A couple more tidbits from Dan Chiasson’s Cavafy essay (see here):
1) I hadn’t known about this episode:
What we do know is that, in 1924, Cavafy’s homosexuality came to public light. It was a dispute about grammar—Greeks feel passionate about many things, but grammar would have to rank near the top of the list—that led Socrates Lagoudakis, a columnist for the local paper with inflammatory, somewhat comic opinions, to condemn Cavafy as “another Oscar Wilde.” (Cavafy had spelled the Greek for “New York” with a smooth breathing mark, contra Lagoudakis, who, whenever he mentioned New York, used a rough one. Things escalated from there.)
Now you see why it’s for the best that in the new orthography, Νέα Υόρκη is written without any breathing at all.
2) This really pissed me off:
It has often been said that Cavafy is an easy poet to translate. Joseph Brodsky found that Cavafy actually gained in translation. (Brodsky, who was translating his own poems into English, had a stake in believing this.) If translation is the undressing of a poem in one language in order to outfit it in another, Cavafy, by stripping his poems of so much Belle Époque excess, had done half of the translator’s work. Brodsky argued that translation was “almost the next logical step in the direction the poet was moving.” And, in one of the canonical statements on translation, W.H. Auden, who knew no Greek, found in Cavafy “a tone of voice, a personal speech” that defied every poet’s assumption that what essentially distinguished prose and poetry is “that prose can be translated into another tongue but poetry cannot.”
After some backing and filling, explaining that his Greek isn’t really as simple as the translations might make you think, Chiasson concludes that “Cavafy survives translation relatively unscathed.”
This is pernicious nonsense, and Chiasson (who I presume can read Cavafy in the original) should be ashamed of himself, as Auden should have been—how dare someone who “knew no Greek” make idiotic pronouncements about the success of translation from Greek? As for Brodsky, his translations of his own poetry are so bad they exempt him from taking part in the discussion; it is enough, after all, to be a great poet: it would be unfair to expect greatness in other fields as well.
The fact is that Cavafy is as hard to translate as any other great poet. You can read an affecting appreciation of this by Maurice Leiter here (“the curtain of my ignorance/ keeps me from truly knowing him”), and see the record of my struggle with one short poem here (and I wish hippugeek would start hanging around here again). No poem is easy for the translator who wants to do a good job, and anyone with half a brain should realize that the fact that a translated poem looks like it took no effort is as irrelevant as a great actor’s lack of sweating and grimacing. Ars est celare artem, and all that.