- Complete Plus: The Poems of C. P. Cavafy in English by George Economou
It is perhaps as treacherous an undertaking to review a new translation of C. P. Cavafy as it is to translate him to begin with. This is an exaggeration, of course: the task of preparing a few thousand words of commentary really shouldn’t be compared to the dedication and resolve it takes to throw one’s hat into the ring and produce a volume of Cavafy in English, with so much competition already crowding the shelves. One can, though, justifiably wonder why we need a tenth translation of Cavafy in as many years—or another review of another such translation—when so many excellent Greek authors have yet to be translated at all. One translator joked to me years ago that anyone wanting to publish a new translation of Cavafy could simply sit on the floor surrounded by a half-dozen open volumes and cut and paste a line here, a word there, and have a Selected Poems, a Collected Poems, a Poems of the Canon ready to go in no time. But what, really, is the point of a translation that gives only a slight variation of what we already have? Ezra Pound’s exhortation to “make it new” rings no less urgently now than it did in 1934, and applies no less to translation than to “original” poetry. And for me, as a reader, against all odds, George Economou’s Complete Plus: The Poems of C. P. Cavafy in English, did just that.
Having read Cavafy for years from a scholarly perspective, and with my own intellectual obsessions with both the poetic and the material form of Cavafy’s work, with the performative nature of the grammar and syntax of his texts, I often lose patience with translations that seem to engage in mere quibbling over the interpretation of this or that word or phrase. I want radically different translations of Cavafy; I want conceptual, experimental translations; I want translations that go out on a limb, that think beyond our customary conceptions of equivalence and try to do something really new. Well, George Economou’s translations aren’t that. But they are the first English translations I’ve read in quite a while that put poetry first, and certainly above scholarly debates concerning Cavafy’s use of meter and rhyme, his erotic predispositions, his identity as a trilingual diasporic Greek in Alexandria, his peculiar relationship to history, his idiosyncratic mixing of registers of Greek (ranging from quotations in ancient Greek to purist formations to a demotic tinged with Alexandrian usages). Economou knows all that, of course—but rather than getting trapped by the long history of Cavafy translation-as-criticism, Economou seems to come to these poems with a thirst for what it is we read poetry for to begin with: ideas, impressions, sensations, and most of all, newness.
I first read Cavafy when I was a teenager—in English translation, since at that time I knew no Greek—and frankly, these early encounters didn’t predispose me to want more. By now it’s perhaps heresy to admit this, but I found Cavafy boring, pedantic, unpoetic. His poems seemed more like arguments, like historical commentary, and came accompanied by a critical apparatus that made me feel lacking and unprepared. I didn’t know anything about Julian, or Byzantium, or Antony, and I didn’t particularly care—and these volumes, with their pages and pages of notes at the back, made me feel like I should care, when I didn’t. So I put them, and Cavafy, aside.
Of course those volumes probably weren’t created with my teenaged self in mind. And there is much to be said for annotated editions of works as historically embedded [End Page 319] as someone who spends a great deal of time with students whose knowledge of modern Greek literature is quite literally non-existent, I am grateful for Economou’s translation, which offers readers a body of work that can be savored, enjoyed, and...