|Cavafy's work on a wall in the Netherlands|
There were a few brief weeks when I was still working for the Open University when I tried to learn ancient Greek.
I took textbooks with me on train journeys and it was this time that year I was on my way to Kings Lynn Poetry Festival when the poet Kit Wright wandered down the carriage and sat next to me.
I was trying to do some homework. The course demanded at least 15 hours a week. What was I thinking?
I was explaining my difficulties to Kit, who was gently baffled, when a guy opposite me chipped in. Well, I'm Greek and I wouldn't try, he said. We laughed. It was a glorious autumn day. I had a new book out. Life was good.
What I do remember of my attempt at the language was, even early on, realising that where a word was in a sentence was everything. I should have done it when I was more elastic.
I took liberties with my basic translation exercises and my tutor wasn't impressed.
So when the poet Janet Sutherland suggested that our reading group look at the work of Constantine Cavafy we were going to have to decide on a translation. How on earth do you do that? We went for a scattergun approach. We'd look at a few.
John McCullough started the discussion going on Facebook and we met last night at Kay Syrad's house in the wilds of the country outside Ringmer, the rain pounding on her roof, with translations from 1951 onwards.
I'd bought a Chatto version by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard and others brought translations by George Economou with Stavros Deligiorgis, John Mavrogordato, Avi Sharon. We missed out Daniel Mendelsohn and Rae Dalven - we were juggling enough and even the Keeley and Sherrard versions differed.
Maria Jastrzębska talked about her work as a translator from Polish and Slovenian and the difficulties of translating this man's writing unfurled as we compared lines, openings and endings. It was a treat to hear the poems read by John and Rob Hamberger, gay men living now who don't have to hide their work or their sexuality.
We were intrigued by how Cavafy belongs to another era - sharing his work only among friends while we manically self-promote, worrying about book sales, public readings and 'getting our name out'.
I remember the joy of translating from French when I was studying and I would love to rediscover that close attention to building bridges, to the relationship between words within sentences that is different to the attention I pay to my own.
Recently I came across a translation from Welsh of a passage I know quite well from using it in writing workshops. I'd believed the translation I used was good but this new one was astonishing. It made me think about the original in a totally new way. It opened up my own sense of that writing.