C.P. Cavafy | The City #poem

Photo by Yousef Salhamoud on Unsplash

One of the things that caught my eye as I recently read The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak were the references to other authors and poets. Lawrence Durrell and C. P. Cavafy in particular.

It turns out that Durrell spent some time in Cyprus from 1952 where he took up an English teaching job. He had to leave in 1956 after his second job working for the British government, during the enosis/union with Greece movement, made him a target for assassination attempts. He wrote a book about his time in Cyprus called Bitter Lemons (1957).

Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis published as C. P. Cavafy (1863–1933) was born in Alexandria, Egypt to Greek parents from the Greek community in Constantinople/Istanbul. He also lived in England, Greece and France at different points in his life. He wrote most of his poems in Greek.

Cavafy was Kostas’ favourite poet. A section of his poem, Ithaka was inscribed inside the watch of another character. It must have been a big watch!

Arriving there is what you’re destined for.

But don’t hurry the journey at all.

Later Defne says to Kostas, “you think you can leave your native land because so many people have done it…the world is full of immigrants, runaways, exiles…then one day you look back and realize it was coming with you all along, like a shadow. Everywhere we go, it’ll follow us, this city, this island.” p.285

I couldn’t ask for a better summary of Cavafy’s, The City (1894).

Which leads me to a poem comparison. There were three different translations of The City that I could find online.

  1. Rae Delven’s 1948 translation.
You said, “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found, better than this.
Every effort of mine is condemned by fate;
and my heart is—like a corpse—buried.
How long in this wasteland will my mind remain.
Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I may look
I see the black ruins of my life here,
where I spent so many years, and ruined and wasted.”
You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and you will grow gray in these same houses.
Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other–
There is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world.

The use of the word “will” in this translation gives the poem a determined, declarative tone. There is no ‘if’ or ‘maybe’ about the outcome, but a definite course of action for both speakers. It doesn’t matter where you are, nothing will change, unless you change from the inside. The problem is not the city, or the place, it is you. And it is time for you to realise this and do something about it.

2. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s 1992 translation.

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

This translation also allows the speakers to be very certain about their purpose, although the contractions “I’ll” and “won’t” feel less formal and didactic than the first version.

3. Daniel Mendelsohn’s 2009 translation:

You said: “I’ll go to some other land, I’ll go to some other shore.
There’s bound to be another city that’s better by far.
My every effort has been ill-fated from the start;
my heart — like something dead — lies buried away;
How long will my mind endure this slow decay?
Wherever I look, wherever I cast my eyes,
I see all round me the black rubble of my life
where I’ve spent so many ruined and wasted years.”

You’ll find no new places, you won’t find other shores.
The city will follow you. The streets in which you pace
will be the same, you’ll haunt the same familiar places,
and inside those same houses you’ll grow old.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t bother to hope
for a ship, a route, to take you somewhere else; they don’t exist.
Just as you’ve destroyed your life, here in this
small corner, so you’ve wasted it through all the world.

I really like the line “where I’ve spent so many ruined and wasted years” in this version, it has a pleasing rhythm. This poem feels more conversational and colloquial. The use of the word “some” makes the specific destination even vaguer than the other two versions, making it more suggestive of an interior journey than an actual one. Tonight, this is my preferred translation.

Which one do you prefer?

This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

16 thoughts on “C.P. Cavafy | The City #poem

  1. What a nice treat, to have my morning open with a post about one of my favorite poets! Like you, I learned of Cavafy by reading about him in a work of fiction (in my case, Durrell’s Justine), then went on later to discover his poetry, which I loved (although “The City” is wonderful, my favorites are “Ithaka” and “The God Abandons Antony”).
    Unlike Kaggsy, I tend to like newer translations. To answer your question, it’s a close call for me between Keely/Sherrard and Mendelsohn but the former win by a hair (probably because they’re the translators of my copy of Cavafy). Although I knew Mendelsohn was a classicist by training (have some of his essays), I wasn’t aware that he’d translated Cavafy; I’ll have to check this out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m now keen to check his translations out too. I sometimes think (rightly or wrongly) that the older translations are more often concerned with accuracy of translation re the words, whereas more recent ones often focus on accuracy of feeling or tone. I will need to do more poetry comparisons to explore this theory 😁


  2. Great idea to compare translations. It’s always such an interesting exercise. I tend to prefer Daniel Mendelsohn. In fact I’ve just bought the collected poems translated by Mendelsohn.


    1. Yes, I will be checking out how easy it is to order in a copy of Mendelsohn’s collection when I get to work today. I like his translations (I read a few others when I was researching this post) and I’m intrigued by Cavafy.


  3. I’m only an internal immigrant, but still it’s an odd feeling to leave your home city behind, in my case Melbourne. After 20 something years I still read the Melbourne Age rather than Perth’s West Australian.
    As to wasted lives, I’ve certainly wasted a lot of ‘potential’, but I think we live our lives and it is pointless to think about ‘wasting’. (Good poem. I enjoyed it)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspect we all ‘waste’ our potential at times going off on tangents and round in circles and making mistakes and starting again, but that’s life – it makes for good stories…and poems 🙂


  4. Beautiful poem. I lived in Egypt for 3,5 years in the mid 90s and visited Alexandria from time to time. Another atmosphere than Cairo to be sure. A magical city and probably more so earlier on. I used to have a book with Cavafy’s poem, but it seems it has left my shelves.
    I think I prefer Daniel Mendelsohn’s translation, it is gripping. When I see the name I remember he visited Brussels to talk about music, I think it was. An opera piece running on the Brussels opera. He also touched a little bit about books. An interesting man.
    I have also read Durrell and love his The Alexandria Quartet, a must read if you have not read it. He has also written some funny books about the diplomatic service.
    Thank you for reminding me about Cavafy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m delighted how this post has triggered so many wonderful memories for so many of you 🙂
      I am new to Cavafy but am now keen to read more. The Alexandria Quartet is on my TBR, so I will get to it one day – hopefully with a few more Cavafy poems under my belt beforehand!


      1. While I was reading this book, when I was living in Egypt, an expat came up to me and said: You are so lucky to have the reading of this book in front of you. She loved it so much, she wanted it to be unread, so she could discover it again. The four books relate the same actions, which sounded a little bit boring to me. However, as you go along with the series it becomes better and better. New things are revealed when seeing it from another perspective. Maybe Justine is not so overwhelming, but it get better with each book. Looking forward to hearing what you think about it.


  5. Before I read the comments, I too prefer the last one, the newest one. To me the word choice and sentences are the most powerful in that one.

    Comparing translations of poems is fascinating. This was a great choice. I will be looking for more, specially since Janakay loves Cavafy.


  6. I love Cavafy, too, and kind of have gone crazy with his books. Of these I prefer the Keeley/Sherrard. There’s also Sachperoglu (Oxford Press) which starts pretty similarly:

    You said: I’ll go to another land, I’ll go to another sea.
    Another city will be found, a better one than this.

    Liked by 1 person

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