When I started reading the poems of Cavafy in the 1970s there were only two readily available translations from the original Greek into English, that of Rae Dalven (published in 1961) and that of Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard (published in 1971). The Dalven translation seemed too stiff and formal for my youthful taste, where the Keeley & Sherrard translation sounded softer and more lyrical. The Dalven I had in hardcover from the library but Keeley & Sherrard I owned in paperback. Consequently, the reading of Dalven was a disapproving once-over and the reading of Keeley & Sherrard went on for months until I could silently recite many fragments of the poems by heart, like a teenager with a head full of ephemeral song lyrics.
Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) was born into the Greek community that had long existed as part of the Egyptian city of Alexandria. As a boy in the 1870s he was sent to school in England, like many another rich Continental. After that interlude, Cavafy returned to his family and Alexandria, where he spent his life. Though both mother and father were from ambitious, prosperous merchant families, their seventh and youngest son became a low-level civil servant, apparently embracing the attendant routine and monotony. The poetry he wrote while maintaining his solitary existence tells clearly enough that Cavafy's instinct as a gay man of the 19th century was to lie low. He never published a book in his lifetime. Instead, individual poems appeared in newspapers or magazines, while small collections of his work circulated privately. E.M. Forster (already famous, but similarly closeted) spent time in Alexandria during the First World War. There, he came to know and admire the middle-aged Cavafy and later promoted his work in the English-speaking world.
Since the turn of the 21st century there has been a notable boom in Cavafy translations. I just checked the catalog of the library where I work, and made this list of new translations I had ordered and cataloged for the collection over the past decade or so –
The present fashionability (in a certain few rich countries) of gay rights issues probably explains the biggest share of this English-language Cavafy-boom (though fewer than half his poems have discernible gay content, and what there is of that is cautious, discreet). Still, this won't be the first time artistic merit was recognized and widely disseminated for reasons that had little to do with art.
I thought about doing a project here, selecting a single poem and reproducing all its English translations, one after another. But then decided that such an approach would more likely turn out tedious than enlightening. Instead I picked a single, familiar and favorite poem in a new translation by Avi Sharon from the Penguin Classics edition of 2008.
When you start on your way to Ithaca,
pray that the journey be long,
rich in adventure, rich in discovery.
Do not fear the Cyclops, the Laestrygonians
or the anger of Poseidon. You'll not encounter them
on your way if your thoughts remain high,
if a rare emotion possesses you body and soul.
You will not encounter the Cyclops,
the Laestrygonians or savage Poseidon
if you do not carry them in your own soul,
if your soul does not set them before you.
Pray that the journey be a long one,
that there be countless summer mornings
when, with what pleasure, what joy,
you drift into harbours never before seen;
that you make port in Phoenician markets
and purchase their lovely goods:
coral and mother of pearl, ebony and amber,
and every kind of delightful perfume.
Acquire all the voluptuous perfumes you can,
then sail to Egypt's many towns
to learn and learn from their scholars.
Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
Arrival there is your destination.
Yet do not hurry the journey at all:
better that it lasts for many years
and you arrive an old man on the island,
rich from all that you have gained on the way,
not counting on Ithaca for riches.
For Ithaca gave you the splendid voyage:
without her you would never have embarked.
She has nothing more to give you now.
And though you find her poor, she has not misled you;
you having grown so wise, so experienced in your travels,
by then you will have learned what Ithacas mean.