“The Horses of Achilles” by C. P. Cavafy: A New Translation
Stepping into a legendary scene unfolding in Homer’s Iliad, C.P. Cavafy sheds new light on the angst that drives Achilles’ horses to tears upon the epic death of Patroklos in the Trojan War.
In his poem, The Horses of Achilles, Cavafy intentionally focuses attention on the mournful tears of Achilles’ horses, rather than on the heroic death of Achilles’ beloved friend, Patroklos. Revealing to us a deeper glimpse of death, Cavafy inspires a profoundly heightened perception of the sublime divide between the mortal and the divine.
Although I have carefully tried to honor the essence of Cavafy’s phrases and the pattern of his rhymes, I admit my translation clings a tad passionately to his signature spartan frame. Even to time-honored dishes, however, a chef worth her salt will add her own special flavor, her own magic spice. In so doing, I hope I have convincingly conveyed both Cavafy’s singular essence and my own celebration of his style.
The Horses of Achilles
C. P. Cavafy
(Translated by Kathleen Vail)
When they saw him laid low, Patroklos,
who was so young for one so famed for valiant deeds,
they began to cry, Achilles’ steeds,
with their immortal nature contradicting
the specter of Death that they were witnessing.
With raging heads shaking and shining manes streaming
and hooves pounding loudly, they were grieving
Patroklos who lay there silently – annihilated –
a flesh forsaken – a spirit desolated –
sucked dry and stripped naked by the hand of strife –
translated to the silent Void from vivacious life.
Zeus of the Eternals saw the tears
of the horses and sadly said, “At Peleus’ wedding
I should not foolishly have done this thing.” He, regretting,
added, “It was better had we not given him my steeds.
Unhappy horses! Why are you trapped there in the hapless deeds
of wretched folk on fields where games of fate are played.
You whom neither death nor old age plagues
are tyrannized by temporary pains. To transient strife and stress
your people have you chained.” But hot tears nevertheless
for the permanently dead
the two noble animals achingly shed.
Fighting Over the Body of Patroklos
(From Homer’s Iliad, Book 17:366-373
Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D)
So fought they like unto blazing fire,
nor wouldst thou have deemed that sun or moon yet abode,
for with darkness were they shrouded in the fight,
all the chieftains that stood around the slain son of Menoetius.
 But the rest of the Trojans and the well-greaved Achaeans
fought at their ease under clear air,
and over them was spread the piercing brightness of the sun,
and on all the earth and the mountains was no cloud seen.(From Homer’s Iliad, Book 17:424-455
The Death of Patroklos in Homer’s Iliad
The following is A.T. Murray’s translation of Homer’s tale of the battle in which Hektor slays Patroklos. These are the passages that inspired Cavafy’s muse to linger on the dreadful tears of Achilles’ horses. Prompting him to share his exquisite vision in a poem, Cavafy’s words are now, like Xanthos and Balios, yoked for all eternity to the glorious world of Homer’s ageless heroes.
From Homer’s Iliad, Book 17:424-455
The Tears of Achilles’ Horses
(Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D)
Thus would one speak and arouse the might of each. So they fought on,
 and the iron din went up through the unresting air to the brazen heaven.
But the horses of the son of Aeacus being apart from the battle were weeping,
since first they learned that their charioteer had fallen in the dust
beneath the hands of man-slaying Hector.
In sooth Automedon, valiant son of Diores,
 full often plied them with blows of the swift lash,
and full often with gentle words bespake them, and oft with threatenings;
yet neither back to the ships to the broad Hellespont were the twain minded to go,
not yet into the battle amid the Achaeans.
Nay, as a pillar abideth firm that standeth on the tomb
 of a dead man or woman, even so abode they immovably with the beauteous car,
bowing their heads down to the earth.
And hot tears ever flowed from their eyes to the ground,
as they wept in longing for their charioteer, and their rich manes were befouled,
 streaming from beneath the yoke-pad beside the yoke on this aide and on that.
And as they mourned, the son of Cronos had sight of them and was touched with pity,
and he shook his head, and thus spake unto his own heart:
“Ah unhappy pair, wherefore gave we you to king Peleus, to a mortal,
while ye are ageless and immortal?
 Was it that among wretched men ye too should have sorrows?
For in sooth there is naught, I ween, more miserable than man
among all things that breathe and move upon earth.
Yet verily not upon you and your car, richly-dight,
 shall Hector, Priam’s son, mount; that will I not suffer.
Sufficeth it not that he hath the armour and therewithal vaunteth him vainly?
Nay, in your knees and in your heart will I put strength,
to the end that ye may also bear Automedon safe out of the war to the hollow ships”
In His Own Words – The Horses of Achilles by C.P. Cavafy
In an article for Poetry Foundation, Alicia (A.E.) Stallings writes, “Cavafy is without doubt the most translated and retranslated of modern Greek poets–perhaps among the most translated of foreign poets into English period.” She goes on to ask, “What are these translations not bringing to the table? What are we missing when we aren’t reading Cavafy in Greek?”
I offer here an opportunity to consider the substantial challenge of translating Cavafy’s signature style–his “flatness–not in terms of music, in which Cavafy’s poetry is quite rich, but in terms of tone,” as Stallings puts it. Because most translators of Cavafy’s poems rarely attempt to reproduce Cavafy’s “music,” Stallings notes, regarding his poem The City (link in Greek), “I was surprised to find the poem rhymes, and not only does it rhyme, but it has a curious rhyme scheme:”
Stallings continues, “Some of the rhymes are actually denser than full rhyme–they are rime riche, homophones–so that ‘tha menei’ (‘shall remain’) almost magically turns into ‘thameni’ (‘buried’); some are more like full consonantal rhymes- ‘tha gurnas’ (‘you will wander’) turns into ‘tha gernas’ (‘you will grow old’).”
“The rhyme scheme that appears to go somewhere only to end up where it started,” states Stallings, “is not decoration–it is central to the theme of the poem.”
You will note that, somewhat similar to “The City,” Cavafy’s “The Horses of Achilles” has an interesting rhyme scheme, too:
Try as I might, I failed to repeat A in lines 8 and 9 in my translation, above.
The following is C.P. Cavafy’s poem, The Horses of Achilles, written in his native Greek. What do you think–would you like to have a go at translating it?
For the benefit of those who don’t read Greek, I’ve included below each line in the poem a line transliterated to phonetics in Roman characters (with the accented vowels in bold), as well as another line translated literally, word for word.
Τα άλογα του Αχιλλέως
Constantine P. Cavafy
Τον Πάτροκλο σαν είδαν σκοτωμένο,
Ton Patroklo san eedhan skotomeno,
The Patroklos as they saw killed,
που ήταν τόσο ανδρείος, και δυνατός, και νέος,
poo eetan toso andreeos, kay dheenatos, kay nayos,
who was so valiant/brave, and strong, and young,
άρχισαν τ’ άλογα να κλαίνε του Αχιλλέως·
arxheesan t’ aloga na klaynay too Axheellayos;
They began the horses to cry of Achilles;
η φύσις των η αθάνατη αγανακτούσε
ee feesees ton ee athanatee aganaktoosay
the nature of the immortal he complained
για του θανάτου αυτό το έργον που θωρούσε.
yia too thanatoo afto to ergon poo thoroosay.
for the death this the work/deed that he observed.
Τίναζαν τα κεφάλια των και τες μακρυές χαίτες κουνούσαν,
Teenazan ta kefalia ton kay tes makreees xhaytes koovoosan,
They were shaking the heads theirs and their long manes were waving,
την γη χτυπούσαν με τα πόδια, και θρηνούσαν
teen yee xhteepoosan may ta podia, kay threenoosan
the earth they banged with the feet, and they mourned
τον Πάτροκλο που ενοιώθανε άψυχο – αφανισμένο –
ton Patroklo poo eneeothanay apseexho – afaneesmeno –
the Patroklos who appeared/seemed inanimate – destroyed –
μιά σάρκα τώρα ποταπή – το πνεύμα του χαμένο –
meea sarka tora potapee – to pnevma too xhameno –
a flesh now despaired/dejected – the spirit his lost –
ανυπεράσπιστο – χωρίς πνοή –
aneeperaspeesto – xhorees pnoee –
defenseless – without breath –
εις το μεγάλο Τίποτε επιστραμένο απ’ την ζωή.
ees to megalo Teepotay epeestrameno ap’ teen zoee.
to the great Nothing returned from the life.
Τα δάκρυα είδε ο Ζεύς των αθανάτων
Ta dhakreea eedhay o Zefs ton athanaton
The tears he saw the Zeus of the immortals
αλόγων και λυπήθη. «Στου Πηλέως τον γάμο»
alogon kay leepeethee. “Stoo Peelayos ton gamo”
of the horses and was sad. “At the Peleus the wedding”
είπε «δεν έπρεπ’ έτσι άσκεπτα να κάμω·
eepay “dhen eprep’ etsee askepta na kamo;
he said “not must thus foolishly to I do;
καλύτερα να μην σας δίναμε άλογά μου
kaleetera na meen sas dheename aloga moo
better to not you we gave horses mine
δυστυχισμένα! Τι γυρεύατ’ εκεί χάμου
dheesteexheesmena! Tee yeerevat’ ekee xhamoo
Unhappy! What are you doing/looking for there
στην άθλια ανθρωπότητα πούναι το παίγνιον της μοίρας.
steen athleea anthropoteeta poonay to paygneeon tees meeras.
in the wretched humanity where is the playing of fate.
Σεις που ουδέ ο θάνατος φυλάγει, ουδέ το γήρας
Sees poo ooday o thanatos feelayee, ouday to yeeras
You whom neither the death is within, neither the old age
πρόσκαιρες συμφορές σας τυραννούν. Στα βάσανά των
proskayres seemfores sas teerannoon. Sta vasana ton
temporary disasters you they tyrannize. In the sufferings theirs
σας έμπλεξαν οι άνθρωποι». -Όμως τα δάκρυά των
sas ebleksan ee anthropee”. -Omos ta dhakreea ton
you they involved the people.” However the tears theirs
για του θανάτου την παντοτεινή
yia too thanatoo teen pandoteenee
for the death the everlasting
την συμφοράν εχύνανε τα δυό τα ζώα τα ευγενή.
teen seemforan exheenanay ta dheeo ta zoa ta evyenee.
the tortured they shed the two the animals the noble.
Adamantly refusing to formally publish his work during his lifetime, Cavafy wrote a body of 154 complete poems in his native Greek. Dozens more of his poems remain incomplete. Most of Cavafy’s poems were written after reaching age 40, shared only in local newspapers and magazines, or distributed among friends and interested acquaintances.
Sadly, passing away from cancer of the larynx on his 70th birthday in 1933, Cavafy did not live to see his reputation grow to its current height. The first publication of Cavafy’s poems in book form was titled, “Ποιήματα” (Peeeemata, “Poems”), published in 1935 in Alexandria, Egypt, two years after his death.
Much of Cavafy’s work was perhaps better suited to the randy symposiums of Classical Greece or today’s more liberal audiences, who can openly engage ws.ith homosexual literature and art. In his own time, however, sexuality and gender issues were not yet crossing the thresholds of mainstream publishing houses.
Today, C.P. Cavafy’s poems are treasured and beloved for his perceptive historicity, engaging honesty, poignant eroticism, and singularly sparse, consciously individualistic style. His works, now published in multiple languages, enjoy international distribution and acclaim, and Cavafy’s poetry is currently taught in schools and universities around the world.
About the writer:
Kathleen Vail is the author of Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles. Vail has created a life-size, historically relevant reconstruction of Achilles’ shield as described in Homer’s Iliad, Book 18. Her reconstruction appears on the covers of Atchity’s Homer’s Iliad: The Shield of Memory, and Lopez-Ruiz’ Gods, Heroes, and Monsters (Oxford University Press, 2018).
Image 1: “The Death of Patroclus.” Illustration from page 265 of the Iliad of Homer translated by Pope (1715). Colorized by Kathleen Vail. Source: British Library/Vail via Wikimedia Commons [CC0]
Image 2: “The Greeks and the Trojans Fighting over the Body of Patroclus” by Antoine Wiertz, 19th Century. Source: Musée des beaux-arts de Liège/Vail via Wikimedia Commons [CC0]
Image 3: “Automedon With the Horses of Achilles” by Henri Regnault, ca. 1868. Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston via Wikimedia Commons [CC0]
Image 4: Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis (29 April 1863 – 29 April 1933), popularly known in English as C.P. Cavafy, was an Egyptian Greek poet born on April 29, 1863, in Alexandria, Egypt. Constantine P. Cavafy, ca. 1900. Source: Wikimedia Commons [CC0]