“The City,” by Constantine Cavafy

I entered college with a year of Latin, three years of French, and writing skills that earned me a National Council of Teachers of English scholarship. What to take instead of freshman English? Hmmm … Modern Greek. Exotic! A whole new alphabet! And why not move on to ancient Greek and Latin? As my young and enthusiastic professor pointed out, if you major in Classics, you can study Greek or Roman literature, language, history, archaeology, art, science, philosophy … I had intended to major in psychology, but the Psych 101 professor was deeply committed to behavioral modification of rats. Modern psychology didn’t stand a chance against Aristotle, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, amphorae, and Athens, never mind the delights lurking in the rest of the Greek alphabet.

I like to keep my hand in with Modern Greek, so here’s a translation of another of my favorite poems by Cafavy. “The City” is one of Cavafy’s early works, ca. 1898-1918. You might find this poem profoundly depressing. I find it inspiring, since now and then I need a reminder to take responsibility for myself, to stand and fight, rather than deluding myself that my problems are a function of location or circumstances.

NOTE: I’ve cobbled together a video (2 mins. or so) that includes the Greek text, my translation, and audio of me reading the poem. I had to spend a lot more time juggling the tech than polishing the recording, but I think it’s worth a listen. Let me know if there are glitches, and /or if you want more of this sort of thing (DianneDurante@gmail.com).

“The City”

Translation copyright © 2017 Dianne L. Durante

You said: “I’ll go to another land, I’ll go to another sea.
Another city, better than this one, will turn up.
My every effort is condemned to failure;
and my heart – like a dead man – is buried.
How long am I going to let my mind waste away.
Wherever I turn my eyes, here I see
the black ruins of my life,
which for so many years I wasted and ruined and destroyed.”

You won’t find new lands – you won’t find other seas.
The city will follow you. You’ll return to the very same streets.
And you’ll grow old in the very same neighborhoods;
and in the very same houses you’ll turn gray.
You’ll always be arriving at this same city. For the rest – don’t hope –
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you ruined your life here,
in this tiny little corner, you destroyed it over all the earth.

Wanna fight?

Poetry is the most difficult genre of literature to translate. Unless you’re translating to a closely related language (say French to Italian), the word order (and therefore the emphasis), the nuances of the words, and the sounds will be very different. If you need persuasion, listen to to any of the lines of the recording of the poem, and then read the English aloud.

Given these limitations, there is still a long-standing debate over whether it’s better to translate poetry literally, or to translate the main line of thought and try to express it poetically in the target language. Perhaps because I’m not a poet, I lean toward the more literal translation. Let me show you why.

Look at the translation of “The City” by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, from C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (rev. ed., Princeton University Press, 1992). Poets take great care in word choice and order, and I think Keeley and Sherrard have surrendered some nuances for the sake of a more poetic translation.

  • Line 1: Cavafy says “seas,” Keeley and Sherrard say “shores”. Lands plus seas includes the whole globe, and Cavafy comes back to that in the final line (“all over the earth”). It’s also reflected in the third-from-last line, when he says there’s no ship or road to take this man away from himself.
  • Line 2: Keeley and Sherrard say, “[I’ll] find another city.” Cavafy uses the passive: “Another city will be found” or “will turn up.” The use of the passive emphasizes that the speaker isn’t the one making the effort to solve his problems.
  • Line 5: Keeley and Sherrard say, “How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?” But the word Cavafy uses is marasmon, in English “marasmus,” a medical term for severe malnutrition that leads to stunted growth, physical and mental. I associate “molder” with decay after death (e.g., bodies moldering in their graves). Marasmus is wasting away while you’re alive – considerably nastier. Also: Cavafy didn’t put a question mark (a semi-colon, in Greek) at the end of the sentence, so it sounds as if the speaker is stating a fact rather than gearing up to act.
  • Lines 7-8: Keeley and Sherrard say, “here, where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.” Cavafy has three simple , forceful verbs: “wasted and ruined and destroyed.”
  • Lines 10-12: Keeley and Sherrard say: the same streets, same neighborhoods, same houses. Cavafy’s word choice and word order stress the sameness. The closest I could come in English was the repetition of “the very same”. (See the video, 6th slide.)
  • Line 13: Keeley and Sherrard say, “You will always end up in this city.” In this case, Cavafy uses an active verb: “You’ll always be arriving at this city.” The original speaker may be in motion, he implies, but he’ll never find a place that will change what’s inside him.


  • André Aciman’s “The City, The Spirit, and the Letter: On Translating Cavafy” describes Cavafy’s setting and compares several different translations of “The City” – worth the read if this sort of thing interests you. It includes the original Greek.
  • I was reminded of “The City” by the episode of the How I Built This podcast in which Guy Raz interviewed the founder of VICE Media, Suroosh Alvi. Alvi mentioned that early in his career he sought a “geographical cure” for heroin addiction. (Didn’t work.)
  • If you’re on my Sunday Recommendations mailing list (email DianneDurante@gmail.com to join), you received my translation of another Cavafy poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” a month ago. If you’re a subscriber on Patreon, you’ve got access to that translation plus all the previous Sunday recommendations, sorted by genre. If you’re on my Sunday Recommendations list or a Patreon subscriber, you’ll also recognize the opening of this post as the beginning of my discussion of Lysippus’s Agias.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email DuranteDianne@gmail.com) receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.
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