Poetry (and poets) in translation

I’ve just read The Lesbian Lyre by Jeffrey M Duban (Clairview, Sussex UK, 2016), an 800 page, incisive and insightful book on translation, specifically on translating Sappho, but ranging over a more general consideration, of culture, scholarship and education, and focusing on the translation process itself.

1 Sappho 5th cent BC bust, Roman copyHere is a Roman copy of a fifth century BC Greek bust of Sappho, not of course a portrait but the ‘10th Muse’

Translation: doing the impossible

Duban also considers other poets, and gives a comparative study of other translations, before giving his own of Sappho’s poems. He sees translation as carrying the torch of culture from one part of the globe to another, and essential in the building of civilisation.

Duban, however, does not give much coverage to ancient history, nor how the poems of Sappho might have been composed or performed, talk about ancient music or religious ceremonies, or the manuscript history of Sappho’s work, or the rise and fall of her reputation. For Duban, the poems are manuscripts to be translated as faithfully as can be.

That effort seems impossible, I thought: yet vital to attempt. Just as an Olympic high jump athlete cannot jump eight feet in the air. Yet he does jump, climbs a support pole, brings his body horizontal to the ground, twists and rolls over the cross bar, straightens and lands, absorbing the shock with thigh and calf muscles. And his motion appears beautiful.

The translation process in itself interests me. One has an artwork in one language and period of time and culture. It, if a poem, consists of a lexicon of words and phrases which have all kinds of associations for readers in that time and place, as well as a literal meaning. It places these words according to a metre or measure of time (and, originally, of dance movement) which is familiar to those readers, so as to create music (why it should be read aloud). And it contains direct meaning such as to shock, move and enlighten those readers. The translator tries to reproduce this combination of associations, music, and vital meaning for another audience in another place and time. Of course it can’t be done. Look at all the failed attempts to rebuild the Parthenon in libraries and public buildings around the world. Yet without the attempt at translation, the world would be poorer.

Because that attempt wasn’t made after the ninth century AD, we have lost the complete works of Sappho.

2 Sappho Painting of 1st century AD CampaniaThis first century AD painting from Campania shows Sappho as writer, complete with book, no lyre in sight

One aim, many paths

I find the many ways of translators fascinating. Recently I discovered that Amazon is selling at least 12 rival translations of Sappho’s poems (only three poems of hers survive of about 400, together with three other extensive fragments). Duban is indignant that many of these translators do not know ancient Greek, nor are familiar with ancient prosody (sound pattern, measure or rhythm). They are writing free verse poems ‘inspired’ by Sappho,and calling them translations.

He takes one poem, a song to Aphrodite, said to be the first poem in Sappho’s collected works of nine scrolls, and quoted in full by Dionysius of Halikanassos in the first century BC in On Literary Composition as an example of the “polished and exuberant” style. It seems to me possible that already by the first century Sappho’s work was misunderstood, but we owe the poem’s survival to Dionysius’ quotation.

In my view the nine books of Sappho’s poems probably only dated from the second century BC. The Alexandrians more or less invented literary scholarship then. Before that date what collections existed would most likely have been anthologies, with some authors’ names given, some not. In Sappho’s day her poems would have been known mainly from recitation. As her fame spread there might have been attempts to collect her work, but neither exhaustively nor critically. Even when the scholars in Alexandria got to work some wrong attributions or anonymous ’school of Sappho’ titles might still have been part of the known nine scrolls.

3 Sappho by WW Story 1863Sappho in thought, humanised as a young woman, a sculpture by American artist WW Story 1863

Duban looks at the first few lines of the song to Aphrodite, first in literal transcription:

“Flower-robed deathless Aphrodite/child of Zeus weaver of wiles I beg you/do not subdue me with distress or anguish/lady in my heart”.

He then gives:

“Throned in splendour, deathless, O Aphrodite

child of Zeus, charm fashioner, I entreat you

not with grief and bitterness to break my

spirit, O Goddess”. (Richmond Lattimore 1949)

This retains Sappho’s metre says Duban, a difficult task.

“Dapple-throned Aphrodite

eternal daughter of God

snare-knitter! Don’t, I beg you

cow my heart with grief!” (Mary Barnard 1958)

“God’s wildering daughter, deathless Aphrodita

A whittled perplexity your bright abstruse chair

With heartbreak lady, and breathlessness

Tame  not my heart”. (Guy Davenport 1965)

“On your dazzling throne, Aphrodite

Sly eternal daughter of Zeus

I beg you do not crush my heart with grief”.

(William Barnstone 1967)

“Undying Aphrodite on your caparisoned throne

Daughter of Zeus and weaver of ruses

Now I address you

Queen, do not hurt my heart, do not harry it”.

(Paul Roche 1966)

“Subtly bedizened Aphrodite

Deathless daughter of Zeus, wile-weaver

I beg you, Empress, do not smite me

With anguish and fever”. (Aaron Poochigian 2009)

“Apparelled in flowered allure, deathless

Deceiver, daughter of Zeus, Aphrodite!

Subdue not nor destroy this heart my lady

With distress”. (Jeffrey Duban 2016)

Seven ways to pray to Aphrodite, and only the first and last sounding to me as if it really mattered. The heart is a problem. Would a god “cow” your heart? Isn’t “breathlessness” an anticlimax after “heartbreak”? Would you accuse an all-powerful deity of “harrying” your heart? Sounds a bit petulant.

4 Klimt Sculpture (Sappho) 1890‘Sculpture’ or ’Sappho’ by Gustav Klimt of 1890, one of many 19th century excuses for a nude study of classical figures

Attributes of the god are another problem for some translators. I think “eternal” is better than “deathless” or even “undying”. What is meant is “immortal”, in terms we are familiar with (only the Phantom is deathless).

In my view “charm-fashioner”, “snare-knitter”, “wildering”, “weaver of ruses” or even “deceiver” (let alone “sly”) do not catch the way many people experienced Aphrodite, by going to a witch and obtaining a love philtre, usually at dead of night, quaking with fear and terrified something would go wrong (as a thousand fairy tales testify). This was a terrifying power you evoked, and Sappho I’m sure meant to remind listeners of that terror. This was a potent mix of the Virgin Mary and Jezebel suppliants were invoking and you had to tread carefully.

Word associations and allusions

The opening attribute, in which Aphrodite is seen in a robe or alternatively on a throne, reminds me of the Athenian festivals of Panathenaea, and of the death  and resurrection of Adonis (held at what is now Easter time). In the procession to the Parthenon during the Panathenaea a stature of Athena was carried, newly adorned with a garment the maidens of the city had spent the previous four years weaving. In the rites of Adonis a statue of Aphrodite was carried, with tears of loss painted on her face, as the faithful followed her to the harbour to light a candle for Adonis.

Could there be a trace in Sappho’s poem of similar ceremonies for Aphrodite held at Mytilene? At the due time was a cultic statue sent in procession through the city, enthroned and decorated with gold and silver jewellery and precious stones, enrobed with purple robes and preceded by dancers and musicians? Could listeners to Sappho picture an Aphrodite both enrobed and enthroned in such a festival, and could Sappho have chosen a word to suggest both?

Aphrodite was originally the Great Goddess of ancient western Asia, triple god of creation, war, death and disease, and of procreation and fertility. For Hesiod she was the daughter of Ouranos the sky, whose semen spilled into the sea when he was castrated by Cronos. “Daughter of Zeus” was a spell which lessened her power, for even the gods were vulnerable to her, and men were driven mad (the notion survives in the French “crime passionnel”).

A power that could blast your reason, a lover controlled by a love philtre, is seen in our culture as superstitious. Public rites glorifying a god are foreign to our culture as well. The nearest is the Easter procession in some Catholic countries where the crucified Christ is sent through the streets to universal wailing. But Christ is a god of suffering and redemption.

5 Sappho by J Frederick Smith in Playboy 1973Sappho’s 19th century reputation as a ‘lesbian’ has been enthusiastically exploited by purveyors of ‘erotic’ arts, here a 1973 Playboy spread by J Frederick Smith

Aphrodite was a god of generation, and her cults included sacred sex and prostitution. Her rites may have included the orgiastic in some cities, and why not Mytilene? With lots of nubile young girls offering their naked bodies to the men (I let my male imagination go), group sex, and prayer mingled with cries of orgasm. And yet this was one of the most powerful of the gods. We find it difficult to hold both concepts together in our minds. We know sex is wrong (read, dangerous). But Sappho didn’t. She thought it was delightful if at times dangerous. Best to stay on the good side of Aphrodite.

So there’s a lot translators can’t bring into our culture about Sappho’s poetry. Inevitably they trivialise this particular poem. The literal meaning can be made clear with careful choice of words, and even the metre, but not the resonances certain words had then, a poet’s most valuable stock in trade. All that’s gone the way of ancient Greece.

Another example that occurs to me is the sonnet by Shakespeare that begins:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

This depends for its effectiveness on what we know of a summer’s day.There would be significant problems translating it for a Bedu tribesman of the central Arabian desert, or someone living in Greenland or far northern Canada. A summer’s day might represent death by thirst to the former, or the perilous fall of icebergs to the latter, but beauty to neither. Shakespeare’s audience was largely rural, and even Londoners were usually born in the country, while Shakespeare himself spent time each year in Stratford, so their knowledge of the fruitfulness and harmony of nature in summer was more extensive than ours. Today we focus on the second line:

“Thou art more lovely and more temperate”,

and so see it merely as a complimentary verse. The similes don’t echo with us as they did for Shakespeare.

Types of translation

So should the translator ‘adapt’ or do an ‘imitation’ (as did Catullus of several poems of Sappho, Alexander Pope of Homer or Edward FitzGerald of Omar Khayyam, all referred to by Duban); try to preserve a regular metre or rely on free verse; translate literally or in terms more relevant to any audience that exists for the translation? Duban has strong views.

Here’s Duban’s complete translation.

Appareled in flowered allure, deathless

Deceiver, daughter of Zeus, Aphrodite

Subdue not nor destroy this heart, my lady

With distress.


But come to my side if ever before

While listening alert from afar as I cried,

You attended and came leaving your father’s

golden door,


Coupling lovely sparrows to the chariot’s rein

That swiftly drew you down to darkened earth

Their wings awhirr along the way through aether’s

middle main.


Quickly they came and you, o blessed one,

A smile on your immortal face were asking

What I suffered this time, why this time did

I summon


And what it was my maddened heart did long

for most. “Whom this time shall persuasion lead

as captive to your love? Who, O Sappho

does you wrong?


“For, if she flees at first, he’ll soon pursue,

the gifts she has spurned she’ll shortly bestow.

the love she flouts she’ll soon long languish for

not wanting to”.


Come even now to my side and free me

From crushing concern. Fulfil whatever

yearnings my own heart would fulfil, yourself

My ally be.

Of the seven stanzas, the first and last are the prayer to Aphrodite. The speaker is in distress, and asks Aphrodite to relieve her and let her yearnings be fulfilled. The middle five stanzas refer to previous occasions when the speaker has asked the same favor of Aphrodite, and give Aphrodite’s former reply. They establish a relationship between Sappho and Aphrodite designed to influence the outcome of this prayer. The sparrows carrying her chariot represent fertility. They are like angels’ wings, not to be taken realistically.

6 girlfriendsFriendship between females seems more nuanced than with males, but closeness does not mean sexual partnership

For those determined to find Sappho a homosexual, note she refers to “yearnings” that are unfulfilled. And scholars tell us that the text referring to the gender of the pursued one of the past is corrupt, leaving translators to make them a he or a she. However, whether he or she, there is no reference to sex in the poem, but love not returned in the past.

Perhaps commentators should stop trying to be so ‘liberal’ in their acceptance of homosexuality, and admit that the information that Sappho was, er, ‘sapphic’ is literary gossip that comes to us from writers who lived 500-1500 years after Sappho, and who quote no sources except lines in her poems that refer not to sex but to desire. And ask themselves, is all desire necessarily sexual? Not to deny Sappho may have been homosexual: just not to take it unexamined for granted.

There is no reference to sex in any surviving poem of Sappho. In Duban’s translation of the poems and fragments I can only find:

captive to your love (1)

…Anactoria though distant

whose lovely step I would sooner see (2)

on yielding beds gentle desire of maidens spent (6)

…yearning/for tender Atthis…(8)

Seems somewhat slender evidence to me to base a reputation of homosexuality on (or to disprove one either). The report of Sappho’s homosexuality, like that of Mark Twain’s death, seems much exaggerated.

Perhaps we see Aphrodite as concerned with love and sex: she was, but much more broadly than we realise. Sappho would have known Aphrodite Peitho (persuader), Epistrophia (heart-turner), Psithyros (whisperer), of the mandrake (of love potions), Parakyptousa (side-glancer), Kallipygos (beautiful bottom), Machinitis (contriver), Nympha (of marriages), Harma (joiner), Praxis (good luck), Charidotes (giver of joy, orgasm), Porne (sex), Androphonos (men slayer), Paregoros (comforter), Antheia (of flowers). All this is from Geoffrey Grigson’s The Goddess of Love (Stein and Day NY 1977).

There could have been some connection between Sappho and the cult of Aphrodite on Lesbos, but we don’t know what it was. Not priestess, for the Greeks had no such caste, and their religion was also civic ceremony, and carried out by prominent citizens. Yet there seems a consistent worship (not the best word but all I can think of) of the powers of Aphrodite in many surviving fragments of Sappho.

The epithets reveal a much more widespread practise of Greek religion than Homer and the 12 Olympians might suggest. The Greek gods, like all gods, were helpers.

7 angelique ionatis sappho of mytilene 1991There have been several attempts to reimagine Sappho’s songs by Greek artists, including Eleftheria Arvanitaki, and Angelique Ionatis (1991)

One thing should be born in mind (yet it’s never alluded to that I’ve noticed). The feeling expressed in a poem is not what the poet feels now, but what they felt then. The poem itself is a construct. Such a metre requires such a vocabulary. This word doesn’t fit, perhaps this will. What did so and so do in similar case? Words are crossed out and rewritten, form is changed and abandoned for another. It’s all like remembering a vivid dream which yet vanishes too quickly to be held. Sappho is treated as though she felt longing for a girl and sat down and dashed off a verse expressing that longing (instead of chatting up the girl silly biddy). Duban at least talks of her metre and her skill in handling it, yet also of her autobiography the poem reveals. A poem doesn’t reveal. It’s not (or shouldn’t be) therapy. It conceals, in such a way as is illuminating to the reader/listener.

The blues mediates pain, it doesn’t relive it.

In this respect I note that we don’t know who the speaker or singer of Sappho’s poems is. We assume the poems are personal and in her voice. Other possibilities are: they were written on commission; or represented mythic figures in religious ceremonies; it seems some were written for marriage feasts. What we think of as ‘lyric’ utterance is not the only possibility.

Importance of metre

Accurate translators (ie not ‘imitators’), those wanting to keep what they can of the original verbal associations, rhythms and meaning, who are willing to try the impossible, have some difficult choices to make.

I find Duban’s “appareled in flowered allure”, for all its alliteration, silly. Aphrodite is wearing allure, which is somehow flowered. Makes it sound like a French perfume. TG Tucker’s (Duban gives his translation of the poem as well) “throned in radiance” seems more comprehensible (the text of the word throne/garment is corrupt; as noted, Sappho could mean both).

Overall though Duban’s version is metered (if that’s the word). And uses rhyme. You can sense the poem was once a song, that someone strummed the kithera to it, and dancers trod the measure. In my view, music, dance and voice were equally important to Sappho’s and all ancient poetry, even when it was read in manuscript as well. Even though you can buy a book of Bob Dylan’s lyrics, the CDs are more representative of his work.

Perhaps there is a kind of sequence at work in literary art, from the utilitarian, persuading the god, to the ritual, celebrating the city and the cult, to the artist, mouthpiece of the god, to the artist, the maker, the preeminent genius. Along the way the work becomes less popular, develops a coterie following, sheds traces of other arts such as music, becomes publishable, develops a critical retinue and a mass audience for it as product.

8 Mutyumu  Sappho 2008The experimental rock band Mutyumu from Japan released the song ’Sappho’ on Il Y a in 2008, a sign that the idea of Sappho continues to inspire, if not the poetry

Duban’s diffusion

I must note some of Duban’s insights in his book, and some of his drawbacks. Firstly that ancient literary forms were much closer to one another than they became. So lyric, epic and dramatic were at first of a kind, and influenced one another’s development. (In western Asia the same was true of religion and science, exploration and trading: four ways of exploring the world).

Duban also covers epic, Greek, Roman and English, and the values that epic enshrines. He becomes at times diffuse, and the second half of the book ranges too freely over topics not everyone would think entirely relevant to poetry in translation. Duban examines prosody. In order to justify the strictures Duban makes of some translations he is impelled to validate the translation process and give it a place in the fertilisation of civilisation and is partial and unconvincing in doing so. There is a section on imperialism and its role in fostering civilisation. This was a bit distant from the topic for me: ‘civilisation’ stands for the exploitation and suffering of 80% of the world’s population so that the other 20% can live comfortably. From this perspective culture is a form of wealth. And I baulk at “The United States [of America], for whatever criticism is bought to bear, has done more good for the world overall than have all the world’s other countries combined” (p.293).  This is a defence of empire and privilege, and I don’t think the people of South America, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, the former USSR nor Americans who find themselves subject to security forces with an unclear agenda, not to mention those of African origin, would agree with Duban’s view.

Duban’s rejection of Modernism follows in his next section. To somehow wish everything innovative in all the arts after (and including) Walt Whitman to somehow vanish is futile, a waste of words. One good poem or novel would be more effective.

9 Sappho 9 fragments by JM Griffiths performed by Victoria Grove 2013JM Griffiths’ Sappho in 9 fragments brings Sappho, her poetry in Greek and English, and the stories about her true or false, into a celebrated theatrical performance in 2013, with Victoria Grove, and then Griffiths as star

When Duban then moves to demolish Page deBois’ radfem critique Sappho is Burning it was a clash of pygmies, two academics fighting for preeminence, as academics do, in ivory towers. Yes, of course duBois is exploitatively political and misrepresents Sappho and that requires a sentence not a chapter by Duban.

I’d like to tell her about the hitherto unknown Greek poet Sapphon of Lesbos, indubitably male (and homosexual) whose every reference in ancient sources omits the final letter of his name, leading scholars to think him a woman (not that he’d mind).

Duban’s book ends with an overview of translation from Sappho, and from Homer. The discussions I found a bit self indulgent. To say at such length what one dislikes is to summon boredom for the reader.


I think one needs to be clear whether, in translating an ancient text, one strives to give an idea on how the author achieved his or her affect (allusions, metre, literary influences, originality as well as reliance on sources) in other words if one strives to enable an appreciation of a vanished culture.

Or if one tries to identify what is going on in the artwork translated, surmise that it is relevant to modern day concerns and may be helpful to readers, and strive to make that relevance felt. I suppose translators try to do both.

I note that modern sexism, while it reduces women to their tits and bums in their fertile years, reduces Sappho to a homosexual love poet. Both men and women take part in this assessment. It seems that Sappho’s contemporaries didn’t.

Duban uncritically accepts Sappho’s homosexuality, which makes her acceptable to our times, yet stresses the importance of Greek prosody, or expertise in ancient Greek (and Aeolian) speech and verse rhythms.

At least he has some rules to use as guidelines. Others have to trust inspiration, sometimes a false goddess.

©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


2 thoughts on “Poetry (and poets) in translation

  1. True enough! Even as lesbians strive to come from under the feeling of shame at their feelings, they have to cope with the fact that watching two women make love is a male heterosexual fantasy. Lesbians such as Colette and Leduc have shown this vividly. As for Sappho though, I have tried to show through my selection of images that she has always been exploited.Even the ‘tenth muse’ tag saved reading her poems, and each time and place has reinvented her, precisely because we know nothing about her. A curious fate, reminiscent to me of the Oxford/Bacon etc theory of authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. I hope gathering scraps of information about Greek religion and Greek poetry will lead to Sappho being seen for what she is, a good poet whose work hasn’t survived except for fragments. I think Duban’s emphasis on her prosody valuable in this evaluation.

  2. Thank you for a thoughtful essay. You put into words what I have often thought about Sappho’s life and poems.
    I am reminded of the many times, even as a child and adolescent, that I would cringe in dismay and disbelief of the TV and movie portrayals of females’ sexuality and other behaviors. It appears to all be male construct.

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