I decided that since I was criticizing other people’s translations, I should put my own work up for scrutiny. So herewith my version of Cavafy’s “Very Rarely” [Polí spaníos], followed by whatever others I can turn up. Comments (as always) welcome.

He’s an old man. Bent over and worn out,
disabled by the years and by his dissipations,
with a soft step he crosses the back alley.
And yet when he enters his house in order to hide
his old age and the shape he’s in, he meditates
on the measure he himself still has of youth.
The young men are repeating his lines now.
Within their lively eyes his visions pass.
Their healthy, sensual minds,
their firm and well-proportioned flesh
are stirred by his own showing forth of what is beautiful.
—tr. languagehat [Stephen Dodson]

He is an old man. Exhausted and bent,
broken by years, and by excesses,
walking slowly, he goes up the road.
Yet, when he enters his house in order to hide
the state he is in, and his old age,
he contemplates
the portion he still claims of youth.
Adolescents now recite his verses.
Through their bright eyes his visions pass.
Their healthy, hedonistic brain
their well drawn firm flesh
by his revelations of beauty are affected.
—tr. Anna Seraphimidou

Very Seldom
An old man—used up, bent,
crippled by time and indulgence—
slowly walks along the narrow street.
But when he goes inside his house to hide
the shambles of his old age, his mind turns
to the share in youth that still belongs to him.
His verse is now quoted by young men.
His visions come before their lively eyes.
Their healthy sensual minds,
their shapely taut bodies,
stir to his perception of the beautiful.
—tr. Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard


  1. Hmm…veddy nice, overall. I especially like the first line of your version–it has a conversational tone that the others lack. I can picture my grandfather saying, “I am worn out,” but not “I am used up.” The “soft step..back alley” bit is also a more concrete sensory image than the other translations.
    I’m not so sure about “the measure he himself still has of youth,” though. I can’t read the original, but there seems to be a reflexive form there that you’re trying to preserve. It’s awkward, and to my ear “measure” sounds more like appraisal than influence. “His own showing forth of what is beautiful,” could use condensing, too. It goes on so long that you expect another line to come, and then poof! it’s over.
    “The young men are repeating his lines now”: vast improvement over Seraphimidou’s translation (“adolescents”? blech!). In addition to the pride, there’s a memory of reciting others’ lines when he was a young man that I don’t see in Sera.’s or Keeley/Sherrard’s.

  2. At last, some helpful criticism! I agree that the last line is awkward; you wouldn’t believe how much I agonized over it (ekphansis is not an easy word to render), but of course that’s no excuse. The problem (or part of the problem) is that Cavafy’s style is very hard to pin down: it varies from quite poetic to flat-sounding lines that could easily be taken for prose. Alas, I don’t have my Greek text with me (why don’t I have second copies of everything at work, the way I have Mandelshtam and Akhmatova and Evgenii Onegin?), but when I get home I’ll check it and see if maybe I can do better. (But “…and then poof! it’s over” is frequent in Cavafy poems.)

    Many thanks, O hippogriff of words!

  3. OK, I have the text now. In ll. 5-6 I was trying to preserve the sound/sense matchup of “meletá/ to mertikó” (‘study/contemplate the share/portion’) with “meditates/ on the measure,” but if “measure” is confusing I can certainly substitute “portion.” The last line is, in the original, “me tin dikí tu ékfansi tu oréu singinúnde” (‘with his own ékfansis of the beautiful are moved [emotionally]’); “may teen the key to ecstasy, hooray you sing it noonday” gives you some idea of the rhythm and general sonic effect. Now, this word ékfansis is not a common Modern Greek word (the normal word for ‘manifestation’ would be ekdhílosis); in fact, although it is in my largest Modern Greek dictionary, the only citation is this verse of Cavafy, so I’m guessing it has something of the status of English “incarnadine,” indelibly associated with one poetic use. It is taken straight from Ancient Greek, where it is a transparent derivative of the verb ekfaíno ‘bring to light, reveal’ and its passive ekfaínomai ‘shine out’; it is defined as ‘exhibition, manifestation’ and is first used in Plotinus (Ennead III.5). It continues to be used in the post-classical period; Sophocles’s Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods defines it as ‘a showing forth, laying open, manifestation’ and gives several citations. I assume its meaning would be clear to a modern Greek but it would sound a bit recondite. All of this is what I was trying to render with my last line; it can certainly do with improvement, and all suggestions are welcome.

  4. Alrighty. Sorry it took me so long to get back to this.
    My main problem is that I’m not sure what the goal of this translation is. Fidelity to the original meaning and sound? Mellifluousness in English? I’d be inclined to go for maximum elegance of sound and clarity of meaning in English. I’m guessing, though, that if pressed you’d pick slightly-awkward accuracy over graceful inaccuracy (open to correction here, of course). Miguel notwithstanding, I don’t think you can have it all with this poem.
    Fidelity-wise, your explanation of mediates/measure and meletá/mertikó makes perfect sense. I still think the word “measure” is a bit ambiguous on its own, but the second stanza clarifies it, so maybe it’s not important.
    I was trying to think of alternatives to “showing forth.” I quite like “revelation” in Seraphimidou’s version; Keeley and Sherrard’s “perception” doesn’t give the sense of projecting the speaker’s view out to other people. I also like “illumination,” which combines ekfaíno‘s association with light with “revelation”‘s “Here is beauty! Take it!” Ditto “enlightenment.” Both those and “manifestation,” though, have a religious connotation that I’m not sure you want.
    A friend suggested “display” or “demonstration.” These certainly have the showing-to-others element, but I think they lack the sense of the process, of actively bringing something up from the dark–they’re static words.
    What do think of Sera.’s use of “beauty?” It does condense the line, but revealing the concept of beauty is quite separate from revealing things that are beautiful.

  5. Hm. At least now I’m starting to get a handle on what the problems of this line are. I used to think the problem was ékfansi; now I see that oréu is just as much of one. First off, “beautiful” is a lousy word. I don’t think I ever realized that before; its meaning is so powerful that we don’t pay much attention to the word itself, in all its phonetic awkwardness. How I envy poets of earlier centuries, who had the word “fair” at their disposal! Those three syllables, with their messy transition from the labial b through the palatal y glide to the back vowel with lips protruding — ByOOO — to the unstressed i that can’t quite disappear into a schwa but can’t be given its full stressed value either (“Oh, isn’t it beauty-ful!”) to the ungraceful final -fll, it’s just not a word that slips easily into a line of verse. Furthermore, there are two Greek words that can be translated ‘beautiful’; ómorfos is more physical (‘good-looking, handsome, attractive’), oréos can mean ‘fine, good’ as well as ‘beautiful, handsome.’ So I’m thinking of getting away from “beautiful” to something else: “lovely” perhaps? As for the other, I agree with you that “revelation” and “illumination” are good words and could fit here. I’m tempted by “lumination,” which is a slightly archaic equivalent of the latter (“lumination of the lovely”?), but that may be taking my penchant for tonal equivalence too far. To answer your question about goal, while ideally I want it all, if I have to choose I’ll go for “maximum elegance of sound” (as you so elegantly put it) over accuracy; what I want is for the reader to say “What a good poem!” So… “are stirred by his own revelation of what’s lovely”? Hm. Anyway, the commentary is much appreciated!

  6. Ilya Vinarsky says

    Good poem, but I like the one about Nero and Galba more.

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