With Sappho so much in the news, I thought it might be time to post a few translations I have made of Sappho's works over the years. I think Sappho must have been an extraordinary woman, certainly her poetry warrants that tag. It still sings and the possibilities in translation, as for much poetry, are very broad. I have translated some poems, on other occasions I have written poems that have been inspired by her. I would like to translate more of her work, but as writer Grace Paley said, 'Art is long and life is short.'
first poem of Sappho’s that I translated is fragment 168b (translated around 1982).
I wrote the text on the front of a T-shirt in Greek and the translation on the
back. Other than that, it is previously unpublished. I was studying Ancient
Greek at the time.
is half gone
1991 I was reading Gillian Spragg’s essay ‘Divine Visitations: Sappho’s Poetry
of Love’ (1991) which includes a translation of the following poem. As I read, for the
first time it hit me that this could be a poem about a seizure. The following
set of three poems are really variations rather than translations. They were
published in my collection, Bird and other writings on epilepsy (1993).
variations on Sappho’s fragment 31
To me you are divine
as you play your role–
laughing that laugh
running through me
like an electric current.
The shock, the jolt as I
watch. My voice
dries up; it is hot like sand
in a desert creekbed
and it slides slowly away
from me. My eyes die,
I hear nothing as
lava flows under
my skin. Seized,
my mind flees–
down, down into the
underworld, into a
kind of death.
I watch her, your public face;
I hear her speak the expected words
of coupling love.
Her smile eats at me like acid;
my ribs are scorched and the
heart jolts inside its cage.
When I look at you, heart
emptied, voice hollowed,
I speak empty breath.
My tongue fallow, no
harvest of words
only froth, a dead-eyed
gaze and muscles that
My mind quivers, retreats
toward death, and I know
that only death is an end.
Fortune has deserted me today
as I watch the one sitting
face to face with you
Across the room I listen as
words and laughter fall
from your lips
My heart becomes a
jolting carriage and my
tongue is electrified by
fear. Fire runs through
my veins and I can no longer
hear your words, your laughter,
for the humming in my ears.
I convulse, and sweat
runs cool down my face,
pale as dry summer grass-
death would be better
than this jealousy.
In 2010, I was back studying
another Ancient language, Sanskrit and I felt able to try my hand at some
translations, in part because I understood the process of translation better;
and secondly because as a poet, I had honed my skills (although that is a
life-long undertaking). The first two poems (translation and variation) were
published in Sinister Wisdom: Lesbian
Poetry–When? And Now! Number 81, 2010. The two variations on Sappho’s poems
were published in my collection Cow(2011). The translation of fragment 22 has not been previously published.
fragment 16 by Sappho
This is one of Sappho’s
best-known poems. I first read it as grafitti on a toilet wall in an inner
urban suburb of Melbourne in the mid-1970s. Underground poetry always survives.
Between then and 1979 when I began studying Ancient Greek a whole new world
opened for me. But it’s really only now that I appreciate the craft of Sappho’s
poems. In the variation that follows, the cow, Anaktoria is responding to Sappho’s fragment 16.
some say an army of horses
some say an army of feet
some say an army of ships is
the most beautiful thing
on this black earth but I
say it’s whom-
ever you love
easy to make this thought
for she who was more
than all of humanity
left her sublime husband
to sail to Troy
neither children nor loved
could she perceive
but deceived – she went
recall to me now Anaktoria
no longer here
what Anaktoria says to her
when the herds are running
the ground thrumming
sunlight scaling every beam
of dust like a horde
on the move your finest
poems are for me
that’s what I love best
when the sun strikes your
coat roan with heat
we all stand dazzledby your beauty
and none of us will ever
you the brightest of us all
when the summer grass grows
and the longing strikes up
I think of you standing
which way to go
your doubts are few your
in the morning light and
brown soft but your glance
so Sappho let me follow you
on this track
into that thicket by the
let us stand flank by flank
fragment 22 by Sappho
Anne Carson writes that
Gongyla means yoke-mate (note 22.10 p. 363). In Sanskrit the root verb √yuj
means to yoke, harness or fasten. It can be applied to two cows yoked together;
it can also mean unite or connect in a relationship or through longing.Carson says the first two letters of
Gongyla’s name are missing from this poem. Sanskrit for cow is gau/go-: go-, the two missing letters, like lesbians, are missing from history.
not wintry torment
the harp –and again –
wafts all around
your loveliness for when you
garment you were excited
and I thrilled
for praying one word:
what Gongyla says
when winter ices my coat
when it strikes
whatever can you do–
she has made it public
her longing for me
she wants me to sing
my heart pain
she says Aphrodite
is hard hearted
her love searing
but all I want
Sappho in slippers
This final poem is my most
recent translation, made while I was in Rome during 2013. It is of Sappho’s
recently found poem from 2004. I found this a fascinating poem to translate because
it’s both so very Sappho in style, but its content is surprising because until
now we have thought of Sappho as a youngish woman (perhaps 40ish at the most).
But in ths poem she writes of age and this is a subject that so many women
poets have avoided because women and aging are not meant to go together. I feel
my aching shoulder (which troubled me recently for months) and I can understand
that her knees perhaps don’t do the dance as well now. But she confronts age,
and says we have to face it. In this poem, it is the aging Tithonos, a man, who
feels his immortality as a burden against his ever-youthful wife, Dawn, Eos,
the rising sun. This poem will be published in my forthcoming, Lupa and Lambda.
Lost text: Aeolic Lesbian: Psappha in
circa 565 BCE
you young ones bound to the
Muses’ lovely sweet-smelling gifts
you are fervent songsters
your voices clear as the lyre
once my body was soft tender
to touch but old age
has taken its pleasure with
me turning my black hair white
my heart is made heavymy knees that in youth were as light-
footed as the dancing
deerno longer carry me
now I sigh in surprisebut what am I to do?
aging is humanthere is no way out
even Tithonos who was borne
to the far ends
of the earth by lovesick
young and enchanting at
by grumbling old age despite
his immortal wife
Gillian Spragg. 1991.
‘Divine Visitations: Sappho’s Poetry of Love’. In Elaine Hobby and Chris White
(eds.) What Lesbians Do in Books.
London: The Women’s Press.
What goes on
in the minds of museum curators? I have puzzled over this question many times
in the last few months as I have visited more museums than I usually do and
been confronted by so many omissions, distortions and downright ignorance or
In Siem Reap, Cambodia a brand new museum, and the only room without labels or video is the one that depicts the apsaras. In the museum in Gela, Sicily the displays in the room with the most remarkable Medusa, are in darkness until I accidentally trip an alarm by getting too close to the display. At Mnajdra, Malta female figures are given non-gendered labels and compared to sumo wrestlers. This latter is an egregious distortion which can be put directly at the feet of the school headed by Colin Renfrew who is against all suggestion that women might have played significant roles in prehistoric and ancient societies. But he allows his photo to grace those same walls.
I visited the National Archaeological Museum in Ancona specifically to see the figure called La Donna Lupo Paleolitico. My first puzzle here is why the words used are 'lupo paleolitico' and not 'lupa paleolitica' which seems to me more accurate both in terms of content and grammar.I've had several thoughts on the matter:
Is it because women way back then were in such awe of the male of every species that the wolf head must be a male wolf?
Is it simply inculcated heteronormativity?
Is it because the word 'lupa' also connotes 'prostitute'?
case, I am referring to her here as La Donna Lupa Paleolitica.
on the train from Rome at night, visited the museum in the morning and back to
Rome that afternoon. It was worth making this flying visit because although the
images on the internet are as good or better than anything I can manage, simply
seeing this tiny art object is an experience in itself.
because this wolf woman, La Donna Lupa Paleolitica, is 300,000 years old. When
I saw this the first time, I thought it must have been a typographic mistake.
Most European paleolithic art is around 30,000 years old from what is called
the Upper Paleolithic. Her provenance is from what is called the Lower
Paleolithic (or paleolitico inferiore) which covers the time period 120,000
years to 700,000 years Before Present (BP).
wandering around the museum and couldn't find her, so I asked an attendant. She
took me through four rooms into a tiny fifth room on the second floor and there
she was. If I had not known about her, I probably would not have noticed her
among the rocks and flints. If I hadn't asked, I'd have had trouble even though
I have a good nose for these things.
around 10-12 cm high (4-5 inches). Her image is carved on a rock, or pebble as
it is called in the museum brochure. You have to look closely to distinguish
the form and this is most easily done by starting from her feet. Her calves and
thighs are clearly drawn and across her thighs are some scorings (or scarrings?).
Above and clearly delineated as an inverted triangle is the public area and in
the centre a tiny diamond shape (could that be the clitoris?).
Above is the
belly, slightly rounded though this woman is certainly not overfed. On the
belly are visible 10 or 11 small marks. Again these could be scars or have some
connection to counting. They do not appear to be randomly placed as they are
evenly spaced in two roughly parallel lines.
Her arms are
crossed in the form of an X above her belly. The fingers of one hand are
clearly visible.Her arms cover her
belly but not her breasts and at her throat is a faintly visible what might be
surprising element of this image, which up to this point is doggedly realistic,
is that the woman has the head of a wolf. The two ears are up and alert, a
single open eye is visible in the profile and the snout lifted to the air as if
engaged in sniffing the wind.
If you turn
the rock/pebble over there is another head carved there. At first I thought it
a cow's head, but looking again it could be either a bear or another rounder-nosed
wolf. Please let me know what you think.
think that such an incredible work of art would be deserving of a sign. No.
Nothing. Just a small sign that says Tolentino (MC), presumably where she was
found. Nothing to give her age, in itself extraordinary. And while she is named
on the museum website, the museum itself is yet to catch up. I read through the
illuminated signage for all the paleolithic and neolithic eras and no mention
of her there and nothing even about the 300,000 year time period. It seems to
me that the museum is doing itself a disservice, but worse is that women once
again are. made invisible. If I were this museum's curator, I would be having
exceptionally good photographs made of this. I would give her a glass case
(with a few friendly companions) that named, dated and identified her.
I'd also be
asking questions like:
implement was used to make this drawing on this stone?
this image tell us about women in this society?
what can it
tell us about the relationship between humans/women and animals/wolves?
this image mean?
suggestive of a spiritual or simply material connection between wolves and
the second head represent?
other similar works of art from this period?
Instead of a
helmeted male head on the museum brochure, I would have a detail from this. Her
age, in itself, ought to be enough reason for her to be widely known. The
quality of the art is something to be admired.
oldest item in the museum is a 28,000-year-old female figure referred to as a
Venere/Venus. She was found in a cave at Frasassi. She does have some prominence
in the room before la donna lupa, as well as a sign and a name.
What is it
that 'they' don't want us to know or think?