November 25, 2020

The Translator’s Gambit: From Cavafy to Shakespeare

By Stuart Mitchner

In his landmark celebration of translation, John Keats not only heard Chapman’s Homer speak out “loud and bold,” he put a new planet into orbit, with its kingdoms, states, islands, realms of gold, and bards.

It was Richard Burton’s “loud and bold” translation of Hamlet’s speech to the players that finally put Shakespeare on the map for me. Burton didn’t change the words, he just re-energized them, brought them to life, up close and in person on the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Striding briskly back and forth, he commanded the house, still in fame’s floodlight after playing Antony on the screen with Elizabeth Taylor, the movie queen Cleopatra who came to pick him up after every performance, setting off a nightly fan-crazed mob scene on 46th Street.

Antony and Hamlet

Translation has been the theme of the moment ever since an English friend sent me his rendering of C.P. Cavafy’s poem “The God Abandons Antony.” Although I have no knowledge of Greek beyond what I picked up on the island of Mykonos, where Roger and I first met more than half a century ago, all it took to get into the game was a fondness for the poem and access to standard translations like the one by Princeton professor emeritus Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. I was playing at translation, an unsupervised amateur enjoying the ebb and flow of poetry in motion, a fluid text “writ in water,” as Keats worded it in his death bed epitaph.

Losing an Old Friend

Cavafy’s poem arrived soon after I learned of the death of my oldest friend. So when Roger translated the verb in the title as “deserts” rather than “forsakes” or “abandons,” my instinct was to go with “abandons,” a word that seemed better suited to the shock of sudden, irreversible loss. It was almost as if Cavafy had left room for that wrenching message and was reading along with me, over my shoulder, his opening lines, “When suddenly, at midnight, you hear / an invisible procession going by / with exquisite music, voices, / don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now, work gone wrong, your plans / all proving deceptive — don’t mourn them uselessly.”

I felt at home in the poem, invited in by Cavafy’s use of the second person, moving from the unexpected loss of a lifelong friend into the hushed, valedictory mood. When I was told “don’t mourn,” it was the way a friend might have said it, rather than some distant imperious stranger declaring  “do not.”

The God Shakespeare

Looking again at Cavafy’s title, I’m wondering about “The God.” Not the familiar one-word God but The God. Who or what is the literary equivalent of The God? Who else but the Bard? And who is Shakespeare’s most enlightened guide, celebrator, and glorified spiritual poetical translator/gatekeeper but the late Harold Bloom? Here he is in The Invention of the Human, suggesting that “the fourteen consecutive months [1605-1606] in which King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra were composed wore out even William Shakespeare.” Bloom neglects to mention that this epic feat was driven by necessity, with Shakespeare in quarantine, London in lockdown, the theatres closed due to the plague. Even so, the back story can be read into Bloom’s assertion that “after Antony’s collapse and Cleopatra’s apotheosis, Shakespeare was wary of further quests into the interior.”

The Dying Music

As expected, Bloom gave me what I needed, pointing out how with “monstrous shrewdness, Shakespeare modified Plutarch by having Antony abandoned by the god Hercules, rather than by Bacchus.” Bloom sees Antony himself as, like Cleopatra, a “mortal God” and thus “has his aura, really a kind of astral body, that departs with the music of Hercules, the oboes under the stage.”

The soldiers outside Cleopatra’s palace hear the mysterious music of Antony’s passing well in advance of his actual “departure”: “List, list! … Hark! … Music in the air … Under the earth … What should this mean?” Then: “ ‘Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony lov’d / Now leaves him.” For Bloom, “This dying music is the most profound in Shakespeare, and maybe the richest study of the nostalgias given us by any of the plays.”

Loosely translated according to the theme of the day, “the nostalgias” suggests a range of possibilities, from the blues to a scattering of mist-shrouded islands somewhere in the Aegean. At the same time, I’m thinking of all the nights my friend and I spent talking life and literature, including Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian novels, where Cavafy appears as “the old poet of the city.” While we may never have talked in depth about “The God Abandons Antony,” I like to imagine us in this moment, sharing the poem’s elegiac intimacy, listening to the music, the invisible procession, the mourner and the mourned, and heeding Cavafy: “As one long prepared, and graced with courage, / say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.”

Alexandria’s leaving like life itself, or a dream of life, except Cavafy won’t allow it, his tone becoming harsher now, more insistent: “Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say / it was a dream, your ears deceived you: / don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.”

My old friend would approve the change in tone. In the first excitement of bonding, both 18, born one month apart, he was the outspoken cynic, at odds with God and the world, if not quite “standing at an angle” to it, as E.M. Forster pictured Cavafy. The last time we spoke in person, more than two decades ago, he said, “I hate nostalgia!”

At the Window

The final movement begins, “As one long prepared, and graced with courage, / as is right for you who were given this kind of city, / go firmly to the window / and listen with deep emotion, but not / with the whining, the pleas of a coward.” That’s how Keeley and Sherrard translate it. I’m thinking, why not “Go boldly to the window”? This is Antony, after all. Except of course that Shakespeare’s Antony “cannot hold this visible shape.”

The closing lines: “— listen — your final delectation — to the voices, / to the exquisite music of that strange procession, / and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.”

Here’s where I think Roger’s translation carries the day. He’s a musician, a retired busker, who just bought a King saxello like the one Roland Kirk played. Instead of that “final delectation,” he has “As a last delight, listen to the sounds, / To the exquisite instruments of the mystical procession / And bid her farewell, the Alexandria you are losing.”

Going Going Gone

And one day like a miracle he’ll be gone!

According to the notion that a great poem can be translated to comment on any occasion in the range between the ridiculous and the sublime while retaining its aesthetic dignity, I tried my hand at “The Vote Abandons Donald,” which contains only a few violations of Cavafy. Inspired by a red, white and blue yard sign, it’s best read without line breaks:

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear an invisible procession going by with voices singing ‘Like a miracle he will go,’ don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now, all your lies gone wrong, your plans all proving deceptive — don’t mourn them uselessly. As one long prepared, and facing posterity, say goodbye to it, the presidency that is leaving. Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say it was a dream, your ears deceived you: don’t degrade yourself with empty claims. As is right for you who proved unfit for office, go firmly to the window and listen to the cries of “He’s going, going, gone,” not with the whining, the pleas of an unmasked coward; listen — your final concession — to the voices, to the exquisite music of that strange procession, and say goodbye to it, to the White House you are leaving.”