C. P. Cavafy, Complete Poems (Harvest, 1961)
In his introduction to this book, W. H. Auden repeatedly stresses that there are elements in the poems of Cavafy, "the foremost modern Greek poet" (in the defense of the publisher, Seferis and Ritsos had not yet emerged as major forces, and Odysseus Elytis was still a few years away from winning the Nobel Prize), that are untranslatable. That is true (as he goes on to say) about most works in translation, but when Auden describes the structure of Cavafy's work, the red flags should start going off in your head. "No one can speak of Cavafy's imagery, for simile and metaphor are devices he never uses..." The astute reader of poetry will likely ask the question, "so then, what makes it poetry, and not prose broken up into lines?"
In Greek, the answer to that question is "rhythm and rhyme." Cavafy is a formalist, perhaps one of the last modern masters of form poetry. The problem is, that doesn't translate (especially in this translation, by Rae Dalven) into English, and the effect becomes that of reading a disjointed, pseudo-erotic History of Greece rather than a book of poetry. Cavafy's wit and subtlety are completely lost, as is any attempt to show the original framework on which the words hang, and which, in this poetry, is so very important:
The joy and essence of my life is the memory of the hours
when I found and sustained sensual delight as I desired it.
The joy and essence of my life for me, who abhorred
every enjoyment of routine loves.
The sad truth is, while in Greek it's a rhymed poem where each line is fifteen syllables, in English it would have a hard time getting published as an aphorism, much less a poem.
Perhaps a better translation of Cavafy's work has emerged in the intervening forty years; between reading this and leaving Cavafy's work untranslated, the better option would have been the latter. **