Last night I came across the blog of Brad Craft, a bibliophile (like me) with whom I share a generational platform and the love for the same authors. I read his entry on Cafavy in translation, and promptly fell in love with the way he writes. So, after politely asking for permission, and obtaining it, I would like to add Brad to the MAS (Mutual Admiration Society). Someone who can write like him is a rara avis.
So here are a few extracts:
"I am tired to death of being reminded that writers in translation are not the writers themselves, that the peculiarities, or glories, of any language not my own, and I have but the one, are the very thing that make this poet, from that tradition, in whatever language the poem was written, "untranslatable." That word! As if Shakespeare, in Russian, say, is somehow not different, but unrecognizable, ersatz, impossible. As if Dante in any language but Italian is unreadable. Whatever Dante was, in English he continues to be Dante. If he is not all he was, he never the less is. The suggestion that every reader of Dante, of Shakespeare, of Rimbaud, of Li Po, must know each and all the languages in which those poets wrote, or read them not at all, or incorrectly at best, is ridiculous."
Hmm. Precisely the reason, Brad, why I did not go past translating that single poem by Nizar Gabbani, the Lebanese poet who put women on a pedestal and enraged the Arab patriarchy by his feminism so much that when he died he was denied burial in a Muslim cemetery, giving the Maronites the honour of having him posthumously "christianized". But lets savour some more of Brad:
"May we not all agree, at last, that there is little or nothing the poet or reader will gain by being reminded that Babel fell? Translations may be fair or literal, good or bad, but they are and they are for a reason, and that reason is not to just to provide translators with Sisyphean employment. Translations exist that poets may be read by readers elsewhere, that poems may travel. I am tired of being told that the road to enlightenment is impassible even as I am issued a passport, given a guide and translator, and have paid for transportation.
Some voices can be understood immediately, even in translation, coming from whatever place or language. If I concede not all, or without regret for the depredations of the journey, may that not be allowed, in exceptional instances, enough? Some poets, the greatest poets, survive even their first and their latest translators, may inspire admiration, even love, in a language other than their own. I should think, if not everything, that would be proof enough that Berlitz does not hold the only key to The Pantheon, that even the humblest of foreigners is welcome, if nowhere else, at least there. Some poets met in inferior translations remain familiar, admirable, loved, even in new and better ones. New translations, multiple translations, ought to be the occasion of new or renewed pleasure, if only the reader has the sense to skip the translator's "note on the translation." I do.
Writing of his experiences of Cafavy, Brad says:
"In his poems, the world will find Alexandria, his city, ancient and alive. Alexandria, for me, is Constantine Petrou Cavafy. And now, thanks to Daniel Mendelsohn, whose criticism and essays I've enjoyed before, I get to go again. I first read Cavafy because E. M. Forster knew and wrote about him (just as I read Forster first because Isherwood knew and wrote about Forster, just as I read Isherwood because I fell in love with Michael York... you get the idea.). If my first Alexandria was from movies and children's histories, and my next from Shakespeare, E. M. Forster's Alexandria introduced me to Alexandria's poet, Cavafy. I read his poems walking. I took the Rae Dalven translation (Cavafy's second translator in English, I think?) with me and read him in the streets of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Auden wrote the introduction. I was in love and not loved. I was, what? Sixteen? Cavafy's elegiac poems spoke to me of admired beauties, of a hand held just above touch, of lonely walks, of encounters more meaningful to the poet than to the men he loved. Cavafy pressed an abandoned bandage to his lips and kissed the blood. He spoke to me. But he spoke to me of other things as well, of other times, other civilizations, other lovers. He spoke to me of Alexandria, his city, and we walked there together. I heard the street vendors and the shutters opening in the morning and closing at night. I heard them even on a noisy, filthy street clogged with buses, on a cold American morning in December. I did not envy the Greek poet his Egyptian city, because he shared it with me."
Whenever we would be stationed in Alex, on the Acropolis (a shabby hotel on Urabi Square, favourite of all these men in cork hats and dusty boots who used to love playing out in the Egyptian sands looking for history), I would be only ten minutes away from where Cafavy's house was. It is now a museum, lovingly taken care of by the Egyptian Greek community. The guide who took me on the reminiscing tour in 2oo4 spoke with a quivering voice - like a religious adept speaking of his prophet. He irritate me, though, because I preferred to get lost in Cafavy's (Kavafis in Greek) ghost, the yellowing pages of his letters, his coat and glasses, the ornate chair and writing desk. His creative environment appealed to me more than this acolyte - but maybe the boy was touched by the ghost, too and could not shut up?