“Che Fece .... Il Gran Rifiuto”

I am posting three translations of the poem which, to my ear, have different nuances, if not meanings. There is a difference between "undermines life," "afflicts him night and day," and "drags him down all his life." I wish I knew Greek. I included the Greek text.

“Che Fece .... Il Gran Rifiuto”*
by C. P. Cavafy

For some among us there comes up a day
when either the great Yea or the great Nay
must needs be spoken. He who has the Yea

ready within him, straightway stands revealed
and, giving it utterance, passes to his field
of self-expression. He who did not yield

assent, never repents. If Nay or Yea
were asked again, he would repeat his Nay,
though that right word afflicts him night and day.

Translated by John Cavafy
(Poems by C. P. Cavafy. Translated, from the Greek, by J. C. Cavafy. Ikaros, 2003)


For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,

he goes forward in honor and self-assurance.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he would still say no. Yet that no—the right no—
undermines him all his life.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrar

For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It's clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and by saying it,

he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he would still say no. Yet that no - the right no -
drags him down all his life.

Translated by Christos

Che fece .... il gran rifiuto

Σε μερικούς ανθρώπους έρχεται μια μέρα
που πρέπει το μεγάλο Ναι ή το μεγάλο το Όχι
να πούνε. Φανερώνεται αμέσως όποιος τόχει
έτοιμο μέσα του το Ναι, και λέγοντάς το πέρα

πηγαίνει στην τιμή και στην πεποίθησί του.
Ο αρνηθείς δεν μετανοιώνει. Aν ρωτιούνταν πάλι,
όχι θα ξαναέλεγε. Κι όμως τον καταβάλλει
εκείνο τ’ όχι — το σωστό — εις όλην την ζωή του.

(Από τα Ποιήματα 1897-1933, Ίκαρος 1984)

*The title is from Dante "Colui Che fece per viltate il gran rifiuto!" The refusal to life that is worthy of eternal damnation..

Here is the line in the context of the Inferno in Italian. Google book search is amazing!

If you’d like to read more poems by C. P. Cavafy, please go to this page I created.


Anonymous said…
Quite recently I came across Kavifis. It's amazing he is so unknown (esp. in my country - Poland). The poem you mentioned here have sth similary to one of the poems of polish poet - Zbigniew Herbert. It's more than possible, he knew "che fece...", because he loved Mediterranean culture. The title is "A Knocker"

There are those who grow
gardens in their heads
paths lead from their hair
to sunny and white cities

it's easy for them to write
they close their eyes
immediately schools of images
stream down their foreheads

my imagination
is a piece of board
my sole instrument
is a wooden stick

I strike the board
it answer me

for others the green bell of a tree
the blue bell of water
I have a knocker
from unprotected gardens

I thump on the board
and it prompts me
with the moralists dry poem

Zbigniew Herbert's alter ego was Mr. Cogito. He was a extremely nonconformist character, and almost every, if not all the poems, are about choosing what a person should do (we are talking about communistic times in post-war Poland.

I think the translation is quite good. And… how do you like it?
Jason ReBegin said…
Thanks for sharing! Indeed the various translations have such differences, but each offers a better glimpse into the original beauty
Anonymous said…
I found this blog by accident...I speak Greek and happen to love this poem too. If it matters at all now (much later than the original posting),I would rather agree with the translation by Christos. The word "καταβάλλω" means ~exhaust physically/mentally (tire out). It is commonly used to express the effect of an illness or of some kind of misfortune on a person. So, probably ~ "drags him down" is closer to the meaning.
"Εις όλην την ζωήν του" means ~ "through all his life"
Anonymous said…
exactly, he wants to say "drags him down through all his life". the decision does not damage the life but affects him during his whole life in a bad way.
Anonymous said…
wears him out would have been THE appropriate choice for this... Kelley has done such a poor job translating this poem... "drags him down", what the f., is that the best they could have come up with? Jesus... And why "Asked again" and not verbatim the way Cavafis puts it "If he/they were asked again", there's a reason the phrasing has length to it in Greek. And why do they change the order of words in the last sentence? There's, again, a reason, why Cavafis starts with "wears him down" and ends with "life", and there's a distance between them. Because when you read it it's the fact that it wears him down, followed by the fact that the no was right, and then, the kicker, comes at the end where the irony that the no was right, the irony that it drags him/her down despite it being right is multiplied in that this happens throughout ALL the responder's life. So it should have been: And yet it wears him down this No - this right No - through his whole life. It's also a poor choice to use declare instead of say, Cavafi doesn't refer to any declaration, he literally mentions say, maybe "to utter" could have been used, but declare? Why? Oh, and lastly, it shouldn't be repent, repent has the connotation of repentance of sins, it should be regret... Anyone might want to piece together a proper translation from this notes of mine, I wouldn't dare translate Cavafi, and having said that, I must say again I am amazed at what a sub par job Kelley and his pal managed to do in messing up a few pretty straight forward stanzas here. But then again they were not poets I guess.

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