the thing about sappho is there aren’t many things about sappho. there’s one poem which (we think) is complete, and there are fragments, most of which are very small, sometimes torn so that lines are broken. her formidable artistic reputation was forged in her own day and carried on by commenters in later generations of the greek-speaking world, and to some extent more recent interest stems from trusting the words of presumably discerning critics who could read her works in their complete form. the introduction by dudley fitts points out that in a way fragmentation could be lucky; if you’re looking for genius it’s easy to imagine a context for half-sentences that would make them shine. (the introduction also told me every other fact about her i’ve mentioned.)
what fitts doesn’t come out and say but which i think can be inferred, or at least part of what i took away, is that while every translation is inherently a “collaborative” effort, and every translator is (or should be) an artist in their own right, when dealing with a poet we know only in glimpses, the translator’s vision becomes all the more important; translation bleeds even further into construction. i’ve read translations i didn’t like of works i managed to be impressed by (the dorothy sayers translation of inferno comes to mind) but it’s hard to imagine liking sappho without liking her translator.
luckily i do. barnard, while in her notes at the end is very humble about the act of approximating the music of a poet she clearly admires, i think has a wonderful poetic ear. she favors short lines (and in her notes mentions that when bits of lines are missing she has opted to contract rather than try to fill in) and breaks them in a way that lends an air of significance, which i guess you could call cheap but i think overall the effect, and some of the content of sappho’s poems (especially the ones that have survived in relatively longer form), is earned. this is a good example of careful placement lending rhythm and space to a handful of words. she also arranges the poems excellently, into five sections grouped — to say thematically doesn’t seem quite right, although for example all the ones about marriage are in one section, the ones most clearly expressing love and desire for women are together, but they are broader than that. they’re grouped and sequenced so that the effect of each section is almost like reading a long poem. again, arguably artificial, but again, with so little to go on i hardly think that’s a crime. and, again, barnard has a sense of rhythm spread across the fragments, too.
but what of the lady herself? fitts’s wry remark is to be noted, but certainly i came away convinced that, at the least, she very well might have been brilliant. any detail can seem significant isolated in half a sentence spread across three lines (this is kind of the trick of some photography, no?), but taking her work as a whole the images feel selected with a kind of tender clarity. and yes, her words on love — its thrill and its loss — sparse as they are do still resonate, 2600 years later. barnard and fitts both mention that the quality that comes across in her work in greek, and was commented on by critics of her age and the ones into which her work survived, is what barnard calls “fresh colloquial directness of speech,” which barnard says she aimed to capture and fitts compliments her for achieving; i agree with him. she turns to the intimate, to the inward, and to the heavenly with grace and precision. perhaps the best way to explain how captivated i was by the way of seeing expressed in this volume is to say i left absolutely hungry for more.
barnard’s notes on the translation are slim (i wanted more of this too, because nerd [bernard knox’s introduction to fagles’s odyssey talks so much about the mysteries of studying ancient greek poetry, it’s amazing]) but useful for context (her argument in defense of the idea that sappho was not quite a priestess but almost a poetic guildmaster of sorts is compelling, as is her blunt statement that we know basically nothing about her life for sure) and for thinking about the translation. she lists the liberties she took — occasionally adding a description to a god a greek reader would have automatically known, setting aside as titles first lines which are sometimes from the context in which the fragment is found, sometimes her own to elucidate, and sometimes conjecture, certain grammatical changes — and while part of me (the nerd part) is like UGH WHY ISN’T THIS AN ANNOTATED VOLUME WITH ALL YOUR NOOOOTES, that would have pretty fully ruined the spell she managed to cast. her knowledge and poetic skill are great enough that i trust that her additions and changes bring us, overall, closer to the experience of reading sappho in greek, which i think is more important than satisfying my pedantic itches.