The (Mis)translation of Lorca and Cavafy

When I started doing this (mis)translations thing, I promised myself that certain poets were off limits. I drew up a list of them, poets who deserved better than to have their words manhandled out of shape and into poor English by me.

Lorca was, of course, one of them.

But I cracked in the vicious heat the other day while looking at the Puglian landscape just as he must have looked at the selfsame landscape in Spain, and suddenly realising, only one man has ever captured what I’ve seen here.

So, I am sorry, Federico Lorca.

Land without Song

Blue sky

and yellow field.

Blue mountain

and yellow field.

Across the roasted plain

an olive tree is walking.

An olive tree


And having broken the vow, one sin leads to another of course. So I decided to own the fault, and reached for a long-loved Constatine Cavafy poem which, like the Lorca one above, has already been perfectly well translated into English by poetry translators expert in the work of these authors themselves.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. In fact, it flies in the face of the original idea of the (mis)translations project. Perhaps what will happen sooner or later is these two texts will quietly vanish from the internet some late night and never appear in the resulting volume. In which case, “enjoy” them while you can, I guess. Their mere existence is precarious and ambivalent.

After all, I didn’t want trouble, and I didn’t want to do the big names like Lorca or Cavafy anyway because there are specialist poetry translators who spend all their lives on those guys. I wanted to do like the B or C division voices, people who don’t often get translated.

And why MIStranslate them? Because I’m not one of those specialist poetry translators. But I am an avid reader, and sporadic writer, of poetry. And additionally, I’m singularly untalented at languages. My children are multilingual, but I have journalist’s command of foreign languages – ie the basic thirty phrases one needs to survive, in about seven or eight tongues that I’ve had reason to use in the past.

Being fully truthful, I’m probably only really capable of assessing a translation of poetry that moves between French and English. And I’ve NEVER seen Shakespeare or Yeats properly translated into French. Likewise, there has never been a remotely satisfactory translation of Baudelaire into English.

Your mileage may vary. You may perhaps utterly adore some of these translations. And that’s okay, a mere matter of difference in taste. But can you honestly say that the original is FULLY communicated in even the best of translations? That NOTHING is missing? No nuance, no context, no wordplay, no rhyme scheme or echo?

You know, it sometimes almost makes me angry, even when it’s someone like Voltaire or François-Victor Hugo (son of the author of Les Miserables) who translates Shakespeare. Why? Because so much is missing. So much is simply impossible to translate.

Hence the (mis)translations project. The point is that I don’t know any of these languages. I don’t speak them. I don’t read them for the most part. I am reliant on a range of dictionaries, online and in print, as well as pre-existing translations and advice from native-speaking friends, in order to produce these works.

That was the point, to prove that is all poetry is ultimately untranslatable. It cannot be translated, only creatively (mis)translated. The term is therefore an apology to the poets themselves, and the entire project an act of deliberate and conscious (and conscientious) failure from the get-go.

Anyhow, digression aside, I departed from my original plan by (mis)translating Lorca, and compounded the sin by then (mis)translating Cavafy. Since I have shared one sin with you, I might as well make you complicit in the other too:

As Much As You Can

And if you can’t make the life that you want,

as much as you can, at least try

not to humiliate yourself

in so many worldly contexts,

all those movements and speeches.

Don’t humiliate your life by shipping it about

all over the place, exposing it to

the daily nonsense

of relationships and socialising,

until it becomes a foreign cargo you must carry.

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