Translating Cavafy: poets on poetry

25 June 2014

When you translate a poem, the slipperiness of language and meaning becomes more apparent than ever. But, as Lorraine Mariner found when translating poems by the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, this slipperiness gives a wonderful freedom.

 

by Lorraine Mariner

A poet who has an obvious influence in my new book is the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy. There Will Be No More Nonsense contains two poems after Cavafy with replies. I meet with six other poets to workshop poems and about two years ago we set ourselves the challenge of translating a poem. In my family there are two Greek speakers; my uncle, John Thalassinos, and my brother-in-law, Nektarios Oraiopoulos, so translating a Greek poet was an obvious choice as I was hoping they would do a literal translation for me that I could work from.

Cavafy is one of my favourite poets and there is a particular poem of his, 'When they come alive', which really spoke to me about something I was feeling. That was when I read Avi Sharon’s translation of it a few summers back; I remember photocopying the poem and putting it up at home, so it seemed only right that that was the poem I try to translate.

'When they come alive' is only seven lines long, so my uncle and brother-in-law were very happy to translate the poem for me. I also got hold of every translation of the poem I could find in the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre, where I work. This part of the process made me see translation in a whole new way because some of the versions didn’t resonate with me in the way that Avi Sharon’s version had and I would have passed the poem by in a book. I also found myself writing a reply to the poem. I thought maybe I would just keep the reply but my writing group said I should keep them as a pair. I made a few changes to the poems after the workshop and then I sent them to Michael Mackmin at The Rialto who published them in his magazine.

When they come alive edits
An edit I made to my translation before submitting it to The Rialto.

At this stage I would have said the poems were finished. But, when I was putting There Will Be No More Nonsense together with my editor Don Paterson, Don said he felt my reply should end on the third from last line to make it more Cavafyesque. I was in a bit of a quandary because I was very attached to the last two lines. I showed the poems to the writer Pascal O’Loughlin, and he agreed with Don but thought the last two lines were almost a poem in their own right, so I turned the last two lines into a four line poem called 'A bed of paper', which comes after my reply in There Will Be No More Nonsense.

Last year my brother-in-law helped me translate another Cavafy poem, 'As much as you can', which is also in the book. He and my uncle were very touched to get a mention on the Acknowledgements page in There Will Be No More Nonsense, so I think I might be able to twist their arms to help me with some more.

Here are the Cavafy poems as they appear in the book:

When they come alive
After Cavafy

Try to safeguard them, poet,
even though only a few can be kept,
your visions of those you desire.
Put them, half-hidden, in your lines.
Try to preserve them, poet,
whenever they come back to life in your mind
at night or during the shine of the midday.

They never told me
In reply

I did hold on to them, poet,
my visions of those I desired
and some were stronger than the others.
I put them, half-hidden, in my poems
just like you said. But I longed for my loves
to read my lines and recognise themselves.
If they did they never told me.

A bed of paper
On reflection

In the dead of night
in the heat of midday
a bed of paper
is no place to sleep.