Tongue breaks

Emily Wilson

  • If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson
    Virago, 397 pp, £12.99, November 2003, ISBN 1 84408 081 1
  • The Sappho History by Margaret Reynolds
    Palgrave, 311 pp, £19.99, May 2003, ISBN 0 333 97170 1
  • Sappho's Leap by Erica Jong
    Norton, 320 pp, US $24.95, May 2003, ISBN 0 393 05761 5

Some time around the ninth century, Sappho’s nine books were irrecoverably lost. We have some tantalising scraps, single lines and short quotations, but only one complete poem – the ‘Ode to Aphrodite’ (Fragment 1), which is quoted by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. A few longish passages from other poems have been preserved in other authors: the most famous is Fragment 31 (‘He seems to me equal to gods’), quoted at length in On the Sublime. Until the end of the 19th century, these two poems were practically all that was known from the work of the poet Plato called ‘the tenth Muse’. Then, around the turn of the 20th century, some scraps of papyrus from an ancient rubbish tip at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt turned out to contain fragments of poetry – including substantial chunks of Sophocles, Euripides and Sappho. But even with these additions, we have only about 3 per cent of what she wrote. Reconstructing Sappho from what remains is like trying to get a sense of a whole Tyrannosaurus rex from one claw.

Both scholars and creative writers have made much of Sappho’s fragmentariness. Anne Carson’s new translations, with facing Greek text, make effective use of blank space and brackets to convey the feeling of a torn or burned scrap of papyrus. Carson loves the spaces almost as much as the words: she says in her introduction that ‘brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.’ Here, for instance, is Fragment 24D:

]
]
]
]
]
] in a thin voice ]

The four words of Carson’s poem are a haunting translation of a single word in Greek: leptophon.

Carson provides brief but useful notes which should enable even the Greekless reader to understand some of the most important textual problems in Sappho. Carson tries to translate nothing which is not in the Greek, and to follow the original word order and line breaks as far as possible. Here is her version of Fragment 31:

He seems to me equal to gods that man

whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing – oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead – or almost
I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty

And there the text breaks off. The great thing about this translation is its poverty. Unlike other translators, Carson adds no possessive pronouns or definite articles that are not present in the Greek. Sappho’s speaker can no longer recognise her tongue as ‘my’ tongue; her eyes and ears and skin are no longer her own.

Carson is also aware that repetition matters. Sappho’s own inability to speak (‘no speaking’) is mocked by the echo of her beloved’s ‘sweet speaking’. In Carson’s version, as in the Greek, the first line and the penultimate line echo one another (‘He seems to me . . . I seem to me’). The lover disintegrates as she contemplates the beloved object, until she can no longer speak or see or hear. But the controlling perceptions of the poet (the ‘me’ to whom it all ‘seems’) shape the narrative of the poem. The tension between the self who desires and the self who notices, often fudged in translation, has been an essential element in the influence of Sappho’s poem on later writers of lyric.

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