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Student spotlight: a poem translation by Doug Herman

Cavafy’s Ithaka, a celebration of destinations and journeys

Doug Herman (CAS'08)

Throughout August, BU Today will publish pieces of student scholarship and creative work. The following poem translation by Doug Herman (CAS ’08) is from the inaugural issue of PUSTEBLUME, a journal devoted to translations. The accompanying introductory essay is by Zachary Bos,  coordinator of student publications and editor of PUSTEBLUME, which is available at http://bu.edu/pusteblume and at the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures.

Herman is majoring in Ancient Greek and Latin with a minor in Linguistics. He intends to study in Grenoble in Spring 2007 as prelude to an eventual career teaching English in Europe.

Translating Cavafy
(introductory essay by Zachary Bos)

Born on April 29, 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt, Cavafy wrote the majority of his work after the age of forty. He maintained several literary friendships, including a twenty-year acquaintance with E.M. Forster, and died on April 29, 1933, also in Alexandria. Criticized by literary circles in Greece for his lack of idealism and poetic eroticism, Cavafy was isolated and obscure during his lifetime. His poetry was re-discovered after the Greco-Turkish War, and posthumously has become one of the most widely-read poets in Greece. His poetry comprises three distinct groups: philosophical, historical, and hedonistic.

“Ithaka” appears to be directed towards the mythical Odysseus, but it is using the myth as an allegory through which to speak to a modern reader.  This translator of “Ithaka” attempts to convey, more than he felt previous translations did, the prominent lyricism in Cavafy’s free iambic form. One particular difference in this translation from others is the decision to keep the “Ithaka” in the last line in the singular, as it is in the Greek. Previous English translators have pluralized the word, suggesting less the specific Ithaka of ancient Greece than the universal idea of Ithaka as home. While the word choices and syntax in the poem may sometimes seem formal, they belie a great depth of feeling.

Translator’s Note
The most difficult task in writing this translation was conveying the elegant simplicity of the original without being lackluster. The musical aspect of spoken English is not as prominent as in the Greek. The English translation, then, must be composed of aesthetically-pleasing vocabulary in cooperation with deliberate yet sensitive word choice in order to compensate for the reduced emphasis on euphony. I hope that in this respect I have done some justice to the poem. As part of this process, and indeed as a result of the very nature of translation, there are some things in Cavafy’s “Ithaka” that are not in mine, and some things in my rendering of “Ithaka” that are not in Cavafy’s.

Ithaka
by Constantine Cavafy
translation by Doug Herman

As you set out on your voyage towards Ithaka,
pray that the way be a long one,
full of adventures, full of new knowledge.
Lestrygonians, Cyclopes, wrathful Poseidon –
fear not – you’ll never find them on your way,
long as your thought remains lofty, and choice
the sensation that touches your body and life-breath.
Lestrygonians, Cyclopes, wild Poseidon –
you won’t meet them, unless you keep them in your soul,
unless your mind erects them there before you.

Pray that the way be long, and many
the summer mornings when with pleasure and delight
you enter newfound foreign ports bustling, confused.
Dock at Phoenician marketplaces
and purchase their delicate many-colored finery:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
rich spices of every sort – as much as you can –
more and more ample rich spices.
Go to Egyptian cities, many of them,
to learn and keep learning from their scholars.

Always in your mind hold on to Ithaka:
arrival there is your objective.
But do not rush the trip at all.
Better to let the long years last, and then,
when you are grown old, to anchor by the island
rich with what you’ve gained along the way,
not expecting wealth from Ithaka.

Ithaka gave you the beautiful trip.
Without her you’d never have taken to the road.
But she has no more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka has not mocked you.
So wise as you’ve become, with such experience,
you’ll know by then what Ithaka means.