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Anne 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 too...um, well, fragmentary...to justify a two-page spread:
they became [
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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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").
...(fleeing?)...(was bitten?)...(you of many names?)...gives success to the mouth...
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I suppose too much accuracy leads us to abandon Truth.
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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.