Translating Fragments II: Erinna’s Distaff

by Josephine Balmer

As we have seen with Sappho, translating tiny, one word fragments can present one of the most demanding tasks for classical poetry translators. But longer pieces also have their challenges. For centuries, all that was known about Erinna’s fourth-century BC epic poem, The Distaff, was that it was three-hundred lines long and, according to one commentator, ‘more powerful than those of so many others’. A few of the poet’s epigrams, laments for Erinna’s childhood friend, Baucis, had survived in the Greek Anthology, alongside a couple of short, two-line extracts of her poetry quoted in later commentators.

And then in 1928, as if by a miracle, Italian archaeologists excavating at Oxyrhynchus discovered a tattered piece of papyrus which contained a new, 54 line fragment of Erinna’s epic. To everyone’s great surprise it transpired that this work, too, like Erinna’s extant epigrams, was another lament for her friend Baucis. However, in places the text was so damaged that scholars could not always agree how it should read, with Maurice Bowra (1936), Martin West (1977) and Hugh Lloyd-Jones (1983) all publishing their own editions. In the end, after studying all their commentaries and various reconstructed texts, I had to make a large chart for myself, shaded with different colours for all the different suggested emendations to the original; the problem here, as so often with classical texts, was not how but what to translate.

For instance, the first 10 lines or so of the fragment appeared as a disconnected string of seemingly unnconnected words: ‘girls… brides… tortoise… moon… tortoise… leaves…into the waves…’ Here, the reference to the ‘tortoise’, in particular, was puzzling. However, in an essay accompanying his version of the text, Maurice Bowra argued convincingly that this was a reference to an ancient children’s game, known from a description in Pollux, and rather like our own ‘What’s the Time Mr Wolf?’. There were symbolic associations too; as Marilyn Arthur pointed out in a 1980 article, in Greek mythology, the tortoise was often connected with death, while its ‘straddling’ walk was linked with female sexuality. In addition, its shell was used for the lyre and so symbolized poetry itself. Finally, in 1969 Averil and Alan Cameron argued that the poem’s seemingly obscure title reflects these themes, linking together the tortoise game, as well as the other weaving games the girls played, with death – the thread of life spun by the Fates. In this way, the poem’s poignant themes of lost childhood, of women’s friendship and sexuality, of marriage as a dangerous separation from the childhood home, associated ultimately with death, were themselves threaded together.

I now had a starting point for translating the subject of the Distaff. Overall, my aim was to produce a poem in English, which would be in direct contrast to most of the other previous translations of the Distaff. For instance, Jane McIntosh Snyder’s version in 1989 and Diane Rayor’s in 1991, had both retained the very fragmented nature of Greek text. Yet through the invaluable contributions of contemporary research, a much clearer idea was emerging of how Erinna’s now broken lines might once have fitted together. In this way – or so I hoped – they could be reconstructed for general poetry readers without offending scholarly sensibilities.

But I also needed to consider what form its English version might take. I had already decided to use syllabics for Erinna’s hexameters. Then, as I began to work on the Greek text, it seemed that, by chance, the damaged nature of the surviving poem very neatly echoed its theme – so much so that almost the last word of its most legible section in the Greek text is druptei from the verb druptein ‘to tear’. From this I found the form of my new poem; as I noted in my 1996 volume Classical Women Poets, in which the translation first appeared, it now represented ‘a series of fragmented memories falling across the page; of torn lines, broken conversations and dangling voices, a physical metaphor for the fragmentation of the entire work’:

… the rising moon …

                         … falling leaves …

                                             … waves spinning on a mottled shore …

                                         …and those game, Baucis, remember?
Two white horses, four frenzied feet – and one Tortoise
to your hare: ‘Caught you,’ I cried, ‘You’re Mrs Tortoise now.’
But when your turn came at last to catch the catcher
you raced on far beyond us, out from the great shell
of our smoke-filled yard…

                  … Baucis, these tears are your embers
and my memorial, traces glowing in my heart,
now all that we once shared has turned to ash …

                                                                        … as girls
we played weddings with our dolls, brides in our soft beds,
or sometimes I was ‘mother’ allotting dawn wool
to the women, calling for you to help spin out
the thread …

                       …and our terror (remember?) of Mormo
the monster – big ears, long tongue, forever flapping,
her frenzy on all fours, those changing shapes – a trap
for girls who had lost their way …

                                           … But when you set sail
for a man’s bed, Baucis, you let it slip away,
forgot the lessons you had learnt from your ‘mother’
in those far-off days – no, never forgot; that thief
Desire stole all memory away…

                                                          … My lost friend,
here is my lament: I can’t bear that dark death-bed,
can’t bring myself to step outside my door, won’t look
on your stone face, won’t cry or cut my hair for shame …

But Baucis this crimson grief
                                                          is tearing me in two …