Spice Notes: Sappho Lost in Translation?

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Recently a wonderful student in one of my online poetry writing and craft classes asked a question about reading a writer in translation. Students had been assigned to read a poem by the ancient Greek lyric poet Sappho (620 BCE-520 BCE) entitled, I ask myself/what Sappho can as translated by Mary Barnard:

I asked myself

what, Sappho, can

you give one who

has everything,

like Aphrodite?

All of Sappho’s poems are in translation unless you read them in her native Greek tongue or even better have someone read them in Greek. I appreciated the student’s question while at the same time felt a sense of loss at not being able to experience the poem in its native language with the student, especially since recently taking a course in English about the Ancient Greeks. The very effective, irresistible story-telling talents of the professor who taught the course as a long conversation you might hear between two old friends catching up, really presents the question; how can we ever understand a story being told really, as that of a narrative or poem without knowing the language in which its written ?

My best response is: language of a poem (despite any language it’s written in), is felt. It’s as much about what’s not said than composition, syntax or word choice. If the essence of a writing comes through at the bone level (this being the truest place of its beginning), than we can compose the rest as the human reader or listener who has lived through trials of love, hate, fear and all the other universal human emotions as expressed in the life experience. I do not know Sappho. I do not know her secrets. I do not know much of her existence as a woman in ancient Greek society other than the context created by historians.

Yet through her poems I am transported by her words as she seems to write them as a vehicle of flight that will transcend the ages. This quality can not be achieved or excavated by translation alone. And, there are excellent translators who spend their lives at the quest. It was this quest that my student intuitively distrusted, even when she held regard for the fragments of the poet left to the translator to interpret. Yet, she wanted more– the something closest to the writer who had written the original words. Perhaps, she wanted a direct transmission of something only gleaned from one human knowing to another.

Yon Walls 

Senior Editor

2013

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