One Night in Alexandria

There’s an interesting opinion piece by Daniel Mendelsohn in today’s NY Times:  A Closet by Another Name.  I bring this up because (and I only found this out today) Mendelsohn recently published a new translation of the poems of C.P. Cavafy, a poet who wrote numerous poems about his “private” life in a beautiful, honest, and straightforward manner.  Here’s Mendelsohn’s translation of my favorite Cavafy poem:

One Night

The room was threadbare and tawdry,
hidden above that suspect restaurant.
From the window you could see the alley,
which was filthy and narrow. From below
came the voices of some laborers
who were playing cards and having a carouse.

And there, in that common, vulgar bed
I had the body of love, I had the lips,
sensuous and rose-colored, of drunkenness–
the rose of such drunkenness, that even now
as I write, after so many years have passed!,
in my solitary house, I am drunk again.

Compare it to this 1992 translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:

The room was cheap and sordid,
hidden above the suspect taverna.
From the window you could see the alley,
dirty and narrow. From below
came the voices of workmen
playing cards, enjoying themselves.

And there on that common, humble bed
I had love’s body, had those intoxicating lips,
red and sensual,
red lips of such intoxication
that now as I write, after so many years,
in my lonely house, I’m drunk with passion again.

I like the older one better, if only for the substitution of “intoxicating” for “drunkenness.”  Of course, I don’t speak or read Greek so I can’t tell which is closest to the original.  But for me, the second brings out the sexual passion in a more powerful way than the first.  That said, I plan to buy Mr. Mendelsohn’s new translations and if you haven’t read his editorial or the poetry of Cavafy, I hope you’ll check them out.

This entry was published on July 4, 2012 at 3:23 pm. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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