I have been plugging away at this thing, this sixteen-line poem of Cavafy’s, for forty years. I’d like to say now and then. I’d like to say that it has languished in some file drawer or been stashed under a mattress for months on end; that it’s an idle amusement, to be dabbled with only if the mood should strike. But nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that I have looked at it nearly every day, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for hours. Always with a sense of mild frustration. For “The City” is a puzzle without a solution. It’s a Penrose staircase, as in a print of Escher’s — no matter how doggedly you carry on, you are returned to your starting point, the very bottom. Which is, of course, the poem’s very presentiment: “Always you’ll end up here.”
Dogged am I, if nothing else. I have hunkered over maps and satellite imagery of Alexandria, tracing with my finger circuitous routes through back-alleys and residential lanes, each time leaving and then returning to 10 Rue Lepsius (now called Sharia Sharm el Sheikh), the location of Cavafy’s lodgings in the final decades of his life. I have scrutinized countless scholarly articles, essays, and biographies; pored over — and read between the lines of — his letters to E.M. Forster, who is often credited with having “discovered” him (though only from the fiducial vantage of post-Colonial Europe). More than once have I waded through the purple excesses of Durrell’s Justine, over which Cavafy presides as a near-shamanic figure. Moreover, to gain a working, if not exactly scrupulous, facility with Cavafy’s original, I have periodically brushed up on and expanded the Cretan dialect that, as a toddler, I spoke trivially with my Grandfather — mainly, as I recall, while yanking impatiently at the knees of the old man’s suit. I have even acquired, grudgingly, a bit of Katharevousa, for which no other conceivable use could be imagined. (Katharevousa is an artificial hybrid Greek, full of stilted archaisms, that would seem for a modernist temperament like Cavafy’s cloying and strangely macaronic. And yet Cavafy frequently — bewitchingly — interweaves Katharevousa amongst the more colloquial phrasings of his Demotic. The only analogue I can think of in English is Allen Tate, when, for example in “The Mediterranean,” a Classical sententiousness infiltrates lines otherwise Southern in their languor.) Then again, this should come as no surprise: the man is on record for preferring artificial flowers.
Only when I found myself ordering a copy of Gina Lorando’s Lessico di Kavafis one afternoon did I realize just how seriously off the rails I had gone. An Italian dictionary of Cavafy’s Greek? I can barely work my way through an Italian lunch menu. The frustration I speak of is hardly unique to me. “The City” is a notorious conundrum for rendering into English. A sense of that difficulty and attendant controversies can be got from Fredric Raphael’s eloquent if somewhat testy TLS review of two recent comprehensive translations of the collected works. Another good introduction to the intrinsic befuddlements is André Aciman’s excellent article “The City, the Spirit, and the Letter: On Translating Cavafy.” The whole project, for anyone attempting it, is fraught with what you could call “cost.” In the original are many integrated effects, little tensions that are the product of magisterial technique. You want to preserve all of them yet can’t. You pay for one effect at the cost of another. So, for example, taking a stab at Cavafy’s sneaky manipulation of grammatical ambiguities that are not available in English, you do so only at a price. And it’s a high one: namely, natural-sounding diction. In the worst examples, the effect is similar to what would happen if you pasted his lines into Google’s translator app. But even the better ones, versions of “The City” that are otherwise well-regarded, tend to read less like verse than transcriptions from UN interpreters.
My version of the poem is no better, I daresay, than anyone else’s. It could be, probably is, worse than all of them. (Personally, I favor Rae Dalven’s, not least because this was the first version I ever came upon, as an impressionable teenager in the early 70s. As I can see now, hers reproduces in our language much of that above-mentioned interweaving of incompatible registers, and does so without seeming to force its syntax into distortions of conventional English. In any case I will never forget the shockwave that Dalven’s translation sent up my spine.) Initially my ambition was to recreate Cavafy’s famous tone only — that comforting restraint and understatement, those intricate ironies of his that are never affronts; that are never suddenly exposed the way a sledge opens a fatal crack in rock but slowly revealed, as if by fine sandpaper, shaving down through layers of surface. (You always have that sense of gradation in Cavafy. Or else it’s a vague awareness of something important hovering in your periphery that can’t be pulled into sharp focus.)
Later, I started to concentrate more on the rhythms and musical qualities, trying to nail down his strict, and at the same time, conversational metric, in which formal structure seems to follow from, rather than predetermine, subtler internal harmonies. This shouldn’t be impossible. “Musée des Beaux Arts” comes to mind. There Auden’s loopy, drifting scansion far outruns orthodox notions of what English prosodic rhythms should be able to handle. But owing to the preponderance of monosyllables in English, my lines looked padded and seemed to go on forever, while the end-rhymes, if true and without enjambment, clanged too loudly, drowning out all other effects. More recently, as in the version below, I’ve tended to obsess over the mysterious way in which this poem, like many others of Cavafy’s, seems to be at once both anachronistic — “of a lost world,” as Charles Simić puts it — and yet completely detached and liberated from fin de siècle European taste. To that end, I haven’t been as careful as previously to get absolutely every word correct in a purely academic sense. (I’ve even added words — “trampled” and “buzz” that weren’t present in the original except, to my mind, implicitly; professionals will cringe — me, I couldn’t give a crap.) And while keeping rhyme and meter in the picture, I haven’t troubled myself to recreate Cavafy’s structure perfectly.
Nor is the thing finished, if finishing was ever the intent. Like Penelope I have been in the habit of unraveling any apparent progress — almost on a daily basis — in order to begin again, oftentimes virtually from scratch. Worse, I am no longer the kid with the backpack, scribbling away in Georgina’s Cafe in the Covered Market. I am old now and gray-haired, a confirmation of the fate of the nameless “You” in Cavafy’s poem. So what am I playing at? What are any of us playing at, dilettantes and professionals alike? We’re all doomed. As Aciman intimates, no one really gets it right, nor can. There’s always, as he says, some error of pitch or calibration.
Here every hope of mine is trashed by fate.
How long must my thoughts buzz in this cesspit?
Wherever I look, wherever I turn my head,
all I can see is the scorched, blackened ruins
of so many years wasted utterly.”
No other shores await you, no faraway
lands — the city will follow you. You’ll wander
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
and in these same houses you will turn gray.
Always you’ll end up here. It isn’t worth
hoping: no ships will come, there are no roads.
you have ruined it everywhere on earth.
Είπες· «Θα πάγω σ’ άλλη γη, θα πάγω σ’ άλλη θάλασσα.
Μια πόλις άλλη θα βρεθεί καλλίτερη από αυτή.
Κάθε προσπάθεια μου μια καταδίκη είναι γραφτή·
κ’ είν’ η καρδιά μου — σαν νεκρός — θαμένη.
Ο νους μου ως πότε μες στον μαρασμόν αυτόν θα μένει.
Όπου το μάτι μου γυρίσω, όπου κι αν δω
ερείπια μαύρα της ζωής μου βλέπω εδώ,
που τόσα χρόνια πέρασα και ρήμαξα και χάλασα.»
Καινούριους τόπους δεν θα βρεις, δεν θάβρεις άλλες θάλασσες.
Η πόλις θα σε ακολουθεί. Στους δρόμους θα γυρνάς
τους ίδιους. Και στες γειτονιές τες ίδιες θα γερνάς·
και μες στα ίδια σπίτια αυτά θ’ ασπρίζεις.
Πάντα στην πόλι αυτή θα φθάνεις. Για τα αλλού — μη ελπίζεις—
δεν έχει πλοίο για σε, δεν έχει οδό.
Έτσι που τη ζωή σου ρήμαξες εδώ
στην κώχη τούτη την μικρή, σ’ όλην την γη την χάλασες.