Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Cavafy’s ‘Awaiting the Barbarians’ (1904)

— Τι περιμένουμε στην αγορά συναθροισμένοι;

Είναι οι βάρβαροι να φθάσουν σήμερα.

— Γιατί μέσα στην Σύγκλητο μια τέτοια απραξία;
Τι κάθοντ’ οι Συγκλητικοί και δεν νομοθετούνε;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα.
Τι νόμους πια θα κάμουν οι Συγκλητικοί;
Οι βάρβαροι σαν έλθουν θα νομοθετήσουν.

— Γιατί ο αυτοκράτωρ μας τόσο πρωί σηκώθη,
και κάθεται στης πόλεως την πιο μεγάλη πύλη
στον θρόνο επάνω, επίσημος, φορώντας την κορώνα;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα.
Κι ο αυτοκράτωρ περιμένει να δεχθεί
τον αρχηγό τους. Μάλιστα ετοίμασε
για να τον δώσει μια περγαμηνή. Εκεί
τον έγραψε τίτλους πολλούς κι ονόματα.

— Γιατί οι δυο μας ύπατοι κ’ οι πραίτορες εβγήκαν
σήμερα με τες κόκκινες, τες κεντημένες τόγες·
γιατί βραχιόλια φόρεσαν με τόσους αμεθύστους,
και δαχτυλίδια με λαμπρά, γυαλιστερά σμαράγδια·
γιατί να πιάσουν σήμερα πολύτιμα μπαστούνια
μ’ ασήμια και μαλάματα έκτακτα σκαλιγμένα;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα·
και τέτοια πράγματα θαμπώνουν τους βαρβάρους.

— Γιατί κ’ οι άξιοι ρήτορες δεν έρχονται σαν πάντα
να βγάλουνε τους λόγους τους, να πούνε τα δικά τους;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα·
κι αυτοί βαρυούντ’ ευφράδειες και δημηγορίες.

— Γιατί ν’ αρχίσει μονομιάς αυτή η ανησυχία
κ’ η σύγχυσις. (Τα πρόσωπα τι σοβαρά που εγίναν).
Γιατί αδειάζουν γρήγορα οι δρόμοι κ’ η πλατέες,
κι όλοι γυρνούν στα σπίτια τους πολύ συλλογισμένοι;

Γιατί ενύχτωσε κ’ οι βάρβαροι δεν ήλθαν.
Και μερικοί έφθασαν απ’ τα σύνορα,
και είπανε πως βάρβαροι πια δεν υπάρχουν.

Και τώρα τι θα γένουμε χωρίς βαρβάρους.
Οι άνθρωποι αυτοί ήσαν μια κάποια λύσις.

— — —

‘Why are we all here, in this public square?’

Today’s the day the barbarians arrive.

‘Why isn’t the government doing anything?
Are the politicians just sitting around?’

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What’s the point in making laws now?
The barbarians will legislate when they come
.

‘Why did our king get up so early this morning?
He’s sitting at the city’s largest gate
on his throne, formal, wearing his crown.’

Because the barbarians will arrive today.
And his majesty is waiting to greet
their leader. He is ready
to give him a fancy parchment on which
are written his many titles and regal names
.

‘What about those two consuls, and the praetors,
out and about in their red, embroidered togas?
Why are they wearing those amethyst-clustered bracelets,
those rings shiny with gleaming emeralds?
Why holding those staffs of office, inset
with silver and gold, extraordinarily carved?’

Because the barbarians will arrive today;
and such things dazzle the barbarians
.

‘Where are our worthy orators? Not here, like usual,
declaiming their reasoned, persuasive speeches.

Because the barbarians will arrive today;
and they are bored by rhetoric and eloquence
.

‘But — but what’s with all this sudden worry?
This confusion? (how serious they all look!)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so fast,
everyone rushing home so anxiously?

Because now it’s sunset and the barbarians aren’t here.
And news has come from across the border:
they say that the barbarians no longer exist.

And what shall we do now, without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of deliverance.

— — —

So, it’s a very famous poem: Cavafy’s most celebrated, much discussed, the inspiration for Dino Buzzati’s great 1940 novel Il deserto dei Tartari (‘The Tartar Steppe’), later reworked by Coetzee as his less good though still interesting Waiting for the Barbarians (1980).

The poem has been translated many times into English and I’m aware there’s no especial need for another version.

So why have I attempted one? No particular reason, except that I wanted to have a go at the final couplet. Great though the poem is I’ve always found something anticlimactic in those last two lines, and the way they so ploddingly spell-out the ‘moral’ of the whole. The couplet is egregious because it’s clear from the main body of the poem that the ‘civilisation’ of the two speakers has organised itself around the imminence of barbarian invasion as a way of solving, or avoiding, its own problems. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, in their English-language edition of Cavafy [C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (Princeton University Press, 1975)] render the couplet like this:

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

That’s true to the Greek, but strikes me as a little pat, a touch deflating. So I’ve had a go at a different translation.

The key, I’d say, is the poem’s last word: λύσις. It’s a word with a wide semantic field: ‘solution’, as per Keeley and Sherrard, is part of it, though it more directly means, and is etymologically behind, the English ‘loose’, ‘loosening’. In fact it means [deep breath] loosing, releasing, release, but also ransoming, deliverance from guilt by expiatory rites and, in a fiduciary sense, redemption of mortgage or pledge; the word also means parting, emptying, evacuation, and (yes) solution (to a difficulty or problem) and, medically speaking, it means remission of fever. For my version I havered between ‘Those people were a kind of release’, ‘Those people were a kind of deliverance’ and ‘Those people were a kind of redemption’, and maybe should have gone with either of the latter two. [I originally had ‘releasement’ as my final term, but was roundly mocked on Facebook for so ungainly a word-choice] [edit 28.4.22. Have changed to redemption].

What do you think?

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Various jottings and thoughts.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.

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