to-self, "[n]or did I visit the countryside even for short periods of time, as others do"—while also gesturing toward his preoccupation with interiors. In fact, while Economou conscripts it as "an overture to the story of Cavafy's poetry" that "offers a portal through which we may enter the wide-open world of a young poet's receptivity to the possibilities before him," the poem seems to me as much a gesture of closure and containment, reminiscent of other poems such as "Walls" or "Windows." Indeed, this "Ode" seems almost to gesture explicitly to those poems: the Greek vimata of the second stanza and the English "footsteps" of the first prefigures the poem of that name; the politas of the "vendor" recalls the shop owner in "Of the Shop"; while the windows in the poem send us both to "Windows" and to "The God Abandons Antony," in which Antony hears the cries of a procession passing in the street below. One could certainly see this poem as an overture—but as it contains the seeds of so many future poems in these few lines, in hindsight, it also gives a sense of just how claustrophobic and obsessive Cavafy's small body of work can sometimes feel.
While a masterful stroke for all these reasons, the inclusion of this poem also brings up one of my strongest criticisms of the volume: its lack of justification concerning the inclusion of these poems over others. Cavafy's oeuvre is by now notorious for its instability; the "canon" of 154 poems is as much a posthumous construction as the division of the remaining poems into the "repudiated" poems, the "unpublished" or "hidden" poems, and the "unfinished" poems. The oxymoronic title Complete Plus is perhaps a cheeky reference to what Economou describes in his introduction as an overabundance of critical interest in the posthumous "compartmentalization" of Cavafy's work by scholars and editors. Given the fact that each one of Cavafy's roughly 2,200 unique, handmade collections was, at least hypothetically, different from all others, I am entirely open to editions and translations that come up with other ways of presenting the poems, and that draw on more than one of the existing critical categories. Yet I would have liked Economou to be a bit more forthcoming not only about why he chooses the poems he does, but about where his own original texts come from.
This seems particularly important with regard to a few poems for which significant variants exist. For instance, while Economou presents his "Sarpedon's Funeral" as a translation of the 1898 version of that poem, it seems actually to be a translation of the rather different 1908 version. I also take issue with Economou's treatment of the one "unfinished" poem he includes, not in the volume proper, but at the end of his introduction.
"The Newspaper Story" is one of about thirty unfinished poems that Renata Lavagnini presented in a genetic edition in 1995, with diplomatic transcriptions of the manuscripts ordered into the hypothesized order of composition, ending with what she calls a "last text" for each poem, which comprises a clear reading text with footnoted variants below. While other translators of these poems have chosen to translate only those edited reading texts, Economou's version takes an entirely different tack: rather than present one version of the poem, one stage in its composition, he incorporates into three stanzas nearly all of the very disparate ideas the poet seems to have about how the poem should unfold. Economou's first stanza is a composite of three separate drafts, including many of the lines that were crossed out in the manuscripts. His first and third stanzas also seem, from the information Lavagnini gives us, not to be separate stanzas at all but alternates for one another, as one might guess just from reading the opening lines: "Dejected, reading the newspaper while riding the tram:" and "Dejected, he read the story in the newspaper." Economou is quite explicit in denying that this is how Cavafy would have finished this poem, though he does claim that this "fully realized poem in English presents a text more true than traitorous to the poetic potency of its fragments." Without a discernable "original," however, it's hard to know quite to what this translation is "true," or how it might be "traitorous," or why, indeed, it need be included here at all.
I find Economou's translations of those erotic poems that seem to be set in an Alexandrian present perhaps most elegant of all. Here, for comparison, are some earlier translations of one such poem:
The joy and essence of my life is the memory of the hours
when I found and sustained sensual delight as I desired it.
The joy and essence of my life for me, who abhorred
every enjoyment of routine loves.
(tr. Rae Dalven, 1961)
The ecstasy and essence of my life: the recollection of those hours
when, as I wished, I surrendered to and seized upon sensual delights.
The ecstasy and essence of my own life, such that I rejected
out of hand any sort of routine erotic pleasure.
(tr. Stratis Haviaras, 2004)
Joy and perfume of my life—the memory of the hours
when I found and held sensual pleasure as I wanted it.
Joy and perfume of my own life—because I turned away revolted
from enjoying any routine erotic love.
(tr. Aliki Barnstone, 2006)
To Sensual Pleasure
Joy and balm of my life: the memory of the hours
when I found and held onto sensual pleasure as I wished.
Joy and balm of my life: for me who spurned
every delight of routine amours.
(tr. Evangelos Sachperoglou, 2007)
I am actually quite partial to Sachperoglou's translation, though it also seems that all four are victims of the discourse about Cavafy's life and work that has come to shape our experiences of his poetry. Much ink has been spilled on the "proper" translation of hedone—to translate it simply as "pleasure," some contend, is to miss the wholly bodily, sensual nature of that pleasure. So, then, we need an adjective: "sensual pleasure" or "sensual delight," just as erotas can't merely be "love," but needs the adjective "erotic" to make sure we're not mistaking the passionate, bodily nature of this love. Yet there is nothing more disruptive to the rhythm of these poems than the bulky adjectives "sensual" and "erotic," which are, to my mind at least, of a register that kills the very feeling to which they refer.
With a poet as idiosyncratic in his use of punctuation as Cavafy, it also seems odd how colons and dashes have crept into these English versions of this poem, as translators resort to all kinds of punctuational contortions in order to "fix" Cavafy's incomplete sentence—a "problem" Economou solves by simply not treating it as a problem:
Joy and balm of my life the memory of those hours
when I found and held fast to pleasure as I wanted it.
Joy and balm of my life for me that I recoiled
from delight in any routine acts of love.
Economou's translation uses simple language, relying largely on one-syllable words to form a highly rhythmic, extremely erotic poem that never uses the word "erotic," but enacts that eroticism precisely in the incompleteness of the sentences, the mise en scene quality of the poem, and the very physical turn of "held fast" and "routine acts of love." Economou models for us here a different way of thinking about the erotic charge of Cavafy's language, focusing not on lexical equivalence at the level of the word, but transposing that eroticism to the level of the poem as a whole.
A reader looking to compare Economou's texts to Cavafy's Greek in terms of word choice or tone might find these translations a bit too idiomatic for her taste: the "wow!" in "The Retinue of Dionysus," the "super rich" in "Greek Since Ancient Times," and the title "Getting It" for a poem others have translated as "Meaning," "Significance," "Understanding," or "Perception," and whose title, "Noisis," is actually in a purist form. Yet Cavafy's Greek, too, displays a notorious mix of registers, and Economou is on the whole deft in his negotiation of equivalently disparate registers in English; his "Byzantine Noble, in Exile, Versifying" is a particularly fine example of how Cavafy's combination of purist and demotic language can be rendered in an English equally irony-laden in its mix of bombast and colloquialisms.
I, for one, was grateful to find in Complete Plus a volume that brought "joy and balm" aplenty, that made me want to "hold fast" to these poems. And I did—for two solid days, reading in my garden, taking the kind of pleasure in reading that I have rarely had with translations of Cavafy. But it wasn't just a matter of pleasure: that deep enjoyment allowed me to see things in Cavafy's poetry that I'd long overlooked. Reading, I realized for the first time—forgive the oversight—how deeply ethical Cavafy's poetry is, how deeply concerned with issues of being and seeming, of living a life that won't make for regret, of living to the fullest, even when that fullness is known to be duplicitous, a copy. One could, in a sense, read "Alexandrian Kings" as a loose metaphor for reading, and in particular for reading in translation, for the pleasures of reading a thing one knows to be "just words and theatrics." In that poem, the Alexandrians come together to divide not-yet-conquered lands among Cleopatra's children, some still infants at the time. The Alexandrians, seeing these children decked in silk and jewels, knowing full well that the image does not correspond to a reality, nonetheless rush into the Alexandrian Gymnasium, "a triumphant artistic achievement," and cheer "in Greek, and Egyptian, and some in Hebrew, / captivated by the lovely spectacle— / knowing all the time of course the value of these things, / what empty words these kingdoms were."
There, of course, is where the allegory ends. It is the fullness of these words, regardless of their relationship to the Greek, that makes us enjoy them, as we enjoy the moment before a foreseen fall.
—Karen Emmerich, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 31, Number 2 (October, 2013), 319-23.
When Plato compared Greeks to frogs around a pond, he probably could not have envisioned the eventual extent of the Greek diaspora. Alexandria, so crucial to preserving and spreading Greek culture, didn't yet exist. Constantine Cavafy, who lived most of his life there, might just have been able to imagine his poems being translated by a Greek American poet and scholar from Montana. George Economou, with Stavros Deligiorgis, has translated all the poems Cavafy himself considered canonical, plus eight others, arranged chronologically with brief but helpful notes.
The introduction, which culminates decades of thinking about Cavafy, is a worthy companion to the translation. Economou draws on his rich 1981 review essay, "Eros, Memory, and Art," to illuminate Cavafy's "unusual degree of overlapping of theme and approach." "Memory, upon which stories of desire and the art of their telling depend, … is his one and only muse." There are stimulating lists of poems with shared features and exemplary close reading of major poems. In a wonderful discussion of Cavafy's relations with the love poets of the Greek Anthology, many of whom Economou translated in his 2006 book Acts of Love, he uses lines by Archilochos to show how in "Grey" Cavafy transforms "cruel glee" at a beloved's loss of beauty into "the image of the beloved and his once beautiful … face" as "an object to be preserved against time by memory." His discussion of "Cavafy's wide and deep appreciation of the Second Sophistic's devotion to culture and art" is particularly engaging. The introduction ends with Economou's illuminating poem "The Newspaper Story," based on "several unfinished and partially contradictory drafts, variants, and marginalia" by Cavafy.
Economou's imaginative, energetic translation casts plenty of light on Cavafy's Greek. The English of the poems he creates from Cavafy's is so smooth and natural that it is easy to forget that you are reading a translation. But he is aware, as he wrote in the 1981 essay, that translations "never capture what is essential and possible only in one language through one individual and put it on full display in another," and that the sound and texture of Cavafy's Greek "has been completely lost from the beginning of any translation venture." There, he transliterated his favorite Cavafy poem, "According to the Recipes of the Ancient Greco-Syrian Magicians," to give a slight sense of how much is lost. Now the poems can be heard online at the website of the Cavafy Archive.
George Economou has said that the two most important features of a translation are "compression and economy of diction" and "linguistic accuracy" and that "a poem with no wasted words can only begin to be justly represented in another language by a poem with no wasted words." He has now presented us a new translation of C. P. Cavafy with no wasted words.
University of Oklahoma