Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto

Marina Warner writes:

In the early 1960s, David Hockney made a series of etchings inspired by the poems of Constantine Cavafy; he went to Egypt to discover the places Cavafy had drunk coffee and picked up lovers, but in the images it’s mainly Hockney’s own life and friends who figure. The etchings touch on rapture, and the frankness of their erotic pleasure at the sight and memory of boys in bed brought Cavafy to a new, wide readership. Hockney had found an exemplar, a kindred spirit and an alter ego through whom, you could say, he re-created himself. His Cavafy – the man’s bespectacled face, his world, his city, his life, his sound, his gestus – constituted a double translation of the poetry, into the portable art of etching via an English version of the original Greek text. The Tate, which owns a set of the prints, says that Hockney found a copy of the poems in Bradford public library in 1960, but it doesn’t say who the translator was. Many contenders have tried to render Cavafy, but the edition Hockney came across must be John Mavrogordato’s, published by the Hogarth Press in 1951 (Rex Warner wrote the introduction). When Hockney’s prints were published a few years later, in 1967, Stephen Spender, a friend and early advocate, collaborated on a new translation with the publisher Nikos Stangos, himself Greek and a poet, of 14 of the Cavafy poems, which were illustrated by 12 of the etchings.

(LRB 11 October 2018)

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