To mark the halfway point of National Poetry Month, it's Sapphopalooza!: six different translations of the same poem by Sappho.
Little is known for certain about the life of Sappho of Lesbos (approximate dates 630 to 570 BCE), who was famed in classical times as the Tenth Muse, and whose fame in our own time is worldwide; she inspired stories and speculation in classical times, and continues to do so in our own. As with most classical authors, her works survive only in fragmentary and sometimes disputed form. The following poem is one of the few that has come down to us complete, or nearly complete.
The first translation is from the early eighteenth century and is the oldest of the six presented here:
An Hymn to Venus
O Venus, Beauty of the Skies,
To whom a thousand Temples rise,
Gayly false in gentle Smiles,
Full of Love-perplexing Wiles;
O Goddess! from my Heart remove
The wasting Cares and Pains of Love.
If ever thou hast kindly heard
A Song in soft Distress preferr’d,
Propitious to my tuneful Vow,
O gentle Goddess! hear me now.
Descend, thou bright, immortal Guest,
In all thy radiant Charms confest.
Thou once didst leave Almighty Jove,
And all the Golden Roofs above:
The Carr thy wanton Sparrows drew;
Hov’ring in Air they lightly flew,
As to my Bow’r they wing’d their Way:
I saw their quiv’ring Pinions play.
The Birds dismist (while you remain)
Bore back their empty Carr again:
Then You, with Looks divinely mild,
In ev’ry heav’nly Feature smil’d,
And ask’d, what new Complaints I made,
And why I call’d you to my Aid?
What Phrenzy in my Bosom rag’d,
And by what Cure to be asswag’d?
What gentle Youth I would allure,
Whom in my artful Toiles secure?
Who does thy tender Heart subdue,
Tell me, my Sappho, tell me Who?
Tho’ now he Shuns thy longing Arms,
He soon shall court thy slighted Charms;
Tho’ now thy Off’rings he despise,
He soon to Thee shall Sacrifice;
Tho’ now he freeze, he soon shall burn,
And be thy Victim in his turn.
Celestial Visitant, once more
Thy needful Presence I implore!
In Pity come and ease my Grief,
Bring my distemper’d Soul Relief;
Favour thy Suppliant’s hidden Fires,
And give me All my Heart desires.
(translated by Ambrose Philips, 1711)
Ambrose Philips was a contemporary of Alexander Pope, who despised him. I confess to being very fond of this version; it has an eighteenth-century lightness to it. Philips makes Sappho sound like his contemporary, as do all translators, but it really jumps out here because his poetic styles are so different from ours. His version sounds very foreign to us. These days eyebrows will be raised at his gender switch, as they perhaps would have been in his time if he hadn't switched them. Also, Philips has his Venus (note the Roman name, instead of the Greek) promise Sappho that her young man will fall in love with her; some of the translators below point out that Aphrodite really doesn't say that, but merely assures the suffering poet that her loved object will suffer in his/her turn.
The second version:
you cunning, wily child of Zeus,
I beg you
do not break me, Lady,
with the pain of misled love.
But come to me,
if ever in the past
you heard my far-off cries
and heeding, came,
leaving the golden home of Zeus.
In your readied chariot
the beautiful swift sparrows
eddying through the mid-air,
their wings a-whirr,
from heaven to the dark earth.
And there they were. And you,
Lady of Joy,
smiling your immortal smile, asked me
what ailed me now,
and why I called again,
and what did my mad heart most crave:
“Whom shall I, Sappho,
lead to be your love?
Who wrongs you now?
For if she flees you, soon she’ll chase,
and if she scorns your gifts, why, she will offer hers.
And if she does not love you,
soon she’ll love,
even though she does not want.”
come to me again as well
and loose me from this chain of sorrow.
Do for my yearning heart
all it desires,
and be yourself my ally in the chase.
(translated by Suzy Q Groden, 1964)
One result of the fragmentary survival of Sappho's poetry is that her formal structures, her patterns and rhythms, tend to be lost to us; it might look as if she wrote evocative free verse, but that is just the depredations of time. In other words, the formal rhyme and meter of Philips's version evoke qualities of the original lost in Groden's version, despite her greater accuracy and evocative language. Perhaps because of where I stand in time in relation to the styles of 1964, this version has a bit of a period-piece air to me; someone younger (or older) might have a different reaction.
I read these two versions several years ago in The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation, edited by Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule, and was surprised and delighted when I realized they were actually the same poem.
The third version is a bit earlier than Groden's translation:
Prayer to my lady of Paphos
eternal daughter of God,
snare-knitter! Don’t, I beg you,
cow my heart with grief! Come,
as once when you heard my far-
off cry and, listening, stepped
from your father’s house to your
gold car, to yoke the pair whose
beautiful thick-feathered wings
oaring down mid-air from heaven
carried you to light swiftly
on dark earth; then, blissful one,
smiling your immortal smile
you asked, What ailed me now that
made me call you again? What
was it that my distracted
heart most wanted? “Whom has
Persuasion to bring round now
“to your love? Who, Sappho, is
unfair to you? For, let her
run, she will soon run after;
“if she won’t accept gifts, she
will one day give them; and if
she won’t love you – she soon will
“love, although unwillingly. . . .”
If ever – come now! Relieve
this intolerable pain!
What my heart most hopes will
happen, make happen; you your-
self join forces on my side!
(translated by Mary Barnard, Sappho: A New Translation, 1958)
Barnard's version is more regular than Groden's, but avoids anything that smacks of an old-fashioned sense of "the poetic"; her versions are stripped down, compressed, and pointedly unannotated. She shows the influence of her mentor, Ezra Pound (her relationship with whom she discusses in her interesting memoir, Assault on Mount Helicon).
Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,
child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you
do not break with hard pains
O lady, my heart
but come here if ever before
you caught my voice far off
and listening left your father’s
golden house and came,
yoking your car. And fine birds brought you,
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky
through mid-air –
they arrived. But you, O blessed one,
smiled in your deathless face
and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why
(now again) I am calling out
and what I want to happen most of all
in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O
Sappho, is wronging you?
For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love
Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You
be my ally.
(translated by Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, 2002)
Carson is a remarkable poet as well as a classics scholar. Her version is carefully annotated, explaining some of her choices. (For example, her application of "dappled" to Aphrodite's mind rather than her throne is due to a variant reading in the surviving texts, and she explains why she chose to modify the mind rather than the chair.) The book is particularly handsome as a physical object, with the Greek on the left-hand pages facing the translation on the right. Her book emphasizes the fragmentary nature of what remains of Sappho's work; some of the other translations can make the poet sound cryptic but complete. If I had to pick a favorite version of the six, it would probably be this subtle and convincing version.
Prayer to Afroditi
On your dappled throne eternal Afroditi,
cunning daughter of Zeus,
I beg you, do not crush my heart
with pain, O lady,
but come here if ever before
you heard my voice from far away,
and yielding left your father’s house
of gold and came,
Yoking birds to your chariot. Beautiful
quick sparrows whirring on beating wings
took you from heaven down to mid sky
over the black earth
and soon arrived. O blessed one,
on your deathless face a smile,
you asked me what I am suffering
and why I call you,
what I most want to happen
in my crazy heart. “Whom shall I persuade
again to take you into her love? Who,
O Psapfo, wrongs you?
If she runs away, soon she will pursue.
If she scorns gifts, now she will bribe.
If she doesn’t love, soon she will love
Come to me now and loosen me
from blunt agony. Labor
and fill my heart with fire. Stand by me
and be my ally.
(translated by Willis Barnstone, Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho, 2006)
Barnstone's edition, like Carson's, also includes the original Greek, as well as extensive notes, a glossary, and a compendium of classical references to Sappho. This may sound like a scholarly edition, but it's all aimed at the general reader; his version is vibrant and direct. Like Carson he gives the reader a strong sense of the fragmented nature of what has survived.
Subtly bedizened Aphrodite,
Deathless daughter of Zeus, Wile-weaver,
I beg you, Empress, do not smite me
With anguish and fever
But come as often, on request,
(Hearing me, heeding from afar,)
You left your father’s gleaming feast,
Yoked team to car,
And came. Fair sparrows in compact
Flurries of winged rapidity
Cleft sky and over a gloomy tract
Brought you to me –
And there they were, and you, sublime
And smiling with immortal mirth,
Asked what was wrong? why I, this time,
Called you to earth?
What was my mad heart dreaming of? –
“Who, Sappho, at a word, must grow
Again receptive to your love?
Who wronged you so?
“She who shuns love soon will pursue it,
She who scorns gifts will send them still:
That girl will learn love, though she do it
Against her will.”
Come to me now. Drive off this brutal
Distress. Accomplish what my pride
Demands. Come, please, and in this battle
Stand at my side.
(translated by Aaron Poochigian, Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments, 2009)
This most recent version brings us back to a modern version of the regular rhythm and rhyme of the Philips's version. (It's interesting how many of the translators use "car" versus "chariot"; though for Philips of course it does not have the everyday-automobile association it has for us, and retains its original dignity as a synonym for a chariot.) Poochigian offers extensive notes and an introduction with his version, placing Sappho in her cultural context, exploring her verbal relationship to poets such as Homer, and explaining some of his choices. He points out that free verse gives a completely wrong impression of how Sappho works in her original language; he rhymes because Sappho's lyrics were originally sung to now-lost tunes, and rhyme is one way English verse indicates that something is meant to be sung. (His use of rhyme and half-rhyme also reflects a postmodern interest in using and adapting traditional forms, turning away from the stripped-down free-verse approach prevalent in much of the twentieth century.) I do have to say that the first line bothers me: "bedizened" means to be decked out in a vulgar and showy manner, so "subtly bedizened" is a contradiction in terms, and no way to address a goddess whom you're asking for favors.