October 4, 2011

“You came and I was crazy for you…”

Posted in History, Literature tagged , , , , , , , at 3:08 pm by faraway67

On poetry, love in the antiquities and the art of translation

John William Godward: In the days of Sappho, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea. And on this Island, there lived a gifted woman. Her name was Sappho, and her talent was so extraordinary that people called her “the 10th muse”.

No, actually I don’t want to tell you a fairy tale ;-). The idea for this blog post came to me in a more modern way: A friend of mine posted a tweet on Twitter, featuring a poem by Anne Carson. I liked it, and was reminded that I had already heard about her. Scouring my library, I quickly found what I was looking for: A little book, containing her translations of Sappho’s poems.

I reread them. Well, to be honest, I didn’t simply read them, I savoured them, drowned in the delight of Sappho’s wonderful, colorful words. And while doing that, I came to three conclusions:

The first one was not very astonishing. I already knew Sappho’s poetry, and I’ve always loved it. The words drop of her lips like honey…full of exquisite sweetness. And herself – what a stunning biography for a woman in those times, more than 2500 years ago (read more about her life here).

I was touched all the more by my second conclusion. All my life, through all my history studies, this was what I had been taught, what I believed and also taught my own students: That people in ancient times didn’t feel like we do. That it was not possible for them, living in times of plagues and early deaths, to invest as much feeling into other persons as we do today, or else they would have gone mad over the loss of one beloved after the other. That love, that deep, intimate feeling we know between men and women was an invention of the 19th century, of no use in earlier times. That there were totally different reasons that held relationships together: Caring for family and offspring, conserving land, creating power bonds between families or simply struggling for survival. If there were tender feelings between two people…nice. But it had been my firm conviction that this was not an important – or even necessary – foundation of marriage or a relationship.

And then I read Sappho’s words – in a powerful translation – and it hit me like a bullet. What she describes in her unique, artful words – is nothing less than love. The deep, intimate love we know today. Exactly the love I know. And I wondered, how I – and all my teachers before me – could have been so mistaken.

It occured to me that the reason for it probably wasn’t really “far away”. I, and all my teachers before me, used translations of ancient texts that were made mainly in the 19th or early 20th century. And even more recent translations took these as a role model for their choice of words. The language that had been used there was simply not our language. So the words about emotions, love and sexuality came out strangely cool and flat. Not at all the way we would talk about feelings so deep and profound.

That led me to my third conclusion: The importance of a contemporary translation of classic texts, and, in the same breath, how wonderful Anne Carson’s translation in “If not, Winter” is. Anne Carson, a classical scholar and poet herself, has managed beyond awesomeness to put Sappho’s words, written 2500 years ago, into a language that speaks to us. And even more: Though Sappho wrote dozens and dozens of poems in her lifetime, merely three have survived as a whole! All the others are fragments, sometimes only a few words or even letters. A challenge for every translator – and still, Anne Carson managed to create sense beyond sense in her translation…even the fragments talk to us and give us a vivid impression of what they may have sounded like once they had dropped from mellifluous Sappho’s lips.

Just listen to her:

“He seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking.”
(p. 63, from poem 31, one of the rare almost complete ones.)

“You came and I was crazy for you and cooled my mind that burned with longing.”
(p. 101, fragment 48)

“I am aware…of evildoing…other…minds…blessed ones….”
(p. 9, fragment 3)

Or this one:

“….beautiful he…stirs up still things….exhaustion the mind…..settles down…but come O beloveds….for day is near“.
(p.87, fragment 43)

Or even this, only a few words left, and yet so sad and beautiful:

“……rumor…..hair…..at the same time…..man…..anxiety…..ground……daring.”
(p. 169, fragments 87 a-c)

Who could say this is flat? Who could say this is old-fashioned and lacks emotion?

Reading these texts I saw it crystal clear: People in ancient times weren’t that different from us. Of course I was right, as were my teachers: People in ancient times had a hard life indeed. It was dangerous then to invest feelings and emotions. Death came cruelly and unexpectedly. It was a craze to waste feelings when you knew there would be nothing but loss and pain. But still: People were born and died, they laughed and cried, loved and hated…just like we do. They were the same as we are. They were no different. That’s what Sappho and Anne Carson taught me. I bow in awe, humility and admiration.

“I don’t know what to do. Two states of mind in me.” (p. 51, fragment 51)

Read much more about Sappho (Essays, texts in Greek and English, and lots of links) here.

Listen to how Sappho’s poems, actually songs, may have sounded like in ancient times:



  1. Johannes said,

    A discourse about poetry in poetic words – just loved to read it! Keep posting, please!

    • faraway67 said,

      Thanks, Johannes, ever so much, for your nice words, and all your help. I appreciate it/you very much!

  2. neelthemuse said,

    That’s lovely……..always everything is the same, though always it changes……

  3. This is a really wonderful post–well-done! It really made me think about what I learned in college, etc. and about what we have in common with those from centuries past. Interesting re: Anne Carson, too.

    Thanks for sharing this–I always love to learn something new or to see something from another perspective. I read Sappho way back when and now might want to take another look!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: