Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sappho translations

With Sappho so much in the news, I thought it might be time to post a few translations I have made of Sappho's works over the years. I think Sappho must have been an extraordinary woman, certainly her poetry warrants that tag. It still sings and the possibilities in translation, as for much poetry, are very broad.

I have translated some poems, on other occasions I have written poems that have been inspired by her. I would like to translate more of her work, but as writer Grace Paley said, 'Art is long and life is short.'

The first poem of Sappho’s that I translated is fragment 168b (translated around 1982). I wrote the text on the front of a T-shirt in Greek and the translation on the back. Other than that, it is previously unpublished. I was studying Ancient Greek at the time.

the moon
and the Pleiades
both have set
night is half gone
I sleep alone

In 1991 I was reading Gillian Spragg’s essay ‘Divine Visitations: Sappho’s Poetry of Love’ (1991) which includes a translation of the following poem. As I read, for the first time it hit me that this could be a poem about a seizure. The following set of three poems are really variations rather than translations. They were published in my collection, Bird and other writings on epilepsy (1993).


variations on Sappho’s fragment 31

To me you are divine
as you play your role–
speaking, listening,
laughing that laugh

running through me
like an electric current.
The shock, the jolt as I
watch. My voice

dries up; it is hot like sand
in a desert creekbed
and it slides slowly away
from me. My eyes die,

I hear nothing as
lava flows under
my skin. Seized,
my mind flees–

down, down into the
underworld, into a
kind of death.

I watch her, your public face;
I hear her speak the expected words
of coupling love.

Her smile eats at me like acid;
my ribs are scorched and the
heart jolts inside its cage.

When I look at you, heart
emptied, voice hollowed,
now meaningless

I speak empty breath.
My tongue fallow, no
harvest of words

only froth, a dead-eyed
gaze and muscles that
cringe convulsively.

My mind quivers, retreats
toward death, and I know
that only death is an end.

Fortune has deserted me today
as I watch the one sitting
face to face with you

Across the room I listen as
words and laughter fall
from your lips

My heart becomes a
jolting carriage and my
tongue is electrified by

fear. Fire runs through
my veins and I can no longer
hear your words, your laughter,

for the humming in my ears.
I convulse, and sweat
runs cool down my face,

pale as dry summer grass-
death would be better
than this jealousy.

In 2010, I was back studying another Ancient language, Sanskrit and I felt able to try my hand at some translations, in part because I understood the process of translation better; and secondly because as a poet, I had honed my skills (although that is a life-long undertaking). The first two poems (translation and variation) were published in Sinister Wisdom: Lesbian Poetry–When? And Now! Number 81, 2010. The two variations on Sappho’s poems were published in my collection Cow (2011). The translation of fragment 22 has not been previously published.

fragment 16 by Sappho
This is one of Sappho’s best-known poems. I first read it as grafitti on a toilet wall in an inner urban suburb of Melbourne in the mid-1970s. Underground poetry always survives. Between then and 1979 when I began studying Ancient Greek a whole new world opened for me. But it’s really only now that I appreciate the craft of Sappho’s poems. In the variation that follows, the cow, Anaktoria is responding to Sappho’s fragment 16.

some say an army of horses some say an army of feet
some say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing
on this black earth but I say it’s whom-
ever you love

easy to make this thought catch
for she who was more beautiful
than all of humanity
left her sublime husband behind

to sail to Troy
neither children nor loved parents
could she perceive
but deceived – she went

recall to me now Anaktoria
no longer here

what Anaktoria says to her

when the herds are running the ground thrumming
sunlight scaling every beam of dust like a horde
on the move your finest poems are for me
that’s what I love best

when the sun strikes your coat roan with heat
we all stand dazzled  by your beauty
and none of us will ever abandon you
you the brightest of us all

when the summer grass grows pale
and the longing strikes up again
I think of you standing always knowing
which way to go

your doubts are few your face dewy
in the morning light and your eyes
brown soft but your glance as sharp
as thorns

so Sappho let me follow you on this track
into that thicket by the river
let us stand flank by flank our love
our armour

fragment 22 by Sappho
Anne Carson writes that Gongyla means yoke-mate (note 22.10 p. 363). In Sanskrit the root verb √yuj means to yoke, harness or fasten. It can be applied to two cows yoked together; it can also mean unite or connect in a relationship or through longing.  Carson says the first two letters of Gongyla’s name are missing from this poem. Sanskrit for cow is gau/go-: go-, the two missing letters, like lesbians, are missing from history.


limb test…
cry out
if not wintry torment

            sing of
Gongyla          Abanthis          grasp
the harp –and again – longing
wafts all around

your loveliness for when you saw her
garment you were excited
and I thrilled

Cyprus-born Aphrodite condemned me
for praying one word:

what Gongyla says

when winter ices my coat
when it strikes
the heart
whatever can you do–

she has made it public
her longing for me
she wants me to sing
my heart pain

she says Aphrodite
is hard hearted
her love searing

but all I want
is want

Sappho in slippers

This final poem is my most recent translation, made while I was in Rome during 2013. It is of Sappho’s recently found poem from 2004. I found this a fascinating poem to translate because it’s both so very Sappho in style, but its content is surprising because until now we have thought of Sappho as a youngish woman (perhaps 40ish at the most). But in ths poem she writes of age and this is a subject that so many women poets have avoided because women and aging are not meant to go together. I feel my aching shoulder (which troubled me recently for months) and I can understand that her knees perhaps don’t do the dance as well now. But she confronts age, and says we have to face it. In this poem, it is the aging Tithonos, a man, who feels his immortality as a burden against his ever-youthful wife, Dawn, Eos, the rising sun. This poem will be published in my forthcoming, Lupa and Lambda.

Lost text: Aeolic Lesbian: Psappha in slippers
circa 565 BCE

you young ones bound to the Muses’ lovely sweet-smelling gifts
you are fervent songsters your voices clear as the lyre

once my body was soft tender to touch but old age
has taken its pleasure with me turning my black hair white

my heart is made heavy    my knees that in youth were as light-
footed as the dancing deer    no longer carry me

now I sigh in surprise    but what am I to do?
aging is human    there is no way out

even Tithonos who was borne to the far ends
of the earth by lovesick Dawn

young and enchanting at first    was haunted
by grumbling old age despite his immortal wife

See also: 
Gillian Spragg. 1991. ‘Divine Visitations: Sappho’s Poetry of Love’. In Elaine Hobby and Chris White (eds.) What Lesbians Do in Books. London: The Women’s Press.

Both photos taken by me at the Capitoline Museum in Rome, © 2013. I like that the second view is angled differently, a bit like the new poems by Sappho.

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