His parents immigrated to America from Sweden near the turn of the twentieth century. My grandfather and his four brothers -- each of them blue-eyed, tall, reticent, and skillful at fixing things -- spoke with a sort of Scandinavian lilt and cadence, even though they were born here. Swedish must still have been spoken on the farm when they were growing up.
I have a photograph of me, at the age of 4 or 5, watching my grandfather as he stood at a wood table cleaning a fish he had caught in a northern Minnesota lake. I remember fishing with him. If I caught a small sunfish he would say: "That's a keeper."
Thomas Henslow Barnard, "Landscape with Ludlow Castle" (1952)
Voices, loved and idealized,
of those who have died, or of those
lost for us like the dead.
Sometimes they speak to us in dreams;
sometimes deep in thought the mind hears them.
And with their sound for a moment return
sounds from our life's first poetry --
like music at night, distant, fading away.
C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems: Revised Edition (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1992). In the original version of their translation, Keeley and Sherrard translated the final line as follows: "like distant music fading away at night." C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (Princeton University Press 1975). The line is so wonderful, it is difficult to choose, isn't it?
As I have suggested before, the versions of Keeley and Sherrard are the best place to start when seeking out translations of Cavafy's poems. However, it is instructive to consider other translations as well: although the details differ, the underlying emotional core of the poem usually remains intact.
Clarence MacKenzie (1889-1948), "Ludlow Castle, Early Morning"
Ideal voices and dearly loved
Of those who have died, or of those who are
To us lost like the dead.
Sometimes in our dreams they speak;
Sometimes in thought the brain hears them.
And with their sound return for a moment
Sounds from the first poetry of our life --
Like music, at night, far off, that fades away.
C. P. Cavafy (translated by Robert Liddell), in Robert Liddell, Cavafy: A Biography (Duckworth 1974).
The two versions are fairly close, aren't they? The entire poem is lovely, but the final two lines are hard to beat. It is interesting to see how similar the two versions are: "our life's first poetry" versus "the first poetry of our life"; "like music at night, distant, fading away" versus "like music, at night, far off, that fades away." I lean towards Keeley and Sherrard.
C. H. H. Burleigh (1869-1956), "Ludlow"
Derek Mahon has referred to his translations (mostly from French, but from a number of other languages as well) as "adaptations." Thus, in the Foreword to his most recent collection of translations, he writes: "These aren't translations, in the strict sense, but versions of their originals devised, as often as not, from cribs of one kind or another. . . . My own versions, looking to recreate the spirit and employing many extraneous devices, belong in another category, that of poems adapted from their originals." Derek Mahon, Echo's Grove: Translations (The Gallery Press 2013) (italics in the original).
For those adept at Greek, this sort of approach might set the teeth on edge. But, because Mahon is such a gifted poet, I am more than willing to give him some slack. (Easy for me to say, given my ignorance of Greek!) Here is his version of Cavafy's poem.
Definitive voices of the loved dead
or the loved lost, as good as dead,
speak to us in our dreams
or at odd moments.
Listening, we hear again,
like music at night,
the original poetry of our lives.
Keeley, Sherrard, and Liddell replicate the eight-line, three-stanza form of the original. Mahon shortens the poem. He certainly preserves what I called above the "emotional core" of the poem. I particularly like "the loved lost, as good as dead." But I confess that I miss "like music at night, distant, fading away." I think that it is the Ernest Dowson in me that gets hooked by that line.
David Birch, "Lord of the Marches" (1958)