If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson

Sappho. The most famous woman poet of all time (so far), and yet remarkably under-read. Time to fix that. Anne Carson’s translation, published as If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho was irresistible merely from its premise:

Sappho lived on the island of Lesbos from about 630 B.C. She was a musical genius who devoted her life to composing and performing songs. Of the nine books of lyrics Sappho is said to have composed, none of the music is extant and only one poem has survived complete. All the rest are fragments. In If Not, Winter Carson presents all of Sappho’s fragments in Greek and in English. Brackets and space give the reader a sense of what is absent as well as what is present on the papyrus. Carson’s translation illuminates Sappho’s reflections on love, desire, marriage, exile, cushions, bees, old age, shame, time, chickpeas, and many other aspects of the human situation.

If the back copy sounds alluring, the actual poems pull your heart from your chest and hold it close, dancing.

Carson begins with a short introduction to Sappho: what is known of her life, her interests, the high esteem in which her works were held by the ancient writers; followed by a note on her method of translation —

I include all the fragments printed by Voigt in which at least one word is legible… In translating I tried to put down all that can be read of each poem in the plainest language I could find, using where possible the same order of words and thoughts as Sappho did. I like to think that, the more I stand out of the say, the more Sappho shows through. This is an amiable fantasy (transparency of self) within which most translators labor. (x)

which acknowledges the impossibility of a true or invisible translation. Carson acknowledges that she has also made changes to the text by adding line breaks, in a translator’s attempt to suggest the lyricism of the original poems. She notes that

Sappho’s fragments are of two kinds: those preserved on papyrus and those derived from citation in ancient authors. (xi)

and explains her method for reconciling and indicating the two sources. The love of poetry, specifically Sappho’s poetry, and of the mystery and delight of piecing together from scanty remains a semblance of the original —

Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp (xi)

— with which Carson approaches her subject is abundantly evident in the introductory pages and in her endnotes, which specifically address the trickier knots of translating certain words.

The poems themselves are utterly absorbing. The one intact poem leads the way, an invocation —

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,

child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you

do not break with hard pains,

O lady, my heart.

— that imagines Aphrodites’s presence and begs the goddess to “(now again)” come to Sappho’s aid and persuade a girl to again love her; on the surface plain enough but full of subtle twists and threads that reveal a rich tapestry: this song coyly reveals a larger pattern and a personed world, a sense of time both immediate (only-now) and cyclical, a perspective in which the gods are near and also infinitely above their mortal beseechers, a cry of heartbreak and a statement of confidence.

Come to me now: loose me from hard

care and all my heart longs

to accomplish, accomplish. You

be my ally.

If there are poems that can make you fall in love with the agony of love — poems that can make you fall in love with what words can do — this is one.

I would love to hear this “(now again)” put to music and sung in the original.

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Full verses or more bracket than words, Sappho’s songs are evocative, infuriating. How much more so they must be to the the translator is suggested in the (happily restrained) end notes; even so short a fragment as

you burn me

caused Carson some agony over whether the first-person pronoun (literally “we”, not “me”) is a case of slippage, common in ancient poetry which was, after all, often sung in chorus, which is how Carson’s English translation treats it, or whether it is something else entirely. It’s hard not to be charmed by a translator who gives solid and contextually-based reasons for her reading, then admits that

On the other hand, I may be reading this sentence all wrong. (366)

and proceeds to give solid and contextually-based reasons for a completely opposite reading. I recommend reading the poems first on their own, filling in their gaps with what you can piece together and with your own imagination, and afterward, reading the endnotes with their poems (not every poem has endnotes) one by one for context and the satisfaction of having solid proof for what you sensed but weren’t certain of.

The largely complete poems of the opening pages eventually give way to shorter, incomplete sentences, and eventually to a series of fragments consisting of single Greek words. By this point in the book the reader has tasted enough to Sappho’s poetry that what is missing is maddening; what is she saying about celery? what danger? who is manyskilled and what about them?

Fortunately, the endnotes follow, with reassuring historical and cultural facts, translating puzzles, and the many meanings of certain words.

Reading If Not, Winter (title, of course, taken from one tantalizing song fragment) is

far more sweetsounding than a lyre

golder than gold (315/poem 156)

Definitely a book to read and reread for lovers of poetry, puzzles, music, translation; and teachers of these things.

Highly recommended.

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