Poster poems: Sappho
The passionate words of Sappho have been reinterpreted with each modern age; now it is your turn – pen new versions of her musings on moonlight and death
Friday 5 September 2014 11.00 BST
Friday 5 September 2014 11.00 BST
With International Translation Day fast approaching, it's time for us to return to this most interesting of literary crafts. I say return because we already had a Poster Poems translation challenge a little over four years ago, but while that was a general invitation to post translations of your own choosing, this time I was thinking of something a little more specific.
The Greek poet Sappho has long been a favourite with English translators, with each generation recreating her work in the image of their own time. I've picked two of her poems, the short No 48 and the somewhat longer No 65. (The numbers are from Edwin Marion Cox's 1925 edition, by the way.) The idea is to look at a prose translation of each and a number of verse renditions. Then I'll invite you all to have a go at your own versions of one or both.
Fragment 48 is a haiku-like mediation by moonlight. HT Wharton rendered it in a simple English sentence: "The moon has set, and the Pleiades; it is midnight, the time is going by, and I sleep alone." His prose captures the essence of the meaning, but omits anything that might be considered poetry.
If anything, the opposite might be said of John Addington Symonds's translation, in which the Greek poet becomes something of a Late Victorian aesthete, lost in reverie in a London studio.
The moon hath left the sky;
Lost is the Pleiads' light;
It is midnight
And time slips by;
But on my couch alone I lie.
The Irish novelist and ship's doctor Henry De Vere Stacpoole contrived to turn Sappho's poem into a kind of melancholy sea shanty:
The moon has set beyond the seas,
And vanished are the Pleiades;
Half the long weary night has gone,
Time passes—yet I lie alone.
Under the influence of imagism, Mary Barnard produced a more pared-back version. AS Kline, one of the great translators of the internet age, has managed to pare his version back to roughly the same length as Wharton's prose while still producing what is recognisably an English poem.
In Fragment 65, Sappho warns a rich (or, according to some editors, an uneducated) woman that when she dies, her wealth won't mean anything. In this instance, Wharton's prose is rather more florid. It's worth noting that the roses of Pieria were used to crown the Muses. "But thou shalt lie dead, nor shall there ever be any remembrance of thee then or thereafter, for thou hast not of the roses of Pieria; but thou shalt wander obscure even in the house of Hades, flitting among the shadowy dead."
It's a subject that almost inevitably appealed to Thomas Hardy, who made it even more Hardyesque in his translation:
Dead shalt thou lie; and nought
Be told of thee or thought,
For thou hast plucked not of the Muses' tree:
And even in Hades' halls
Amidst thy fellow-thralls
No friendly shade thy shade shall company!
Swinburne contrived to insert a typically verbose rendering of the poem into hisAnactoria, a kind of Sapphic melange of his own devising.
Thee too the years shall cover; thou shalt be
As the rose born of one same blood with thee,
As a song sung, as a word said, and fall
Flower-wise, and be not any more at all,
Nor any memory of thee anywhere;
For never Muse has bound above thine hair
The high Pierian flower whose graft outgrows
All summer kinship of the mortal rose
However, not even Swinburne could match John Myers O'Hara's ability to spin out so little over so many words:
Pale death shall come, and thou and thine shall be,
Then and thereafter, to all memory
Forgotten as the wind that yesterday
Blew the last lingering apple buds away;
For thou hadst never that undying rose
To grace the brow and shed immortal glows;
Pieria's fadeless flower that few may claim
To wreathe and save thy unremembered name.
Ay! even on the fields of Dis unknown,
Obscure among the shadows and alone,
Thy flitting shade shall pass uncomforted
Of any heed from all the flitting dead.
But no one maid, I think, beneath the skies,
At any time shall live and be as wise,
In sooth, as I am; for the Muses Nine
Have made me honored and their gifts are mine;
And men, I think, will never quite forget
My songs or me; so long as stars shall set
Or sun shall rise, or hearts feel love's desire,
My voice shall cross their dreams, a sigh of fire.
Once again, Barnard's version – number 82 in her very personal system – is leaner and more imagistic than these earlier attempts, and she manages to retain the very Greek notion of the "fitful" dead. She also conflates both wealth and ignorance as reasons for condemning her subject to an unsatisfactory afterlife.
And so I invite you to make your own versions of one or both of these pieces by one of the great poets of the ancient world. If accuracy is your watchword, the Internet Sacred Texts Archive will give you an idea of what the surviving poems look like in the original, even if you have no Greek. But don't worry too much about precision; you can be as faithful or as faithless as you like. For a poet as polymorphous as Sappho, fidelity would be something of a betrayal.