The Need to Return: On Avi Sharon
Avi Sharon: Recipient of the 2009 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, which recognizes an outstanding published translation of poetry from any language into English.
We turn again and again to literary classics, both ancient and modern, because they continue to speak to us in new ways. The Bleak House first presented in monthly installments from 1852 to 1853 is, word for word, the same Bleak House we might read in 2009, but we read it differently. We receive it differently. Our world has changed. Our sensibilities have changed, if not our actual human condition.
If this need for returning, of rereading, is true for great works in our own language, it is even truer for works in translation and truer still for works of poetry, especially if the translator is trying to transport the poetry of the original into poetry in English. That is what Avi Sharon has accomplished in his marvelous new translation of Constantine Cavafy's poetry Selected Poems (2008), published by Penguin Books.
Translating poetry into poetry is a formidable task—some would say impossible. Even W. H. Auden remarked in his introduction to an earlier translation of Cavafy that "when, as in pure lyric, a poet 'sings' rather than 'speaks,' he is rarely, if ever, translatable." Nonetheless, great poetry always seems to beckon from its other country. And translators answer for us and make the journey. And somehow, tagging along, we always seem to reach that other country through some dedicated translator's efforts. How small and provincial our world would be otherwise. Despite the impossibility of the journey, translation stamps our passports.
But what a labor to get us there. Stanley Kunitz, collaborating with the Russian linguist Max Hayward, writes in his preface to their Poems of Anna Akhmatova: "The poet as translator lives with a paradox. His work must not read like a translation; conversely, it is not an exercise of the free imagination. One voice enjoins him: 'Respect the text!' The other simultaneously pleads with him: 'Make it new!' He resembles the citizen in Kafka's aphorism who is fettered to two chains, one attached to the earth, the other to heaven. If he heads for earth, his heavenly chain throttles him; if he heads for heaven, his earthly chain pulls him back. And yet, as Kafka says, 'all the possibilities are his, and he feels it; more, he actually refuses to account for the deadlock by an error in the original fettering.'"
Sharon holds a Ph.D. in Classics from Boston University, and has translated George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis, as well as Plato's Symposium. The ideal translator must have more than a touch of the poet as well as a solid grounding in the complexities of the original, including the particular habits of its author and the work's unique place in its own literary continuum. This is particularly so in the case of Cavafy, whose Greek, as Sharon writes in his fine introduction, "was a unique and austere alloy of legal diction, inscription on tombs, echoes from the Greek (or Palatine) Anthology and the Septuagint, all inflected by an urbane use of the vernacular or demotic Greek. ... In addition ... some of the earlier poems are rhymed and many of them have rather complex structures." Sharon's considerable gifts as a classicist are one asset; his ear for poetry still another. Both talents merge in his new translation to offer a Cavafy that is accessible, in an almost conversational way, without losing its rhythmic current and/or its exquisite historical associations.
Although he lived half his life in the nineteenth century, Cavafy (1863–1933) reads like a contemporary. Indeed, he thought of himself as our contemporary. In his essay on himself, "Sur le poète," he says: "Cavafy, in my opinion, is an ultra-modern poet, a writer destined for future generations," noting that the "historical, psychological and philosophical qualities of his verse" are "all elements that will hold greater appeal for future readers."
Except for three years in Liverpool as a boy, and another three in Constantinople in his early twenties, Cavafy's entire life was in Alexandria, Egypt, his birthplace, where he lived in isolation, working for 37 years as a provisional clerk in the Ministry of Public Works. By 1886, Cavafy was publishing his poetry in literary magazines in Alexandria. His free verse appeared about the same time that Ezra Pound and T. E. Hulme et al. were beginning their famous revolution in poetics and proposing free verse for English. Cavafy's poems seem aware of Western modernist advances—he read and wrote both in English and French—even if Pound & Co. were unaware of him, living and writing in virtual obscurity in Alexandria, the former imperial capital and center of ancient civilization now become a post-British, post-Ottoman provincial backwater. In his 1918 Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler saw Alexandria as emblematic of a "world-city, the centre in which the course of a world-history ends by winding itself up ... the first example [being] Alexandria, which reduced old Greece at one stroke to the provincial level."
Immured in the city he loved, Cavafy began his "ultra-modern" poetry by immersing himself in the past, in Plutarch's Parallel Lives of Greek and Roman figures, in Horace, in the Hellenistic (300–200 B.C.) translations of Jewish scriptures, in Byzantine history, in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in Homer, in the Greek Anthology (Anthologia Graeca), in Polybius, in Suetonius's Twelve Caesars, in Anna Comnena's Alexiad, in Philostratus, in Apollonius's Argonautica, in Apollodorus's History of the Gods, in Ovid's Metamorphoses—works that offered living presences to Cavafy. In his poetry, we hear their voices:
Ideal voices, the beloved voices
of those who have died or of those who are
lost to us as if they were dead.
In Cavafy's poetry, those who have long died—major, minor, and invented figures from the classical world and its eastern margins—are alive and familiar, while those recently encountered—the handsome boys of the streets and taverns—are beloved ghosts lost to Cavafy "as if they were dead." It is a poetry of the end of empire, the diminishing echoes of the classical empire created by Alexander and, after his death, by his generals as they marked off for themselves Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean, and eastern realms into Persia—a poetry, you might say, instructive for our times.
In hearing these voices from the past, I am reminded of the crystal radio I had as a child: it consisted of a nugget of quartz and some earphones attached to a little knob at the end of a tiny metal bar, which in turn was connected to a thin, delicate wire called a cat's whisker. One's fingers brushed this whisker against the crystal's rough surface, causing voices, trapped in the stone's lattices, magically to speak. Alexandria is Cavafy's crystal. As he applies the cat's whisker of his lyric intellect, we hear a past that seems so much like the present. The voices are familiar and yet strange. We are struck by the ironies of their lives—the voice of a minor rhetorician ordering the decapitation of Pompey, the Roman triumvir, or the voice of Cratisiclea, the mother of a Spartan king who shows more courage than her son, or the voice of Caesarion, child of Caesar and Cleopatra, abandoned to the mercies of Octavian, his adoptive brother.
Alexandria is Cavafy's beloved city of both the present and the past where, as Spengler says, "all becoming moves towards a having-become," and "we feel a trickling away, the past implies a passing." Nevertheless, in Avi Sharon's marvelous translations, Cavafy's Alexandrian past is alive in the poetry, restored and restoring.
This article originally appeared in American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2009 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To subscribe to American Poet, become a member online.