Diane Rayor: “Ἔρος δηὖτέ μ’ ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει, γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον.”
Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter, a podcast where we investigate the truth and controversy surrounding Sappho, her life, the Isle of Lesbos, and her relevance today. We’re your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: This episode, we are unfortunately leaving the papyrology world behind.
LC: Very sad.
EB: But I promise we have a great episode for you today. We’re getting back to our regular schedule.
LC: So one of the most frequently asked questions we’ve had is: “Which translation of Sappho’s work should I read?”
EB: So we’re going to be talking about the importance of translation today.
LC: As we do each episode, we’re going to start with one of those fragments, chosen by our resident poet, Alyse. Stay tuned until the end of the episode to hear our own version of the poem as a song. Alyse, I believe you have several translations of the poems for us today.
Alyse Knorr: Yes, because we’re looking at the issue of translation today, I thought I’d read you the same poem translated by four different translators, and we could talk about which versions you like best and what the main differences are between them, as a way to understand all the different ways to approach translating Sappho. So let’s start with Diane Rayor, who you’re going to be hearing a lot from this episode. This is Fragment 23, Diane Rayor’s translation. And whenever there are dot-dot-dots, as there are in her translation, I’ll just do a big pause. Okay? “Of love / . . . / when I see you face to face / not even Hermione seems like you / but to compare you to golden haired Helen is fitting / . . . / for mortal women, know that / with your heart / you would free me from all my troubles, / . . . / dewy banks / to celebrate all night long / . . .”
LC: [SINGING] All night long.
AK: So yeah, we’ve got a love poem of some kind that–it’s very fragmented. The middle is definitely the kind of solidest part, and we’ve got a comparison to Hermione and a comparison to Helen.
EB: I have a maybe stupid layman question. Who’s Hermione?
LC: She’s Harry Potter’s best friend.
LC: Hermione Granger.
AK: Hermione was, in Greek mythology, she was the daughter of Menelaus, who was king of Sparta. So her mother was Helen of Troy. So it’s like, I’m either going to compare you to Helen’s daughter or to Helen herself. Like I’m comparing you to very, very legendarily beautiful women.
EB: Amazing. Or Emma Watson. Also legendarily beautiful.
AK: Wait, who’s legendarily beautiful?
Ellie/Leesa: Emma Watson.
AK: That’s true.
LC: We said that in unison, I love it.
EB: All right, I’m ready for another.
AK: Okay, you ready to go to a really different approach? This is Willis Barnstone. He has titled the translation, the poem. Sappho did not have titles, but he added one. This is what he titled it: “You Can Free Me.” “I hoped for love. / When I look at you face to face, / not even Hermione seems to be your equal. / I compare you to blonde Helen among mortal women. / Know that you can free me from every care / and stay awake all night long on dewy riverbanks.”
LC: A lot of the same words.
AK: A lot of the same words because the fragment, you know, the papyrus fragment, like has certain words, but you’ll notice that Barnstone does not mark where the gaps are. He glosses over the gaps and makes it seem like it’s complete. So it’s all complete sentences in his translation. And he connects some things that are not actually connected on the papyrus. Right, so he says: “Stay awake all night long on dewy riverbanks,” whereas in the Rayor translation, it’s just: “dewy banks.” To celebrate all night long, it’s very vague. So he’s definitely kind of translating it more heavily and making more choices here. Some of it depends on, like, what the goal–like who your audience is, and Diane talks about that in this episode. So if you’re going for a more lay audience who just wants to sit down with a book of Sappho and have poems and have them feel more like traditional poems, like it’s kind of like pop Sappho? Then that’s like maybe a good approach, but if you’re being very scholarly about it, and very literal about it, which is what Rayor and the next translation are, and Carson do, you definitely want to indicate where the gaps are, so your reader can be in on that. So here’s Fragment 23, translated by Anne Carson, and I’ll do big pauses where there are brackets: ” ] of desire / ] / ] for when I look at you / ] such a Hermione / ] and to yellow haired Helen I liken you / ] / ] among mortal women, know this / ] from every care / ] you could release me / ] / ] dewy riverbanks / ] to last all night long / ] [ .” So like even more fragmented than Rayor, maybe, just like showing you where all those gaps are.
EB: I love it. Such a Hermione.
AK: Such a Hermione.
LC: It means something so different now.
EB: It is very cool. I’m excited to see all the different translations, and for everyone else who’s listening to this podcast, we’ve talked to translators and you’re going to hear about them. But it is very, very cool to see them all next to each other, knowing what we know, that you will know very soon.
LC: I honestly sometimes have spent my Saturday nights doing this. So there was–when I first had like Rayor and Carson translations, I spent like a whole night, like with a glass of wine, putting them side by side.
EB: I love it.
LC: And just reading them next to each other.
AK: Yeah, and there’s–it’s so much fun. It’s so fun to find your favorite, like which–“oh, I’m more partial to Rayor. I’m more partial to Carson.” It’s great. And you’ll notice–
LC: And I don’t think we all agree.
AK: Yeah, no, I don’t think so. What’s y’all’s favorite so far, of what I just read?
LC: Oh, for this specific poem, I liked Carson better. But I generally like Rayor’s translations better, honestly.
AK: Yeah, me too.
EB: Exactly the same. We’re all in the same boat.
LC: I thought we were different! It’s all just ’cause we love Diane, maybe. Yeah, I know. I just love Diane so much.
AK: Diane is amazing. A little difference here, like even in just–Carson calls her “yellow haired Helen” and Rayor calls her “golden haired Helen.” So there’s just like little choices that you can make. I’ll read you one last version. It’s Josephine Balmer’s translation, and this is from 1984. Here we go: “for whenever I look at you / it seems to me that not even Hermione is your equal / No, far better to compare you to Helen / whose hair was golden.” And that’s it. So she just leaves out, entirely, any of the other fragments. Like she neither tries to solve them–
LC: No “dewy riverbanks all night long.”
AK: Yeah, she got rid of it. Yeah.
EB: Why do you think she chose to get rid of those?
AK: It could have been that more of the poem was discovered. I’m not really sure about this poem’s history. But it also could just be that–Diane talks about this on this episode–that sometimes translators, they don’t know what to make of something there and they can’t fit it into the rest. They’ll just kind of leave it off.
EB: It’s better to leave it off than to make something up, is what they’re sort of saying, right?
AK: Well, so you could make something up and connect it all like Barnstone. You could leave it off entirely like Balmer. Or you could do it like Rayor and Carson, and include it, but just with these dot-dot-dots or these brackets, which are a way of saying, like, “This fragment’s really torn up. We don’t really know where in the poem this was supposed to be or what it was supposed to say. But here’s the words.” And Diane kind of talks in this episode about why she prefers to include the words, even if she doesn’t know exactly what they’re meant to say.
EB: I love it. It is so cool seeing all these different translations. And it’s like–it is like such an ancient game of telephone. Right, of like, the same fragment is going to turn out four very different ways. And we’re going to talk about that. I’m really excited.
AK: Yeah, translation is really an art and it’s, you know–it’s just as much, at this point, Sappho’s poem as it is Rayor’s poem as it is Carson’s poem, because it’s really a collaboration across thousands of years, which is so cool.
EB: That is so cool. It’s like they’re just talking to Sappho across the distance.
AK: Yeah they’re collaborators, they’re working with her, they’re co-writing. Yeah, it’s amazing.
LC: Also with poetry, because you’re also trying to convey a poem in a completely different language and still keep that poetic feel. I am always amazed. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Molière’s translations of Molière’s plays, but the whole plays rhyme. And they get translated entirely from French to English. And I love watching them online, and then you look at the French translation, and the English, and the difference. It’s just such a crazy thing to do.
EB: It’s so cool.
AK: It’s not as literal as just like, you know, “Stick it into Google Translate and like what does it literally translate to?” You have to think about the sound, the meter–these poems in their original meter were very complex, with their rhythms and stresses and accents and are you gonna keep that, are you gonna get rid of that, are you gonna make the language contemporary? Are you going to keep it a little bit more archaic? Lots of decisions to make.
EB: Yeah, it’s such a creative process. I think that’s very cool, like translation as, even though it is an academic process, it’s also creative.
LC: Thank you so much, Alyse.
AK: Yeah, thanks for having me.
EB: You might remember Diane Rayor from our earlier episodes, and our intro. She’s one of the best translators of Sappho’s work and a classicist at Grand Valley State University. She talked to us about how she got into translation and specifically translating Sappho.
DR: When I was in college, I started taking Greek as a freshman just kind of as a whim because I had a class and there was Greek–it was Greek history and philosophy. And it was so pretty. Every time the professor would read the Greek, I’d go, “Oh, that’s so pretty.” And she’d write it on the board. And so I said, “Okay, I have to read it.” And so, I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. I was so–but I just kept taking some Greek. And then at the beginning of my junior year in college–so this was 1978–my professor, Marcia Dobson, asked me to translate a poem of Sappho for her, because she said she didn’t like any of the translations that were out there, and she knew I wrote poetry. So I was like, “Yeah, okay, whatever.” That first translation, it was like, “Oh my god, this is so amazing. Sappho is amazing. How can I make it come out in English?” And the process of translation itself, it’s like it’s what I was meant to do. I’m here on earth for–well, other than producing my wonderful son, and, okay, I shouldn’t ignore my students and teaching. Translation is what I’m meant to be doing. And it was just, like, instant. So maybe it would have been anybody, but it was Sappho. And her poetry is so, just, beautiful. And it just resonated with me in a way that nothing had. It was just like, “This is–I must do this.” It’s so complex. You know, every time I look at a new poem, and I read something new about it, and I go, “Oh, wait, I missed that.” And I’ve been doing this for a very long time. I’ve been reading Sappho. I’ve been translating Sappho, and I’ve done many other things in my life. It is true. I started a Classics department. You know, I have seven books out. They’re not all Sappho, you know. I’m doing a lot of other things. But I keep returning to Sappho because it’s deep.
LC: I love this. I wish I had had this kind of revelation at a young age, to be like, “Oh my god, this is what I was put on this earth to do.” It’s just so beautiful to hear about.
EB: It’s gorgeous. It made me cry when we had the interview. And I’m probably gonna cry again today, so it’s fine.
LC: I mean, we all need a good cry at this point. And I just couldn’t believe that she’d been working on “Ode to Aphrodite” for over 40 years. That is just longer than our lives.
EB: So when you were talking, you were saying you’ve been revising this since the 70s, right? So maybe you can start by speaking to that, and just why are you continually revising?
DR: Translation is an interesting combination of really knowing the language–your Ancient Greek for me–and having a sense of the music of it, the poetry, since it originally was song. And so there’s so many different possibilities. There’s so many different ways of saying the same thing–in English, right? We have so many different options. So, for example, in the Greek, there’s a word “poikilos,” and Aphrodite is sitting on this throne of power. it’s a “poikilos throna.” And so how to translate “poikilos,” when “poikilos” means “the light that filters down through the leaves in a forest.” So it’s the “dappled leaves.” But it’s also like if you have embroidery or inlaid wood or any kind of mixture of textures, or colors, or light. So it’s that complexity. I’ve been translating it so many different ways, trying to figure out what word or words in English can I use to get that across that sound good. When this book was published in my Sappho book from 2014, was first published, the way it is in the book says, “On the throne of many hues, immortal Aphrodite.” And I decided I’m going back to an earlier one I did, never published this one, but: “Deathless Aphrodite on your dappled throne.” So I mean–so that’s just like one word. So I’ve been working on that word for a very long time. I think that the most simple translation of “poikilos” is “dappled,” and I like that sense of she’s on a throne, Aphrodite, goddess of love, you know, this powerful goddess. So she’s on a seat of power, but this idea of this multiplicity of light and texture, and I think just the simple English word “dappled” gets that. It also works with “deathless Aphrodite on your dappled throne,” so there’s the “DUH” there’s the “UH” of “Aphrodite,” there’s the “throne” with the “Aphrodite,” you know, so there’s–it’s like I’m listening to it
EB: It feels musical, in a way, I guess, which it should.
DR: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
AK: You get you get the alliteration of “deathless” and “dappled,” but also the assonance of “Aphrodite” and “appled.” And it’s so nice. So nice.
DR: Yeah. So that’s what I’m always doing is I listen to the Greek, I listen to the English. And sometimes it comes and I don’t need to change it, as long as I’m being very accurate to the Greek. But sometimes I need to do a lot of revision. And the other thing that comes up is that sometimes we get more information, right? Like that’s–you mentioned my scholarship. What’s really important is that I read all the scholarship on Sappho–so there’s a lot. And has someone figured out something about the cultural context, the use of the word, the way, you know, her poems relate to others, something that might cause a change. The other thing that happens, there’s new discoveries. Texts.
EB: I find it so fascinating that literally one word probably took her 10 years of the 40 years she did “Ode to Aphrodite.” But like, one word has so much meaning. It’s so cool.
LC: It’s just–I’m so grateful to all of these translators who’ve spent so much of their lives working out these beautiful words for us to read.
EB: Yes, so that we all can enjoy it. We’re gonna hear more from Diane. I love hearing what she has to say, I know you all will, too.
DR: One of the challenges is always making it sound good. Because Sappho in the Greek is just stunningly beautiful. It is so beautiful to listen to, and that’s what first drew me to it. So, I want it to sound good. And although I’ve written poetry a long time ago, I’m not a poet. I’m not a musician. So I just have to work with the skills I have and keep thinking of sound. But I also have to keep–you know, language keeps changing, right? So it needs to be modern language. There’s no point in using archaic language, because when Sappho was performing it, it wasn’t archaic for her audience, right? So, and in the Greek her words sound, just–you know, her poems sound so modern, you know, they’re speaking to us. And I think that’s why–one of the reasons why–she’s so famous. So, but there’s a lot of options. So, let me give you one short example, because the best way to talk about Sappho is to read her.
EB: Yes, perfect.
AK: We love that.
DR: Because most of what we know, almost everything we know about Sappho, is from these little bits and pieces that we have. “Sweet mother, I cannot leave. Slender Aphrodite has overcome me with longing for a girl.” All other translations you’ll read of that, translate with “longing for a boy.” Now you’re going, “How could that be?” Well, the problem is the Greek word is “pais,” which is the generic word for “child.” That’s where we get, like, pediatrician, pediatrics, right? Comes from “paidais,” “children,” so it doesn’t say male or female. But in this poem, it would not make sense in English to say, “Slender Aphrodite has overcome me with longing for a child,” because then it sounds kind of gross, right? And it’s addressed to her mother, you know, the speaker is addressing it to “sweet mother.” “I can’t do my chores,” right? “I can’t weave, because the goddess of love is overwhelming me with this deep longing.” Originally, I translated it “boy.” And then, when I was doing this book, I was like, wait, why would I do a boy, of all things? It’s Sappho. Let’s do a girl.
EB: So, can you speak a little bit to why other people would choose–are you the only one who has translated it “girl”?
DR: As far as I know, when this came out in 2014, every other one I looked at had “boy,” because it totally could be either. And yet, I did “boy” the first time, too, because, I think people are picturing, you know, this sounds kind of like teenage girl going to mom, you know, and we’re used to the heterosexual sort of thing. And so it was like, people would jump to “boy.” But once I realized what I was doing, I was like, why would I possibly jump to “boy” when it could be “girl”?
EB: We’re a bit biased, but what in the scholarship made you also take a step back and say, “If this is Sappho, Sappho had to have been talking about a girl.”
DR: Well, now she doesn’t “have to be,” is the thing. Because the poems we have, we have wedding songs, and they’re all about the bride and the groom, you know? So it doesn’t “have to be.” But her poems in general, every poem that we can really see something, is woman-centered, it’s homoerotic. And, so poem number 1 makes that extremely clear, right? Because Sappho has put her own voice in there, her name in there, and said, “Aphrodite, help me out with this woman I’m in love with.” And we’re sure it is because–now, this is what’s really cool about the subtlety of Sappho. We only know that it’s referring to another woman because in–let’s see, there’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 stanzas. She writes these four-line stanzas, sapphic stanzas, and in the sixth stanza, there is one participle. So one gerund, -ing verb, that has a feminine ending on it. It has a “a,” and that is the only way we know that it’s a woman.
EB: Alyse’s mind is blown.
DR: Yes. So this is why you have to be really careful with the Greek, right? Because, in the English, I had to put, “If now she flees, soon she’ll chase.” Right? She’ll give, she’ll love, even against her will. In the Greek, it doesn’t need to have the gender specified until you get to “even against her will is her not willing.” And the participle has to have gender.
EB: Also, because we know that there’s been only fragments.
EB: If we didn’t–
DR: Except for this poem.
EB: –if for some reason, let’s just say, like, that particular gerund we never found, the entire poem could read differently?
LC: Yet another reason for Diane to be our favorite translator.
EB: I’m so happy about this. Whenever anyone asks us on any interview we’ve ever done, like, “What’s the best thing you learned?” It is this one fact. This made me so happy to know that just that one change changed the entire meaning of this poem. Also to make it gayer, which of course we love.
LC: I mean, we love a gayer thing, for sure.
EB: Thank you so much for that, Diane. We’ll be right back after a quick break to hear from some sponsors.
EB: We also talked to another Sappho translator, Chris Mason, a poet and musician who is part of the band Old Songs, which also includes Liz Downing and Mark Jickling.
Chris Mason: But just to find somebody 2,600 years ago writing about her life, it’s just incredible. It’s so powerful. When I started reading her in Greek, usually in bilingual editions, I mean I felt like you could read the Greek, and it was almost like somebody was talking to you from 2,600 years away, because it’s–you have that language, you know, it’s the same words that she used. We feel very honored to be able to put her words to music. She’s very important to us. Liz has something that she wrote in a book where she’s talking about, “it’s the same moon.” So when Sappho is writing about the moon, it’s the same moon that we’re looking at. And Sappho has that timeless quality.
AK: Wow, that’s beautiful. I have chills just thinking about that. That’s so beautiful.
CM: And there’s a poem that’s about this other woman that she loves who’s in Lydia, in Sardis, which is in Asia Minor. And, so it’s across the water from Lesbos. As she’s talking, Sappho writes about how she and the woman are both looking at the same moon, but then we’re also looking at the same moon, too.
[OLD SONGS SINGING]
EB: You know, we love a Sappho poem set to music.
LC: We love a banjo. We love a banjo.
EB: We do love a banjo. And Chris is also so passionate about Sappho and her translations, which is really exciting. I love the romanticism that Chris brings to Sappho. Of course, like as a musician and an artist, I feel like he feels Sappho so deeply.
LC: Yeah. What I found really interesting about talking to Chris was that Old Songs write all their own original translations of Ancient Greek lyric poetry. So they’re not using any of the other translations that we’re talking about. They write it, and they write it along with the music. So I’ll let Chris tell you more about that.
CM: When I translate, I use all the resources I can. I use dictionaries, I look at other translators’ versions of the Ancient Greek. But then I–once I understand it, and understand all the words–and then I started just reading it over and over again in Greek, and get a feeling for the music of the language, and the rhythm. And then, from there, I start thinking of tunes. Mark has a similar process, but he had a much deeper understanding of the Greek, at first. I actually try to do the translating and the songwriting together, the tune of the song and the form of this song also influences the translation. So it influences, and there’s so many different ways to translate the same poem, but it influences the rhythm and it just seems like if you can do it all together, then it works out as a more coherent translation, with more coherence. This is a five word fragment, Mark translated it: “Neither for me, honey nor bee.” And that’s actually similar to what Anne Carson did. But it’s: “μήτε μοι μέλι μήτε μέλισσα.” Just so many M’s and L’s. “μήτε μοι μέλι μήτε μέλισσα.” It’s just this honey–she had such a beautiful musical way with consonants.
[OLD SONGS SINGING]
EB: I didn’t know you were gonna go straight for the “mmmmm!”
LC: I mean, it just reminds me of those exercises you have to do with your singing teacher, you know, like with your lips tingling, like are your lips tingling?
EB: Yes, I know them very well. I love it too, because it does have an onomatopoeic effect, where the “mm” sounds like the bees buzzing. And that is–I just, I love what they do with Sappho, it’s so interesting and cool. I find it fascinating how they create this music that is at the same–that is contemporary, but using Sappho. It’s really folksy, right? And we’re not using the lyre, but we’re using similar elements to what it would have been like during Sappho’s time.
LC: Maybe a plectrum, yes.
EB: Yes. All the plectrums.
CM: One of the reasons that we felt that kind of music fit with Sappho, even though she lived in a town in Lesbos, it’s still a rural society. I’m just surprised–I think that Athens, for instance, the biggest town in the Greek world, was only 5,000 at that time. So you’re living in a small town. The first song we translated was “Evening Star.” “Evening star brings back what bright dawn has scattered, brings back the sheep, brings back the goats, brings back the children to their mother.” And you just have this picture of every morning, the children and the goats and the sheep going out to the fields, and then every night coming back, and it’s just this rhythm of–which is a country rhythm. And so, the music felt right to us.
[OLD SONGS SINGING]
LC: I’m just feeling so calm after that, like it’s just rocking me. That song just feels really–
EB: Yes. It feels very–like I feel like I am in the middle of a field, looking up at the stars and just vibing. It’s really great.
LC: Yeah. You can’t see us both, but we’re both swaying.
EB: We’re swaying. We are swaying. I love it. I love, too, how simple and direct their translations are. We talked a little bit earlier, they do all their own translations. And Chris is going to talk a little bit more about why they choose certain words.
CM: I think most of the good translators, like Anne Carson or Diane Rayor or Gottlieb, were trying to be literal, and use colloquial and contemporary English, which we do also. I don’t feel that, as translations, they’re so different. Those other people are probably better scholars–I mean, they’re definitely better scholars. It’s just the fact that we translated it as a song. The one thing we do–I say we’re very literal–the one freedom we allow ourselves is to repeat lines. The reason we do that is singers around the world, when they sing a song, they just tend to repeat lines. It could be a chorus or it just could be just really enjoying repeating a line. With our fragments, we repeat them, you know, two or three or four times, but then with a with a longer song, we may repeat, you know, a stanza a couple times. We have a song about her love for this woman, Anaktoria.
[OLD SONGS SINGING]
LC: I love the way that this song repeats that line: “But I’m thinking about Anaktoria, who is gone.” And I think about it every time I hear this poem, and it totally reframed the poem for me. I think it’s really beautiful.
EB: Yes, well like, the repetition of it also just reminds you of that obsessive love, right? I’m thinking, thinking, thinking over and over about this person, right?
LC: None of us know what that’s like.
EB: No, never heard of it. I love it. So one thing we’ve touched on before is the influence that Sappho’s gaps have had on the translation of her poetry.
LC: So while people like Diane and Chris are very careful about honoring these gaps in their translations, as we discussed, many translations, especially historically, simply filled the gaps or cut things out completely, as we saw at the beginning of the episode.
EB: We talked to Diane about why she chooses not to fill in those gaps.
DR: I try to put it in, even if there’s just one word, because I figured, “Okay, let’s have it all collected.” And then poets, like Alyse, use them. Have at it, like H.D. did, right? Like so many poets do. You know, it’s all there. Let’s build it anew, because–I mean, the thing was Sappho is, when she was performing, it was sung. It was, you know, it was meant to be heard. We don’t have that. What we have–we don’t even have whole poems, we have fragments. But what can we do so that we can hear it? What can we do so it’s more of a poem, without artificially making up stuff to fill in the chunks? There’s all sorts of different possibilities. When I published “Sappho’s Lyre,” okay, so that was a long time ago, and most of the poems have been revised since then. But so, let’s see, that was in, I think ’91. And when I was working on those poems, translating those, there might have been one other person, I’m not sure, maybe Guy Davenport, was doing the ellipsis, where you’d leave the fragment. But in general, people weren’t leaving the fragment as a fragment. They were collapsing it, trimming it, or filling it in. So they were either under-translating it, right? Kind of trimming it like Mary Bernard, right? Hers is a modernist Sappho. And she does like the statues with their arms cut off, right? So she was trimming everything down. And so she cuts out things and makes it seem like it’s one, or she’ll merge a few different fragments together, right? And she was also using really lousy Greek texts. So, you know, there’s a lot of things that just aren’t right in it. But other people would fill in chunks, right? Like Richmond Lattimore, who is so important for translating “The Iliad” in a really new way. But his lyric poetry, what he did with Sappho, is wherever there’s a gap, he would just make up stuff, and stick it in there. And so like this one poem, it’s number 16, that talks about Helen. And it’s an amazing poem. And he turned it into where he like filled in this stuff, like, “women, light things palpitant to passion as I am,” or something close to that. And so what it did is his poem totally trivialized women, by what he added in that. And there is nothing of that in the Greek. Nothing. And he doesn’t put, like–he doesn’t have an asterisk or a note that says, you know, what’s Sappho and what’s not. So someone reading that would think, “This is what Sappho wrote.” So that’s the problem with translation. It depends who you’re translating for, right? If you’re translating for people who can read the Greek, and you know they can read the Greek, and they’re reading the Greek, then you can have your way with it, because they go, “Ooh, that’s what Rayor’s doing with Sappho. How fun,” right? You know, and so poets that do things to Sappho now, though, the problem is, unless they say, “This is my adaptation of Sappho, or this is what I’ve added,” people who can’t read the Greek, just go, “Oh, that’s what Sappho wrote.” And to me, as a translator, that’s irresponsible.
EB: I completely agree with Diane of like–I know she says, “It’s irresponsible.” But it is the kind of thing where if you don’t tell someone that there are gaps in this, I mean, we’ve seen it already with how many thousands of years have gone since Sappho–even just directly translating her can be misrepresented. But if you directly translate her plus add your own stuff, thousands of years from now, people will have no clue if that was Sappho or not.
LC: Yeah. And I think that’s why Anne Carson’s translations were so popular at the beginning, because she really made a point of printing the gaps and the Greek side by side, and we’ve definitely–we’ve put the original Greek up on our site as well if you ever want to go and take a gander at that. But I mean, it’s just like writing down a quote in your notebook and saying you wrote it, like, “I have a dream.” There you go, I wrote it. Like, if you don’t attribute it…
EB: Or writing a parody of a song and then being like, “Oh, that’s my song.”
LC: “That’s my song.”
EB: Like you can write a parody, right? But at least say it’s a parody, right? You have to be clear about that.
LC: I was really lucky to have the opportunity to speak to Jane Montgomery Griffiths, an actor, writer, and academic who wrote and performed the one-woman show “Sappho…in 9 Fragments.” Here’s what she had to say on the fragmentary nature of Sappho’s work.
Jane Montgomery Griffiths: Maybe it’s the gaps that we fill with our imagination that give us this idea of Sappho’s being quite so extraordinary and brilliant. So it’s really interesting thing, and, of course, it’s something that plagues every classicist. I’m actually a scholar of Sophocles, a Greek tragic playwright. He wrote over 120 plays, and we have seven of them. And so, you know, how is it that we can base our entire academic career and conjecture on such a tiny proportion of the work that was actually created? So Sappho–my Sappho sort of actually points out that when you’re fragmented, everything that you write becomes so important. And there’s a wonderful edition of Sappho by poet and classicist Anne Carson called “If Not, Winter.” The typography of this edition is absolutely brilliant, because it’s full of the gaps. You know, it’s full of the emptiness of Sappho. And the emptiness is just as telling as the words themselves. There’s an encyclopedia of feminism and actually, really, lesbian content, by Monique Wittig, and the page for Sappho is just blank. It’s just a blank page. So, that to me says everything we really need to know about Sappho. And that’s also why this play is predominantly, in terms of the Sappho fragments, about her trying to work out what the gaps are that people have filled and what her reality is, and why, in the Atthis fragments, the contemporary fragments, so much of that is written from Sappho’s own words, to find an affective–as opposed to effective–an affective way of feeling Sappho through a different conduit, through the conduit of a love story. So yeah, the gaps are fascinating. And I’m totally aware that I am as guilty as any heterosexual male academic of filling up Sappho’s gaps with my own imagination.
EB: So, can we hear or see this play?
LC: Unfortunately, we’re unable to share this amazing play with you. But we have been trying to get a copy. It’s complicated. There’s a lot of legal stuff going on. You can buy a copy, I think, in print, so you can see the play, but not Jane naked on stage performing it. However, with Jane’s permission, we did manage to grab a bunch of little clips from the play, and we just wanted to share some of our favorite lines with you about, specifically, Sappho’s gaps and fragmentation.
JMG: “A little dispiriting when your greatest fame is your absence.” “Filling in the gaps, which is of importance to me, because after all, I am nothing but a gap. Oh, they plastered my holes, of course. They rendered the brickwork, hundreds and hundreds of libidinous handymen all taking turns to mortar my buttresses, but such messy workmanship.” “Sappho, seventh century BCE, Mytilenian from the Island of Lesbos. Sappho, 10th muse, poet-teacher. Sappho, wife-mother, poor lover? The aristocrat, dissident, exile, iconoclast, rampant hetero-raging-queer, top-bottom, butch-femme. Rub a dub dub, three dykes in the tub. Where’s the soap? Yes it does, doesn’t it? You say fellatio, I say fellatio. Let’s call the whole thing off. Inspiration, aberration, lesbian pinup, Christian tear-up, Roman reference, Egyptian refuse, imaginative vessel, empty void, gap, void, gap, brackets, dot-dot-dots, more space, more gaps. Sappho, great, big, gaping hole. Is that what I am, then? Oh. Enough things to be filled by the lusts of my lovers, by their rovings, by their fondlings, such stumbling, fumbling sureness about my needs, about what I want to make me whole, to fill my hole about what fills my gaps. About! Oh, what I would have said. Oh, Sappho! I don’t want to be acquainted with this passage of Homer. Sappho would have been cognizant of the work of the other great lesbian [unintelligible] curse. This can only be conjecture, but surely Sappho would have intended her auditors to hear resonances of Homer and Hesiod in these lines. I think I know what Sappho would have said. Sappho would’ve said, ‘Pass the scotch.’ Don’t get me wrong, I was never a lush, but at my age, one takes one’s pleasures where one can.” “Well you see how others are–oof!–so keen to put their words into my mouth. Pushing their words into me, passing their words on to me.” “The less of me there was, the more people wanted to fill me with themselves.” “The people realized they could make an example of me. You see, it has its advantages, being a fragment. Everything you do becomes so important.” “There’s a hundred times I wish they had left me alone. All that longing to fill my emptiness.” “How do you end the story when there are so many gaps?”
LC: So unfortunately, you know, without the visual, like, full frontal nudity that we experienced from actually seeing the play, but the last line you heard there is the last line in the play, and it was just–it’s so amazing. I’m just in awe of Jane. She’s so great.
EB: I love it. It’s so powerful. Just like the visuals with the–with the Sappho. It’s perfect.
LC: And just to focus on the gaps and the focus of–I just love the words of like, “They’re trying to put their words into my mouth. They’re pushing their words into me, forcing their words into me.” Like the way that she kind of puts that forward. It’s like every time I think about people filling in Sappho’s gaps now, I can’t think about it without thinking about this play. I just think she did such an amazing job.
EB: Yes. And, I mean, we’ve talked a lot in this episode about translation. I think from our perspective, I think that Sappho is absolutely beautiful in the way that the gaps are empty. So I hope that more translators leave the space for us to–for our imaginations to fill in. But we see, you know, Sappho in her fragmented glory.
LC: And I’m so excited to see all the future translators of Sappho’s work. And we’ve had listeners who have translated the poems for us from Ancient Greek into Spanish. And I just–I love seeing this, even though I completely do not understand any of it. But I really love–I mean, I’m looking for the next generation of translators and seeing what they can find. So even with the existing works of Sappho that we have, there’s still so much more to potentially be discovered. And like, Diane’s definitely got another like 30 years of re-translating “Ode to Aphrodite.” So I’m looking forward to seeing how that ends up in 30 years, too.
EB: Thank you for listening to our episode on translation. We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. In the meantime, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
AK: There’s this insistent denial from some scholars that emotional lesbianism has any physical context. Like, basically, why are there some scholars going to these lengths to try to almost like read out–read out the, you know, the homoeroticism? You know?
Diane Rayor: I think you know why.
Tracey Walters: Why isn’t Sappho, like, emblazed on a banner at gay pride, right? Not to come out, not to make it gauche, right.
Jane Montgomery Griffiths: Interesting enough, the only brief I had was, “It’s gotta show how amazing Sappho was, and there shouldn’t be lesbian content.”
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our next episode will be released on the 25th of February. As always, stick around until the end of the podcast to hear our original song for Fragment 23, written and performed by us, with additional help from James Jones. Not to be confused with James Earl Jones, although when you hear his feature, I don’t know. Maybe you will confuse the two.
EB: He does sound quite like James Earl Jones. Thank you, James. If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps, especially written reviews on Apple podcasts. If you can support us on Patreon, it also really helps. We’re trying to get to 100 patrons by the end of the season. We are moving quickly, but we could move faster. So get your butt to Patreon.
LC: Absolutely, and the season’s gonna be over before you know it. Thank you so much for our new patrons this week: Nicholas, Teresa, and Nicole. We’re so grateful for your support. As always, you can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website, sweetbitterpodcast.com.
EB: Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte. Our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Music by Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody. Special thanks to Chris Mason and Old Songs, Jane Montgomery Griffiths, and Diane Rayor for sharing their knowledge with us today.
LC: You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website in the “About” section.
EB: And now, our original song for Fragment 23. We’re about to get real sexy.
LC: Very sexy.