Friday, April 29, 2011

Happy Birthday, Constantine

Today in 1863 Constantine Cavafy (Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis) was born, in Alexandria, Egypt, where (with a few short breaks in Liverpool and Constantinople) he spent most of his life.

Here, in the translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, is arguably his most important poem, Waiting for the Barbarians. I'm showing you three translations (if you read Greek, ther original, Περιμένοντας τους Bαρβάρους, is here) - enjoy!

First, the Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard translation:
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.


Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.


Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.


Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.


Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.


Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.


And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
Now, as translated by Stratis Haviaras
What are we waiting for, gathered here in the agora?

The barbarians are supposed to show up today.


Why is there such indolence in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting around, making no laws?

Because the barbarians are supposed to show up today.
Why should the senators trouble themselves with laws?
When the barbarians arrive, they’ll do the legislating.


Why has our emperor risen so early this morning,
and why is he now enthroned at the city’s great gate,
sitting there in state and wearing his crown?

Because the barbarians are supposed to show up today.
And the emperor is waiting there to receive
their leader. He’s even had a parchment scroll
prepared as a tribute: it’s loaded with
all sorts of titles and high honors.


Why have our two consuls and praetors turned up
today, resplendent in their red brocaded togas;
why are they wearing bracelets encrusted with amethysts,
and rings studded with brilliant, glittering emeralds;
why are they sporting those priceless canes,
the ones of finely-worked gold and silver?

Because the barbarians are supposed to show up today;
And such things really dazzle the barbarians.


Why don’t our illustrious speakers come out to speak
as they always do, to speak what’s on their minds?

Because the barbarians are supposed to show up today,
and they really can’t stand lofty oration and demagogy.


Why is everyone so suddenly ill at ease
and confused (just look how solemn their faces are)?
Why are the streets and the squares all at once empty,
as everyone heads for home, lost in their thoughts?

Because it’s night now, and the barbarians haven’t shown up.
And there are others, just back from the borderlands,
who claim that the barbarians no longer exist.


What in the world will we do without barbarians?
Those people would have been a solution, of sorts.

And finally, by John Cafavy, his brother, as Awaiting the Barbarians
— Why are we come together in the market place?

Barbarians are expected here to-day.

— Why in the Senate-house this inactivity —
why sit the Senators and do not legislate?

Because barbarians are to come to-day
What laws should they make now — the Senators?
Presently the barbarians will make laws.

— Why has our Emperor risen close upon the sun —
why is he waiting there, by the main city-gates,
seated upon the throne, — august, wearing the crown?

Because barbarians are to come to-day
And so the Emperor in person waits
to greet their leader. He has even prepared
a title-deed, on skin of Pergamus,
in favour of this leader. It confers
high rank on the barbarian, many names.

— Why do our consuls and the praetors go about
in scarlet togas fretted with embroidery;
why are they wearing bracelets rife with amethysts,
and rings magnificent with glowing emeralds;
why are they holding those invaluable staffs
inlaid so cunningly with silver and with gold?

Because barbarians are to come to-day;
and the barbarians marvel at such things.

— Why come not, as they use, our able orators
to hold forth in their rhetoric, to have their say?

Because barbarians are to come to-day;
and the barbarians have no taste for words.

— Why this confusion all at once, and nervousness:
(how serious of a sudden the faces have become):
why are the streets and meeting-places emptying,
and all the people lost in thought as they turn home?

Because the daylight fails, and the night comes,
but the barbarians come not. And there be
who from the frontier have arrived and said
that there are barbarians now at all.

And now what shall become of us without barbarians?
These people were in sooth some sort of settlement.


Many more of Cavafy's poems are here

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