This is among the sentiments that emerge most powerfully from Cavafy's poetry: that setting out on one's own requires unusual courage, and even the person who has taken only the first step has done something truly worthy, for he has knowingly made himself an outsider, exposed himself to the gaze of those very same "ordinary people" with whom he has broken (this idea carries a particular charge in Cavafy's poetry because he was homosexual). Here is the thought again in the poem "Growing Strong", taken from Aliki Barnstone's fine new translations of Cavafy:
Growing StrongHow easy and economical the poem is: it seems almost to write itself from the first line onward, and it is resolutely unmetaphorical - Cavafy always choses understatement over ornament. The effect of the poem lies almost totally in the varying force and strength of the individual lines, which give us the sense of a voice thinking aloud, its pitch rising and falling (note the work done by the words "will" and "must", and the slightly self-satisfied and therefore self-ironising air - "virtuously" - of the tidy close, the only line of the poem that is also a complete sentence). And observe also that Cavafy is never the advocate of total, all-consuming revolution, whether in personal life or in politics: even here he says, of the person who wishes to grow strong, that "He will honor some laws" and "half the house must be torn down".
He who wishes to strengthen his spirit,
must abandon reverence and submission.
He will honor some laws,
but mostly he will break both law and custom,
and he will stray from the accepted, inadequate straight path.
He will be taught much by sensual pleasures.
He will not fear the destructive act;
half the house must be torn down.
This way he will grow virtuously towards knowledge.
Cavafy's insistence that we not be afraid of "the destructive act" goes hand in hand with a respect for tradition: politically he was a conservative and not a radical. His poem "In A Large Greek Colony, 200 BCE", although set two thousand years in the past, seems to speak directly to the twentieth century and its totalitarian horrors with its message that nobody is as likely to repeat the errors of history as those who want to sweep away all of history. This is Barnstone's version:
In A Large Greek Colony, 200 BCEAs Edward Said notes in his book On Late Style, in Cavafy "the future does not occur, or if it does, it has in a sense already happened. Better the internalized, narrow world of limited expectations than that of grandiose projects constantly betrayed or traduced." (Said's five or six pages on Cavafy make up probably the best passage of the book. He also writes: "One of Cavafy's greatest achievements is to render the extremes of lateness, physical crisis, and exile in forms and situations and above all in a style of remarkable inventiveness and lapidary calm.") Lapidary is exactly the word for Cavafy.
There is not the slightest doubt
that things in the Colony don't go as one would wish,
and though we move forward, anyway,
perhaps, as not a few think, the time has come
for us to bring in a Political Reformer.
Yet the obstacle and difficulty
is that they make a big deal
out of everything, these Reformers.
(It would be a stroke of good luck
if one never needed them.) Everything,
every little thing, they ask about and examine,
and instantly radical reforms come to mind
and they demand they be implemented without delay.
They lean toward sacrifice.
Give up that property of yours,
your owning it is risky:
such possessions are harmful to the Colonies.
Give up that income
and that coming from it.
and this third one, as a natural consequence.
They are essential, but it can't be helped;
They create an adverse liability for you.
And as they proceed in their inspection,
they find (then find again) needless things,
which they demand must go—
things that are nevertheless hard to dismiss.
And when, with good luck, they finish their work,
having ordered and pared everything down to the last detail,
they leave, taking away their rightful wages, as well.
We'll see what remains, after
so much expert surgery.
Perhaps the time had not yet come.
Let's not rush; haste is a dangerous thing.
Premature measures bring reget.
Certainly, and unfortunately, there is much disorder in the Colony.
But is there anything human without imperfection?
And, anyway, look, we're moving forward.
Barnstone's work compares favourably with the standard English translation of Cavafy: the Collected Poems by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Although her lines often depart only slightly from those by Keeley and Sherrard, sometimes they produce an improved tone. Here is a comparison of two versions of one of my favourite Cavafy poems, the plangent and totally unforgettable "Voices":
Ideal and loved voices
of the dead, or of those
lost to us like the dead.
Sometimes they speak to us in dreams;
sometimes the brain hears them in thought.
And, for one moment, with their sounds,
sounds come back from the first poetry of our lives—
like music at night, remote, fading away.
(translated by Aliki Barnstone)
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.
(translated by Keeley and Sherrard)
Though there is not much to choose between them, I find I prefer the opening of the first, with its simpler formulations and fewer pauses making for a graver sound. On the other hand, Keeley and Sherrard have a smoother close, while Barnstone's version has the word "sounds" twice one upon the other, which to some ears might sound jarring as it does to mine.
Some more translations from Barnstone's book are available here and here, and the entire set of Keeley and Sherrard translations here. Here are some of my own choices: "Body, Remember", "Candles", "He Asked About The Quality", "But The Wise Perceive Things About To Happen", "Waiting For The Barbarians", "Since Nine O'Clock", and "The God Abandons Antony".
Also, the writer André Aciman compares four different translations of Cavafy's poem "The City" in an essay called "Translating Cavafy". And there is a large selection of essays on the theory and practice of translation in this old Middle Stage post.