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26 February 2008



Stavros, I'm really looking forward to watching the documentary. I see it opens with the poem at the top of your blog, read by Sean Connery, with music by Vangelis. Wow! Pure treacle. For now these words jumped out of your post: "the double identity of the person". I felt sad for Cavafy that he was unable to live his life in the open as he wanted to, but I can imagine that the need to be other than he wanted to be could produce enormous creative tension. Is suffering essential to great art? No, just a rhetorical question, but how about telling me the difference between Hellenistic and Hellenic?


It's a great documentary. I've watched it twice.

Suffering helps a person grow in a variety of ways, although I am not volunteering for more than I can handle or Gods deems fit to send my way. I think Cavafy's work helped him deal with the conflicts in his personal life and it seems that he arrived at a ceratin inner peace as reflected by his poem, Ithaka. Don't we all have a double identity in some respects, torn between the person we are and the one we want to be?

Hellenic can refer to anything Greek, generally Ancient Greece, but anything Greek. Hellenistic refers to either Greece between 342 BC & 146 BC (when Alexander the Great ruled) or it can be used to refer to spreading of Greek culture over the non-Greek peoples that were conquered by Alexander the Great. Keep in mind that Egypt was part of the Alexandrian Empire, ruled by one of his generals named Ptolemy. Egyptians as well as Jews were Hellenized during this period and Alexandria was a major center of the Hellenistic world. Cavafy realized that he was influenced by a combination of cultures more appropriately termed Hellenistic than Hellenic. Some might argue that it was a watered down version, I would contend that it is a more dynamic and far-reaching version.


Superb looking documentary of the Great Man. Thanks.

Hellenic or Hellenistic? That is one very large can of worms being opened there.....



Don't hold back.


Please, legein, do not hold back. I really like worms.


"Don't we all have a double identity in some respects, torn between the person we are and the one we want to be?"

Undoubtedly. But I wonder if you mean the reverse of what I meant? Cavafy seems to have hidden what he wanted to be in order to appear virtuous in the world's eyes. Whereas the opposite would be, in humility, wishing that one might be virtuous and fearing that the world knew that one wasn't quite getting there. One feels a lot more frustrating to me than the other, but perhaps I'm splitting hairs.


I think Cavafy wanted very much to be, as well as appear to be, virtuous.


A very moving documentary. Thank you for posting it. I think I should recognise my ignorance in relation to him, and keep my impressions to myself, but a very powerful portrait of the man is pieced together by the descriptions of those experts from around the world. I feel that I know people like him, or that this documentary reminds me of.


I came across it completely by chance. I am thrilled you liked it so much


Hellenic or Hellenistic? There is still a lot of research being conducted on both of Hellenic or Hellenistic? There is still a lot of research being conducted on both of these eras so any viewpoint is susceptible to been proven wrong. Also, as with any historical/archeological analysis sometimes the subject brings different interpretations to light. Or as Heidegger so wonderfully exposed, can we ever make an objective analysis when the subject is also part of the object or said another way can there ever be an objective disinterested observer? For example, research into Classical Greece was "tainted" by Winkelman and German Romanticism as scholars attempted to make sense of what Greece meant to the modern German project. Obviously, they partially projected what they wanted to see on the object. Later, scholars such as Nietzsche and even later E.R. Dodds and his seminal "Greeks and the Irrational" uncovered that the Classical Greeks were anything but rational, cool and deliberate. Nietzsche also helped to bring about "the turn" in Greek studies by focusing on the Pre-Socratics and their project which was taken to its logical conclusion by Heidegger and his meaning of being. Or Frenchman Vernant brought the structuralist method to Greek studies to uncover even more surprises. Later, even Marxists contributed something useful to Greek studies. And lets not forget Castoriadis's contribution. Eventually, the views on Classical and Archaic Greece changed. Even our understanding of Hellenistic Greece changed from Droysen to Paparigopoulos to modern day historians such as Swain or Green. Today, many historians contend that Hellenistic Greece was Hellenic with few protrusions from Asia and beyond. There was a Hellenic elite with a large Asiatic underclass with surprisingly little fusion. And what about the fruitful study Hellas and the Hellenistic age through the analysis of modern Greek Orthodox and folk traditions. Essentially, our understanding of the Hellenic and Hellenistic is a moving feast.

What makes Cavafy such an absolute genius is that I think he knew all this way back then, he never wrote a history book but brought forth these ideas and ways of seeing by writing relatively accessible poems. However, his poems need to be read again and again. Preferably in Greek to pick up the changes in tone from seriousness to sarcasm. Sometimes it almost feels like he is writing to Winkelman and saying "You got it all wrong German" the best way to understand being Greek is to accept the triumphs, tragedies, honours and betrayals without asking for an apology.






I am not a great fan of poetry but Cavafy always spoke directly to my "diaspora heart" and thus his is a dear, familiar voice bringing forth images and sounds that I cherish. (By the way, a complete list of his poems can be found here:

Translation is never kind to the original, and Cavafy is particularly difficult to translate. I was fortunate to have known one particularly fervent philologist who dedicated most of her life to translating Cavafy and other Greek poets into English and French - and she used to despair often over words and phrases without ever finding a satisfactory answer. As Greeks, we are indeed blessed by God to be able to read the original ... but, unfortunately, younger people are abandoning that part of our culture as well.



Agreed. Not only is something lost in translation because of the difficulty involved in finding words that may not exist in the other language, we also lose the way the poem sounds in the original. Listening to a poem in Arabic or Greek and then to the same poem in English one can detect subtle but significant differences in how the ear hears each.


I was discouraged by your (joint) insistence that Cavafy's voice is lost in translation, and wondered what point there was in reading any of his poems.

However, this was more encouraging - from an essay by Edmund Keeley about Cavafy. The esseay is entitled "Voice, Perspective, and Context" and here Keeley is referring to W H Auden's comment where Auden says "Reading any poem of [Cavafy's] I feel: 'This reveals a person with a unique perspective on the world'". Keeley writes "The tone of voice and the perspective are strong enough, in Auden's view, to emerge through any translation: "I have read translations of Cavafy's made by many different hands, but every one of them was immediately recognisable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could possibly have written it."

My own experience of seeing a whole hall of poetry fans reduced to tears by an Arabic poem in translation leads me to think that it is possible (but perhaps not common)in a translation to speak with the voice of the original poet. I've read the book we have of Cavafy's poems and find some of them very affecting. Above all I am struck by how he keeps everyone at a distance and how nobody was allowed to know him - something that I think comes through strongly in the documentary you've linked to, Stavros. Which rather begs the question whether even in Greek you can discern his true voice:

"From all I did and all I said
let no one try to find out who I was.
An obstacle was there distorting
the actions and the manner of my life.
An obstacle was often there
to stop me when I'd begin to speak.
From my most unnoticed actions,
my most veiled writing -
from these alone will I be understood.
But maybe it isn't worth so much concern, so much effort to discover who I really am.
Later, in a more perfect society,
someone else made just like me
is certain to appear and act freely."

Perhaps it is true that the translated poem is no longer the original poem, but another creative act, quite different from the first. Perhaps it is also true that there is not a man or woman alive who does not have some obstacle distorting the manner of our life.


Hi Margaret,

I think you misunderstood what I was trying to say. Not translating Cavafy or any number of poets who write in other than our shared language would be a crime. I've read some pretty good translations which convey much of the poets original meaning. However, translations do not always convey the rhythm, the melody and the meaning of some words in the original. Translating Shakespeare into modern Greek is problematic for exactly this reason. I've heard Shakespeare in Greek and I assure you a great deal is lost.

If you read the New Testament in Greek you will realize that some of the English words used in the translation do not convey quite the same meaning. Example: the word for hell is "kolasi," translated literally it means being "stuck" in one place. Its difference is subtle but that is why many who want a refined knowledge of the original text study Hebrew in the case of the Old Testament and Greek in the case of the New Testament.

As for thoroughly understanding Cavafy, whether in the original or Greek I agree that it is very difficult, especially without an understanding of his life and times. Yet he seems to speak across the chasm of time to us and sounds very current, possibly because his themes, obstacles, or feelings are like ours and therefore timeless. I found it interesting that Cavafy had the habit of giving his poetry to those he thought would appreciate it. Aren't we lucky to be in that select group.


Dear Stavros,

"I think you misunderstood what I was trying to say."

Does that not say it all, even in a "shared language" :).

I wonder if the fault lies with the audience who misunderstands, or the speaker who fails to communicate? Or does the intended meaning somehow fall down the gap between the two?

I guess you speak/understand Arabic in additional to Greek. You are lucky to have first hand access to such different cultures. I am grateful for the wonderful translators and interpreters (like Edmund Keeley and George Savidis) who immerse themselves in another tongue and whose intense understanding of the nuances of a language enables them to render as best they can what the original writer intended. It stikes me as testament to their ability that works regarded as great literature in one language are readily grasped as great literature even in translation. As if the essence of the message of the writer transcends even language.


Actually my knowledge of Arabic is very, very rudimentary and since I don't use what I learned is almost gone. My French is non-existent, as you know. I simply like the way Arabic rolls off the tongue. Listening to a poem in Arabic I would get only a tiny fraction of its meaning but I love the way it sounds. A translation gives me its meaning but not its sound. Keeley and Savidis have done a great service by translating Cavafy and making him more accessible. I guess it is like looking at a very good copy of a Rembrandt, no matter how good, its not the same as the original.

Unfortunately my Greek is not as good as my English and my English is not as good as yours so I am dependent on Mr. Keeley as much as you are.

BTW, I like Sean Connery's recitation of Ithaka. It does justice to the original.


"my English is not as good as yours": you flatter me but I would have said quite the reverse.

I've spent odd moments today thinking about all the books and plays I've enjoyed in translation, how some writers must be easier to translate than others, and then about how music is constantly re-interpreted by every musician and orchestra, and how that is quite OK, and I've enjoyed filling my head with lots of thoughts some of which hit dead ends, others of which I will mull over in days to come. I've also very much enjoyed the poems by Cavafy that I've read, and reading about him, and trying to imagine what he was like, and musing how odd it is that such a great poet could have a life that was hardly extraordinary (30 years in the same desk job). The collection of his poems has sat on a bookshelf here for about twenty years and I had no inclination to pick it up and open it. Thank you for showing me a way in.


Mama always told me I should open doors for ladies. Thanks for opening a few for me.

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  • Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you're destined for. But don't hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, so you're old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you've gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to make you rich. Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. Without her you wouldn't have set out. She has nothing left to give you now. And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean. C. P. Cavafy


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