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Poets translating poets
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Dates for Michaelmas Term 2020

Monday 11 November (Week 5), 5.15 - 6.45 pm - Queen's College - Canadian poet and translator Erín Moure will lead a multilingual translation workshop, discussing the movement of meaning in poetry translation

Dates for Trinity Term 2019

Thursday 16 May (Week 3), 5.30-7pm - Queen's College, Lecture Room A - Charlie Louth will lead a session featuring a range of poets, thinking about poetry translation and translated poems in general
Thursday 30 May (Week 5), 5.30-7pm - Queen's College, Lecture Room A - Adriana X Jacobs will lead a session on Don Mee Choi and Kim Hyesoon 
Wednesday 12 June (Week 6), 5.30 pm -  John Rutherford Centre for Galician Studies (Back Quad 5, 6A Queen's) - A special event in co-operation with the Centre for Galician Studies, we are very pleased to welcome the poet María do Cebreiro and her translator Keith Payne to discuss their poems and translation practice with the group
Thursday 20 June (Week 8), 5.30-7pm - Queen's College, Lecture Room A - Kasia Szymanska will lead a session on translation multiples, covering the work of a range of authors

Poets Translating Poets: Anne Carson Translating Sappho

The Queen’s College, Oxford, 5 February 2019

Yvette Siegert

The Poets Translating Poets reading group hinges on the idea of translation as a form of creative expression and exchange. When a poet working in one language is read by a poet who creates or re-imagines her poem in another, the process involves a constellation of aesthetic constraints, innovations, and losses that can have a startling, revelatory effect on the translator and the translated alike. The discussion group, which is organised by Dr Nicola Thomas and Dr Adele Bardazzi, meets on Thursdays of even weeks, at The Queen’s College, Oxford, to consider the choices involved in this intimate exchange. Recent pairings have included Jamie McKendrick translating Antonella Anedda; Peter Hainsworth translating Biagio Marin; and Matsuo Bashô read through Brazilian Concrete poetry.

In Week 4 of Hilary Term, our discussion turned to If Not, Winter (2002), the Canadian poet Anne Carson’s sometimes beloved, sometimes contested translations of Sappho (c.630/613–c.570 bce).[1] The session was led by Julieta Caldas, a fourth-year undergraduate in French and English at St. Hilda’s, who is currently writing on Carson’s poetry. Participants included undergraduates reading Classics, as well as research staff and postgraduate linguists with varying degrees of proficiency (or complete lack thereof) in ancient Greek.          

We began with background on both poets, citing Carson’s work as both a writer and classicist and Sappho’s legendary gifts as both a lyric poet and composer. While few details of Sappho’s biography can be verified, scholars believe that she wrote about 10,000 lines of poetry, a prolific output of which only about 5% survives in various papyrus fragments. For the purposes of our discussion, we focussed on ten of these fragments, which were displayed down a central column of text flanked by Carson’s versions on the left and Diane J. Rayor’s translations (2014) on the right.[2] (Rayor’s text is perhaps most famous for including recently recovered fragments of Sappho’s corpus.) The layout of this comparative exercise was important, because it directed attention to the original text while presenting the two translations as equally valid interpretations of Sappho. Rayor’s versions were described as ‘scholarly’, ‘unadorned’, and ‘crisp’ – as ‘straight translations’ – while participants noted the more ‘experimental’, ‘lyrical’ and ‘seamless’ qualities of Carson’s text. Both translators engage with the particularities of Greek syntax, as well as with the strangeness of the fragments themselves. Both also draw out the ways in which Sappho plays with the conventions of Classical Greek epithets. In Fragment 96, for example, the familiar ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ of Homeric epic becomes the ‘rose-fingered moon’ in Raynor’s translation, while Carson opts for a ‘rosyfingered moon’ and pairs this with other invented compounds, such as ‘flowerdeep’, that recall the original Greek word order.

This moment of inventiveness in Carson’s text raised the question of different types of ‘conventionality’ and of when a ‘straight’ or ‘conventional’ translation might be useful in the academy: Which translations go into the Sappho ‘canon’? How should a curriculum weigh the popularising purposes of a trade publication like Carson’s against the contributions of Rayor and André Lardinois’s critical edition? Should universities teach Carson’s text as the ‘definitive Sappho’ or opt for a version that carries the imprimatur of a university press? Is If Not, Winter – with its spare lyrical introduction and playful glossary – rigorous enough? Is Carson the experimental poet distracting us from Sappho? On the other hand, do we perceive the combination of Carson’s Classical training and fame as a poet as indication of a ‘higher’ authority that either overwhelms Sappho or diminishes the impact of Rayor’s work? By extension, does Rayor’s excellent translation pale in comparison, or make Sappho sound like a ‘weaker’ poet? These questions dominated our conversation, mostly without answers. Overall, the group was careful to appreciate the strengths of each translation, but what did emerge was the tendency to rely on Rayor’s text as a practical benchmark from which to judge the success of Carson’s bolder innovations.

One of the main difficulties of translating Sappho lies in the fragmentary nature of the remaining poetry. So much empty space is daunting, but also tantalizing. As the poet Clare Pollard argues, in her elegant translations of Ovid’s Heroides, it is precisely because of this fragmentation that ‘every generation of readers in some way invents Sappho, imagining a whole from the pieces’.[3] Carson and Rayor approach wholeness very differently. For Fragment 130, Rayor parses and shapes Sappho’s lines into a full sentence: ‘Once again Love, that loosener of limbs,/bittersweet and inescapable, crawling thing/seizes me’.[4] Carson, meanwhile, renders it as

            Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me –
            sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in [5]

and leaves the couplet unresolved in English. As Carson explains in her Introduction, the goal of the translation was 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’.[6] By ‘stand[ing] out of the way’ like this, she hopes that the reader will be able to encounter Sappho’s syntax and cadences as directly as possible. The absence of the full-stop, in a sense, is supposed to create the effect of reading the discovered papyrus fragment, with all its silences.

But is the ‘plainest language’ really more a matter of Carson being Carson? Paradoxically, one of the achievements of If Not, Winter is to lend what Pollard calls a recognizably ‘delicate, intelligent voice’ to Sappho’s lines, a voice that is marked indelibly by the haunting melodic clarity of Carson’s own style. ‘Plainness’, as we discussed, is not the same as ‘neutrality’. As a translation, the collection is nowhere nearly as radical as Carson’s later Antigonick (2012), her minimalist re-telling of Sophocles’s play.[7] Sappho’s text, however, does seem to function within the logic of Carson’s poetics. Framed as a translation, If Not, Winter is as much Carson as it is Sappho – a gesture that Sappho herself might have appreciated. In a sense, the missing full-stop in Fragment 130 belongs to the universe of crossed-out epithets in Men in the Off Hours (2000). ‘All is lost, yet still there,’ says Carson’s speaker. ‘It may be I’ll never again think of sentences unshadowed in this way. It has changed me. Now I too am someone who knows marks’.[8]

The issue of punctuation animated much of the second half of our conversation. Most notably, Carson introduces a unique rhetoric of brackets in order to indicate a fragment of papyrus, whether from a text by Sappho herself or from a citation of her verse by another author. ‘When translating texts read from papyri’, Carson writes, ‘I have used a single square bracket to give an impression of missing matter, so that ] or [ indicates destroyed papyrus or the presence of letters not quite legible somewhere in the line’.[9] For Fragment 78, a piece whose surviving lines often contain only a single word, Carson discards the convention of ellipses for denoting omission:


                                    ] nor

                                    ] desire

                                    ] but all at once

                                    ] blossom

                                    ] desire

                                    ] took delight [10]


Here her attention to the Greek is scrupulous, but her priority goes beyond marking every single lost phrase. What she creates, instead, is a ruin of text. The incomplete closing brackets serve as a kind of anti-scaffolding that point towards the past, while challenging us to question what it is that a given fragment can accomplish in the present. The effect is a typographical ‘impression’ that indicates all that we can never recover. Does such punctuation romanticize the fragmentary nature of the surviving poetry? Gimmicky or not, Carson’s translations stress the material strangeness of encountering Sappho’s work. In effect, If Not, Winter gets to the root of what it means for a poet to translate a poet. It is a creative exchange and a convergence of poetic sensibilities, but it is also, first and foremost, a visceral act of reading.

[1] Carson, Anne. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. New York: Knopf, 2002. The Greek is drawn from Sappho et  Alcaeus: Fragmenta, ed. Eva-Maria Voigt. Amsterdam: Polak & van Gennep, 1971.

[2] Rayor, Diane J. and André Lardinois. Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works. Cambridge: Cambridge  UP, 2014.

[3] Pollard, Clare. Heroines. Hexham: Bloodaxe, 2013. p. 96.

[4] Rayor and Lardinois, 2014: 77.

[5] Carson, 2002: 265.

[6] Carson, 2002: x.

[7] Carson, Anne. Antigonick. Illustrations by Bianca Stone. New York: New Directions, 2012.

[8] Carson, Anne. Men in the Off Hours. New York: Knopf, 2000. p. 166.

[9] Carson, 2002: xi; emphasis added.

[10] Carson, 2002: 153.