D M Black

Sample translations

The first translation here is from a French translation of Cavafy by Gilles Ortlieb and Pierre Leyris. (Cavafy was from Alexandria and wrote in Greek.)

Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933)

                                 A Half-hour

                                 I never had you and no doubt I never
                                 will. A few words, an approach
                                 like at the bar two days ago – nothing more. For me,
                                 I must admit, I'm sorry. But we others,
                                 the Art's adepts, by force of concentration, can create
                                 fleetingly, sometimes, a pleasure
                                 that impresses one by seeming almost concrete.
                                 Thus, at the bar, two days ago, with alcohol
                                 helping me greatly in its kindly fashion,
                                 I passed a half-hour that was wholly erotic.
                                 It seems to me you understood, and deliberately
                                 you lingered just a little. Now, what was there
                                 was something very necessary, for, with all
                                 possible fantasy and the magic of alcohol,
                                 I had to see your lips as well,
                                 I had to have your body near.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Goethe's Roman Elegies describe, with remarkable sexual frankness, a love affair taking place in Rome. The story is inconsistent and must be partly imaginary, but it expresses both the delight of the 37-year-old Goethe to discover for the first time the sensual freedoms of Italy, and very possibly his delight, too, in an actual sexual affair that took place there. Socially risk-taking but never reckless, however, Goethe presents it so that it can be read also as a fictionalised account of his new relationship, back in Weimar, with the much younger Christiane Vulpius, who later became his wife.

In this Elegy, the reference to Midas is to the myth that when Pan competed with Apollo as to which was the better musician, Midas was asked to adjudicate and declared Pan the winner. Apollo punished him by giving him the ears of a donkey. Midas, ashamed, tried to conceal them – but whatever he did, the rumour of his ears got about; even the reeds whispered it. This is the final
Roman Elegy; Goethe is imagining the love-affair the Elegies describe becoming public knowledge, as, of course, since he was about to publish them, it was about to.

Roman Elegies are so-called because they are written in 'elegiac couplets', alternating hexameters and pentameters.

                                 Roman Elegy XX

                                 Strength adorns a man, and a bold and a generous spirit;
                                      O but perhaps above all, deepest reserve is required!
                                 You who have conquered the world, Discretion, Queen of the nations,
                                      dearest Goddess, my safe guide throughout life until now,
                                 what a fate is afflicting me! Now all the tittering Muses,
                                      teamed up with Amor, the snake!, loosen my tightly-shut lips.
                                 And now the royal shame is all but exposed, though they seek to
                                      tuck in under the crown, or with a turban disguise
                                 Midas's lengthened ears: the very next servant perceives them!
                                      and the secret at once burdens and burns in his breast.
                                 But that the Earth refuses to stand guard over such secrets,
                                      gladly he'd dig it a hole, bury it and get some relief!
                                 Reeds now spring up around him; the wind blows, they rustle and murmur:
                                      Midas! Midas the King! has the ears of an ass!
                                 – Now for me too it is hard to hide my beautiful secret;
                                      how soon the chattering lips spill what has filled up the heart!
                                 I can confide in no woman: she might sternly rebuke me;
                                      nor in man either: he might envy and spoil my joy;
                                 nor to the quiet grove or the echoing cliff can I tell my
                                      ecstasy, being not young, nor perhaps lonely enough.
                                 Therefore to you, dear friends, dear Hex- and Pent-ameter only,
                                      be it confided how she brightens my nights and my days.
                                 She, the ever-pursued, evades the snares and devices
                                      which her admirers lay, brazen or subtle by turns;
                                 graceful, adroit, she slips by, like one well-assured of the byways
                                      where she knows her true-love, listening eagerly, waits.
                                 Hold still, moon, she is coming! let the neighbours not spy her;
                                      rustle, wind, in the leaves! none catch the sound of her step.
                                 And you, my much-loved songs, grow up and flourish, and waver
                                      in every gentlest of breaths blown on the love-bearing breeze;
                                 then, like those gossiping reeds, reveal at last to the Romans
                                      this lovely secret that once one lucky couple enjoyed.


The third translation, also from Goethe, is entitled Phenomenon. The reference is to a meteorological phenomenon: sometimes on mist a 'white rainbow' is seen. In biblical tradition, the many-coloured rainbow is a symbol of hope; in this poem, the ageing Goethe allows the white rainbow to represent hope as well, but now with an un-illusioned awareness of limitation.


                                 When with the wall of rain
                                 bright Phoebus mates,
                                 brilliant, that bow again
                                 heaven creates!

                                 I see the same arc show,
                                 in white mist drawn,
                                 white, and yet still that bow,
                                 still heaven-born!

                                 Old man, you may still be
                                 joyful enough.
                                 White though your hair may be,
                                 yet you will love.