Critic and memoirist Daniel Mendelsohn undertook the Herculean task of translating and annotating all the poems written by the great Modern Greek poet C.P. Cavafy (1863—1933), including his last, unfinished poems, never before published in English. It was a labor of love, and Knopf is publishing the results this month in two volumes.
You mostly write various kinds of nonfiction. How did you come to translate a major poet?
In grad school, after having been to Greece, I decided, “I really should learn their language.” My teacher made people memorize poems; he gave me Cavafy. Then, in the mid-'90s, I had a friend who had a friend who is a photographer who wanted to do an exhibition of photos based on Cavafy, but he didn't like any of the translations. He knew that I was a Cavafy person and asked if I'd do some new translations, so I did maybe 15, 20. It just so happened that my editor at Knopf went to this exhibition and said, “You know, you should do a book.” I said, “Sure,” in this incredibly naïve way, having no clue what was going to shape my life for the next 12 years.
There are many English versions of Cavafy. What were you trying to do differently in yours?
Many people I know kept saying they didn't really get what was supposed to be the big deal about Cavafy based on what was already out there. Every translation has its excellence and its virtues, but I wanted to do two things: the music, because in Greek Cavafy is incredibly musical. And the background. You have to know what he knew to get the poems. You have to be deeply situated in a context. Like all great poets, this guy had a world in his head that was total and complete, and you have to be a citizen of that world in order to see what he's up to. His world is the ancient world, the Byzantine world, where things happened and you have to know what they are.
Would Cavafy find today's world interesting?
It seems like a particularly Cavafian moment. Cavafy was deeply concerned with the meaning of Western culture at times of global rearrangement, as a person who knew that already once in history the “Arab might,” as he calls it in one of his unfinished poems, obliterated Western cities that nobody ever thought would go away. He understood that anyone who says this culture will never go away has a deep political and historical naïveté.