Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Sappho, "as long as you are willing"

If you have any interest in the general issue of translation, Sappho's writing is a perfect piece of literature with which to start your explorations.  Try to check out and compare a few different versions.  Why Sappho?  First, the total volume of Sappho's writing that has survived is tiny--making the comparison of several translations a project that won't take you much more than a few hours.  Another reason it is such an excellent project is because the translations differ from one another quite enormously.  As Anne Carson says, reading Sappho is fundamentally an exercise in imagination.  You can see--in the various versions discussed in the previous posts and here--how much translation is an art rather than a science.

Poems and FragmentsAlthough his version first came into print in 2002, I have just discovered that Stanley Lombardo has translated Sappho's poems.  Having very much enjoyed his translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, I was very eager to see how he would treat Sappho.  Similar to Mary Barnard, Lombardo makes Sappho's fragments read like poetry.  Similar to Carson, he is more forthcoming about the the limits of the text we have extant.  He also tries to be reflective of the original rhythmic phrases.  On top of that combination of strengths, this version also includes a wonderful critical introduction by Pamela Gordon.  (My favorite quote from the intro: "An extensive bibliography seldom satisfies a longing to speak with the dead.")

Lombardo's recreated poems are both sharp and fragile--almost brittle, even, in their luminosity.  Using language like "quenched desire," "trembling," and "climax," he seems to get at the intense physicality of Sappho's poems about love without treading into too-modern wording.  One fragment leaves me breathless: "earth embroidered with flowers."

Pamela Gordon writes in her introduction that one of the most rewarding way to read Sappho is for us "to read an individual fragment as though we were reading a note in the bottle.  Each fragment comes to us against the odds and across the centuries, and none arrives with any original instructions about context or meaning.  All we know is that the sender is Sappho (though occasionally we are not even sure of that), and some of us are certain that we are the right recipient."  I am sure the latter us true for me.

*  *  *

The Complete Poems of SapphoAnother wonderful contemporary translation of Sappho's work is Willis Barnstone's Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho.  (He has a newer paperback edition called The Complete Poems of Sappho which I gather is the same translation.)

In some ways similar to Lombardo's book, Barnstone's volume begins with an excellent introduction which places Sappho in historical and literary contexts.  His poems attempt to be true to the originals, but Barnstone is not nearly as concerned with producing a literal translation as some others, such as those I discussed in my previous post.  He cares more about allowing Sappho to speak with a voice that can be heard, with at least some of the power it had in the ancient world.  "I go partway in reflecting the abused Greek text," he says, but typically he "limit[s] the mirror so the English can live."

I love how Barnstone shapes puns in English that try to reflect some of the depth of the Greek.  For example, here is the translator's version of "Words with Virginity":
Virginity, virginity, where have you gone, leaving me abandoned?
No longer will I come to you.  No longer will I come.

And here is Barnstone's translation of the new-to-us Sappho poem, found in 2004:
Growing Old


Those lovely gifts of the fragrant-breasted Muses,
girls, seek them eagerly in thrilling song of the lyre.


Old age has grasped my earlier delicate skin
and my black hair has become white,


my spirit turned heavy, my knees no longer 
carry me nimble for dancing like a fawn.


About these thing I groan.  What can I do?
For a human not to grow old is impossible.


They say Dawn, dazzled by love, took Tithonos
in her rose arms to the utter end of the earth.


Once beautiful and young, time seized him
into gray old age, husband of a deathless wife.

Barnstone states his hope that more library time sifting through papyrus fragments--and more technological advances such as the use of infra-ray technology to reveal texts, might possibly turn up more Sappho as the years progress.  What a gift--and how ironic that it is through the most modern of means that we may more closely approach the ancient.

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