Translating Fragments I: Sappho

by Josephine Balmer

How do you translate tiny, sometimes one word or even one letter, fragments of ancient poetry? How far is it possible to render these as poems for contemporary readers? Such questions have long-consumed classical translators – and the search for solutions has led to riveting work, influencing not just translation but literary history as well. 

For instance, Ezra Pound and H.D. were inspired by the minimalism of fragmented verse, the reduction of a poem to pure image, which contributed to their espousal of the ‘Imagist’ movement in verse. Pound’s poem ‘Papyrus’, for example,  from his 1916 collection, Lustra, is clearly influenced by Sappho’s fragments, particularly 95:
                                                   Too long…

In my volume, Sappho: Poems and Fragments (Bloodaxe 1992), I wanted to continue in that tradition, using free, modernist verse forms which allowed lines to wander across the page like splintered conversations, incomplete declarations of love, intensifying the impact of a hanging, isolated image, of metaphor in its purest form, crystallised into a single line or even word, echoing the broken nature of the text. Tomlinson notes how Pound considered the line as ‘the unit of composition’ which led him to ‘“breaking” it … disrupting it from within’. Thirty years later, Tomlinson explains, William Carlos Williams pushed this further to ‘an idea of a poetry of line pulling against line, a line where the sense of physical is paramount, where words and groups of words make up the resistant facets of a poem’.

And so, in Sappho: Poems and Fragments, fragment 48, a couple of lines quoted in a letter by the fourth century AD Roman emperor Julian, became:

                       You’ve come and you –
                                                                 oh, I was longing for you –
                       have cooled my heart
                                                                 which was burning with desire

With some of the tiniest pieces of Sappho’s poetry, I grouped non-contiguous pieces together in my translation, regardless of their position in the Greek textual editions (themselves a construct of modern scholarship), to give them new nuances and force in English. In addition to this strategy of juxtaposition, I then adopted a policy of recontextualization, dividing my volume into new sections with titles such as ‘Love’, ‘Desire’ or Despair’.  

Of course, it has to be owned that my own decisions on the ordering and grouping of the fragments, within such emotive section headings, speak far more for my own interaction with the text than for Sappho’s now impenetrable, unknowable authorial intent. However, it was clear from the use of separate poem numberings and asterisk breaks that these were to be considered separate fragments. For example, a literal translation of fragments 36, 37, 38, 45 & 51, in their order in editions of the Greek text, would be: ‘I long and yearn’; ‘a dripping’ (the grammarian notes this was used to describe pain); ‘you roast us’;  ‘as long as you wish’; ‘I do not know what to do; I am in two minds’ . In Sappho: Poems and Fragments these became:

                                           I don’t know what to do –
                                                                        I’m torn in two
                                           I desire and yearn
                                                                        [for you]
                                               pain drips
                                                           through me
                                             You burn me
                                          As long as you wish

Through such strategies, it seemed that contemporary readers could find a way to approach the impenetrability of the text yet at the same time the fragments’ mysterious fragility could also be preserved.