Monday, June 13, 2011

Sappho: If Not, Winter

Although I love Mary Barnard's poetic translations of Sappho, there are many other interesting choices available for the reader.  I'll spend the next few posts talking about some of the options available.  Today I will focus on a few translations by authors who say they place an emphasis on being accurate.  In the next post, I'll look at a few translators they are more concerned to create poems which the authors consider accessible to modern readers.

*  *  *

If Not, Winter: Fragments of SapphoAnne Carson's If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho is a fascinating version which emphasizes the fragmentary nature of what we have from Sappho.  When I first saw Carson's book on the shelf, I was stunned. How on earth could there be a 400-page edition of Sappho fragments?!

Carson does not give us a long introduction, but in the few pages she offers, she gives a beautifully provocative statement: "Even though you are approaching Sappho in translations, there is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp--brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure."

Carson's volume presents each fragment of Sappho's poetry on one page with a facing page in the original Greek.  Most of the gaps and guesses are marked very clearly with space and brackets.  Some of her translations are drop-dead gorgeous--but, by my lights, sometimes the poetry gets interrupted with Carson's efforts to be more faithful to the texts we have (rather than the feel of the poems as they might have felt at the time).  If you are interested in approaching the text as an historian--or as a detective--or even as a poet you might find this translation to be perfect.  Personally, I found Carson's interpretation fascinating and stunningly gorgeous in places, but I am very glad I had seen Barnard's translation first.

For a beautiful review by a reader who loves the poetry of Carson's version, check out Emily's discussion over at Evening All Afternoon.  As she writes, "I think my love for this book is due in equal measure to the stunningly beautiful translation of the parts of the poems that remain, and the spaces of silence where the papyrus has failed.  And don't miss Jason's review which contains the most brilliant sentence I think I've ever read: "I have never had a relationship with a piece of punctuation like I've now developed with the square bracket."

There are times when Sappho fragments seem almost, well, justify a two-page spread:

      they became [
      for not



At the same time, there is something absolutely wonderful about actually seeing almost everything extant from Sappho.  Our understanding of her writing style builds with each fragment we read, and our ability to to that "imaginal" work which Carson describes becomes a terrific game.

The title fragment is a wonderful example of the suggestive possibilities.  For me, the phrase "if not, winter" started resonating with the idea of unrequited love.  Instead of the narrator basking in the joy and sunshine of returned affection, the world turned dark and cold.  Of course, you might imagine this fragment in a wholly different way.

My favorite imaginings came from one of the last pages, which include several single-word poem fragments.  I loved putting the following bits together in my mind.  I didn't know they made Cel-Ray back in Sappho's Day!



      gold anklebone cups

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Greek Lyric: Sappho and Alcaeus (Loeb Classical Library No. 142)David Campbell's Greek Lyric: Sappho and Alcaeus gives us an even less poetic version.  If you are interested in experiencing the emotional pleasure of Sappho's poetry, this is NOT the translation for you.  But if you are interested in seeing behind the scenes and experiencing the intellectual puzzle that is the translator's art--and especially the complications a Sappho translator faces--this book is an incredible source.  See if you can find a copy in the library to glance through.

An example of what Campbell presents:

          ...task...lovely face...unpleasant...otherwise winter...pain(less?)...I bid you, Abanthis, 
          take (your lyre?) and sing of Gongyla while desire once again flies around you, the lovely one

And this short section also has two footnotes directly beneath discussing translation issues (one even questioning whether a new poem might have started at "I").

Another example:

          ...(fleeing?)...(was bitten?)...(you of many names?) success to the mouth...

*  *  *

I suppose too much accuracy leads us to abandon Truth.

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The Love Songs of Sappho (Literary Classics)Another kind of accuracy that translators seek to match is Sappho's poetic style.  Paul Roche in his The Love Songs of Sappho (Literary Classics) acknowledges the difficulty of replicating the meter of the poet's Greek because Greek and English have inherently different sounds.  "Confronted with the perennial challenge of transferring the perfection of one language to the perfection of another," he writes, "I have done my best to get near not only to what Sappho said but the way she said it."

Trying to create in English the exact metrical patterns of Sappho's Greek lines would seem strained and strange.  They work only in the Greek.  "When a poetry is stripped of its original music," says the translator, "a completely new set of sounds and rhythms has to be found."  Roche has emphasized the ancient poet's use of both tight form and deep richness by creating his translations with assonance, alliteration, and a loose rhyming pattern.  Here is his version of one of the poems I've quoted before:

I More than Envy Him

He is a god in my eyes, that man,
Given to sit in front of you
And close to himself sweetly to hear
     The sound of you speaking.

Your magical laughter--this I swear--
Batters my heart--my breast astir--
My voice when I see you suddenly near
      Refuses to come.

My tongue breaks up and a delicate fire
Runs through my flesh; I see not a thing
With my eyes, and all that I hear
      In my ears is a hum/

The sweat runs down, a shuddering takes
Me in every part and pale as the drying
Grasses, then, I think I am near
      The moment of dying

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It is astonishing to me how different these poems feel in their different translations. What do you think? Which ones do you find yourself drawn to? Perhaps this gets to the question of why we are reading ancient literature in the first place and what we hope to gain from it.


  1. I LOVED "If Not, Winter"! It is on a short list of my all time favorite physical books, ever. I loved that the poems get more and more fragmentary as they go along, the feeling of frustration and emptiness of having a page that you know should have a whole poem, and only having a snippet, a gap, a half a phrase that ends just before it resolves, felt so emotionally powerful to me that I cried when I got to the ened. The sheer emptiness of the book, the broad swatches of space were beautiful. I ranted about it for way too long in my review, I'm sorry it didn't resonate for you!

  2. Guy Davenport's Sappho is excellent, too, comparable to Carson's, and it appears in an extraordinarily useful book, Seven Greeks, also featuring the "complete" Archilochos, Diogenes, etc.

    Davenport uses the brackets and white space approach, but the book is more compact, so we don't get this six words on two pages business.

    Jason - ??? I detect the presence of resonance in this post.

  3. Amateur Reader, you are correct, I should have said, I'm sorry that some of the things that were most resonant for me (two page spreads with only four words on them, say) ended up feeling off to her - that the resonance decreased for her where it increased for me :). I also see now that she linked to my review already, and then I mentioned it in my comment, which just leaves me feeling like a horrible attention hound :D. Sorry!

  4. Thanks for comparing all of these translations! I already find it challenging sometimes to settle on a translation for fiction, much less poetry. But I do want to read Sappho; the puzzle aspect of Carson's translation very much appeals to me, and I've gotten along well with the plays I've read in her translation, so I'll probably start there. But I also love the Paul Roche you shared! Dilemma, dilemma. :)

  5. Jason: Although I definitely admired Carson's translation a great deal, I don't think I love her versions as much as you and Emily do. Like you, I'm fascinated by that space that happens between what we know and don't know, the blankness that we can barely hold when we reach back that far into the past.

    AR: I'm off to try to track down a copy of the Davenport. Thanks for the lead!

    Eva: I can't wait to see what you choose. Check your local library for a bunch of versions. That is where I had the most luck--though I also hung out in a local Borders cafe reading through a few editions. Carson, of course, came home with me...

  6. I'm drawn to Carson's translation as well. The process of translation itself is fascinating to me ... the kinds of translations I am most drawn to are the ones that are as literal as possible and that have the poem in the original language right next to it. Usually I feel I can get the best sense of the original poem this way, without the translator getting too much in the way. :)

  7. having read Jason's and Emily's reviews back when they wrote them, I must admit I'm most interested in reading the Carson. But thanks for the comparisons between the different options. Sounds like I need to reference the others as well.


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