Sappho and the Necessity of Form in Translation

This essay stems from a discussion at Bennington about the function of form in modern poetry. It more or less migrated to a discussion of Sappho's work as several of us were looking to find a tolerable translation. Sappho's poetry, of course, is only available in fragments, which further complicates the issue of translation by forcing editorial decisions—to leave the gaps, how to mark them, whether speculation at intervening content is appropriate, etc. In some cases, omissions are as little as a part of a word whose meaning is contextually fairly clear. At the other extreme, sometimes only a phrase is available.

Under discussion was the John Addington Symonds translation in his Studies of the Greek Poets,, along with those of Mary Barnard, Anne Carson, and Edwin Marion Cox, among others. It was noted that Symonds was a reputable scholar who was nonetheless

famous for "spinning out" poems from the fragments, meaning he generated a full, personal and literary interpretation of the fragment—rather than a faithful translation of the original as Barnard does, and Carson does even more faithfully—Symonds egocentrically denies Sappho her own inconclusiveness and supplants it with his own shamelessly patriarchal poetic knowledge and license, completing her poems without possessing her skill or insight.

Disregarding for the moment what may or may not be a patriarchal poetic knowledge, the endeavor Symonds undertook was the appropriate approach to Sappho's work. In the first case, we must remember the simple fact that anything of Sappho's that we read today has already been translated. Pretending there is no bias inherent in the act is a misrepresentation. And Symonds was a product of Romanticism, after all. A period appropriate attitude is not entirely unexpected.

Of course, if what Symonds was doing was writing his own poems with a couple lines from Sappho as a starting point, that would be a bit different. But Sappho probably didn't intend to be inconclusive: her work is fragmentary, not by choice, but because of time, censorship, and the vagrancies of sexual standards. Further, as lyric poetry, Sappho's work is already perverted by the act of transcription (or at least made incomplete). Without the cadence and support of the lyre, something needs to be introduced to maintain the rhythm and drive of the line—and in English poetry, the thing that most readily accomplishes that is meter.

This attention to meter is at least as important as a close attention to faithful translation. Sappho was a lyric poet. Lyric poetry is unfortunately a lost art, so pretending to remain faithful to her intentions is a pretence. The cadence created by the lyre, the cadence created by the original Greek, the assonance and rhyme of Sappho's words—all are lost to a contemporary speaker of English. Unlike the text of lost lyrics, however, these can be recovered or recreated to some degree (and in some instances, can even be used to conjecture at lost words and phrases). Form serves an analogous purpose in English poetry to the lyre in Greek, and the most faithful translations will acknowledge this.

One of the functions of any bardic form is to focus attention inward, on the actual meaning of the poetry itself, instead of on its structure. By creating a regular, repetitive pattern, a lyric poet establishes the flow of the poetry, which removes attention from the delivery and places it instead on what is contained by the strictures of the cadence. The repetition of the lyric was something that could be internalized by anyone in the classical world, and lyric poetry was defined by the Greeks explicitly as a product of this repetition. The content of a poem was irrelevant with regards to its definition as a lyric: it was the creation of the regular aural pattern that defined the genre. When translators write merely the literal meaning of Sappho's work, they lose as much as they do by manipulating her line to give it form.

None of this is to say that the translation must ape the Greek meter. An English meter is (surprise!) usually more appropriate for English poetry. The purpose of the form of what was primarily an oral art was to serve as a verbal mnemonic devise, and a different device may be more appropriate in English verse. Yet there have been successful translations that employed lyric meter in English versions of Sappho's work.

Lyric poetry traditionally differs from epic poetry in that trochees predominate over dactyls, while epics employ dactylic hexameter. Lyric poetry is also much abbreviated and divided into stanzas. Sappho used several forms and was rigidly consistent within each piece, but she is best known for one that came to be called the Sapphic stanza. Consisting of three lines comprised of two trochees, a dactyl, and two more trochees; and a fourth line with one dactyl and one trochee; the Sapphic stanza would have been strictly adhered to and facilitated by the use of epithets and familiar, ready-made phrases.

Several reputable translators have recognized the necessity of retaining the lyric line or something that serves the same purpose, though to my knowledge, only one scholarly translation has ever replicated it in its entirety. As the "Hymn to Aphrodite" is the only entirely extant example of Sappho's work, it has received more attention and been translated more often than most of the fragments. The Richard Lattimore translation of the first three stanzas of the "Hymn" read as follows.

Throned in splendor, deathless, O Aphrodite,
child of Zeus, charm-fashioner, I entreat you
not with griefs and bitterness to break my
spirit, O goddess:

standing by me rather, if once before now
far away you heard, when I called upon you,
left your father's dwelling place and descended,
yoking the golden

chariot to sparrows, who fairly drew you
down in speed aslant the black world, the bright air
trembling at the heart to the pulse of countless
fluttering wingbeats.

The meter is perhaps not immediately obvious to a contemporary reader, but it precisely replicates the Sapphic stanza as it would scan in Greek, and far from perverting Sappho's intent, maintains a nearly note-perfect faithfulness to the literal translation. His only major departure is to change the spondaic phrase "swift birds" to "sparrows"—a change that is borne up, as the sparrow was Aphrodite's steed. Lattimore inserts one of the Greek formulaics, a synonym that is entirely appropriate. His meter, then, scans as follows:

trochee trochee dactyl trochee trochee
trochee trochee dactyl trochee trochee
trochee trochee dactyl trochee trochee
dactyl trochee

He repeats the pattern throughout his translation, his only departure in the first three stanzas coming in line three of the first stanza where he inserts a trochee in place of the dactyl ("bitterness to break my").

Cox takes a subtly different approach. Rather than replicate the Sapphic stanza, he creates a pattern that is reminiscent of it and more in keeping with English formulas. The Cox variation on the Sapphic stanza moves the dactylic foot to the beginning of each line, so the line is a dactyl followed by four trochees. In so doing, he maintains greater oral consistency, though a poor writer would run a serious risk of becoming monotonous in such a formula. His translation of the same three stanzas reads:

Shimmering-throned immortal Aphrodite,
Daughter of Zeus, Enchantress, I implore thee,
Spare me, O queen, this agony and anguish,
Crush not my spirit

Whenever before thou has hearkened to me--
To my voice calling to thee in the distance,
And heeding, thou hast come, leaving thy father's
Golden dominions,

With chariot yoked to thy fleet-winged coursers,
Fluttering swift pinions over earth's darkness,
And bringing thee through the infinite, gliding
Downwards from heaven.

By moving the dactylic foot to the beginning of the line, Cox makes the meter immediately recognizable and more easily internalized to readers familiar with English. His translation is as faithful as Lattimore's: they depart on one or two words, but their departures are not in the same places, so there is much to be gained by reading them together. Cox has created a work of blank verse with a regular and discernable meter. Cox, we should remember, wrote for the same audience as did Robert Frost, and so at the time this trope was perhaps the most appropriate.

Metric poetry, however, does not have much audience in the English world today, nor has it had for several centuries. Several translators—most, in fact, until the latter half of the twentieth century—elected to employ the more familiar governing dynamics of English verse. Merivale abandons the Greek meter in favor of regularly rhymed quatrains with the general pattern aaab cccb.

Immortal Venus, throned above
In radiant beauty, child of Jove,
O skilled in every art of love
And artful snare;

Dread power, to whom I bend the knee,
Release my soul and set it free
From bonds of piercing agony
And gloomy care.

Yet come thyself, if, e'er, benign,
Thy listening ears thou didst incline
To my rude lay, the starry shine
Of Jove's court leaving,

In chariot yoked with coursers fair,
Thine own immortal birds that bear
Thee swift to earth, the middle air
With bright wings cleaving.

Beyond meter, there are several departures here from Sappho's original. In the first place, he has expanded the passage to four stanzas. He has also diverged to the Roman pantheon, writing a hymn to Venus and referring to her as the daughter of Jove. Venus and Jove are the analogous Roman counterparts to Aphrodite and Zeus, but they are not the same and carry markedly different connotations. And while Merivale clearly has a significant working knowledge of classical mythology, it is worth noting that his epithets ("skilled in every art of love" for example) are derived from sources that were certainly later than Sappho. So while Merivale has created poetry of credible merit, he has not maintained faith with his source material. And our unnamed colleague is correct in saying that this is inappropriate license. Merivale has written poetry inspired by the Greek, but it is not a translation of Sappho. This is due, not to his attempt to render it in a different form, but to his unfaithfulness to his source. Which brings us back to the reviled Symonds.

Glittering-throned, undying Aphrodite,
Wile-weaving daughter of high Zeus, I pray thee,
Tame not my soul with heavy woe, dread mistress,
Nay, nor with anguish !

But hither come, if ever erst of old time
Thou didst incline, and listenedst to my crying,
And from thy father's palace down descending,
Camest with golden

Chariot yoked: thee fair swift-flying sparrows
Over dark earth with multitudinous fluttering,
Pinion on pinion, through middle ether
Down from heaven hurried.

If we consider first the content, this is actually more faithful to Sappho's work than are Lattimore and Cox. Both of them use synonyms in at least a couple places where Symonds uses the closest literal translation. And Symonds has rendered the piece, not in his own verse, but in the Sapphic stanza. The first two quatrains are perfect lyric pieces, while in the third he departs rather than twist the meaning with an inappropriate translation. Yet even here, he retains the correct components: he substitutes the trochees that should dominate the second line with a pair of dactyls ("multi- / -tudinous / fluttering"). The third line appears to be one trochee short of a lyric line, but it is inserted instead at the beginning of the coda, which here features three feet instead of two. Symonds shows great attentiveness to appropriate translation and is attuned to the requirements of the Sapphic stanza. Moreover, he allows alliteration to govern his line, a technique that is far more appropriate to Greek poetry than end rhyme ever could be. The epic convention, for example, in addition to being dactylic hexameter, would be predominantly governed by three to four alliterative stresses per line. Symonds gives us "undying Aphrodite," the "wile-weaving daughter," he pleads "nay, nor with anguish," he narrates the descent "from thy father's palace down descending," and the chariot is pulled by "swift-flying sparrows" who "down from heaven hurried." More than this, even, he recognizes that in the Greek, all stressed vowels are considered alliterative. So we see phrases like "ever erst of old" and "over dark earth." Every stanza employs the device: in fact, nearly every line employs the device. In these three stanzas, eight of twelve lines are governed by alliteration, and the majority of his use of rhyme appears in the exceptions. Symonds is thus the only of Sappho's translators to successfully employ both of the poetic tropes that would have determined her status in the ancient world.

Free verse is not what Sappho intended. When translating poets like Sappho, Hesiod, Homer, the Pearl Poet, works like Beowulf and the Kalevala—any bardic, epic, lyric, alliterative, or metric poetry—form must be incorporated in the translation. If neglected, the result will be something entirely different from what the author intended. It will not be the same poetry, or even an approximation. This is not to say that form is always more important than content, but in metric and alliterative forms, it is usually at least as integral as the words' literal meaning, and it has been shown that the two can coexist. Direct translations have become popular because free verse is in vogue right now. A formal approach, however, is manifestly more appropriate and infinitely more valuable. Translations of epic, bardic, and lyric poetry that fail to incorporate form are wholly insufficient.

Ian Devine has studied at Arkansas, Oxford, Cambridge, and James Cook University, and entered the Bennington College Writing Seminars upon completion of his undergraduate degree. He has no writing credentials to speak of, but has wrestled a crocodile, dived with a six meter tiger shark, swum with dugong, and snorkeled with a pod of minke whales. He lives in upstate New York where he is studiously engaged in writing the next Great American Novel, which is, of course, primarily set in England. He can be reached at

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