In my search for a better understanding of the glorious Sappho, I have decided that the best place to begin is at the beginning- her first and perhaps best known fragment, the Hymn to Aphrodite. I turned to three different authors’ translations, hoping that comparing and contrasting would lend themselves well to restoring a bit of what is lost in translation. A dmoz search yielded many different options, out of which I selected William Harris (professor of classics at Middlebury college), Elizabeth Vandiver (professor of classics at Whitman College), and Peter Saint-Andre (technologist who dabbles in classics. I thought he would provide an interesting contrast to the classics professors). If you’d like to read along, the three translations can be found here, here, and here, respectively.
At first read, what stood out to me most was the way the word choices of each translator impacted the mood of the poem, such as the slightly different feel of “lavish” instead of “many-colored” or “iridescent”. When we are given so few words to set the scene in our minds, it’s amazing how much impact these subtle differences can have. Another good example of this is the difference between Sappho’s lover returning her love “unwillingly” and returning her love “despite herself”. “Unwillingly” sounds so much harsher than “despite herself”. Although perhaps this harshness better fits the overall theme, since the poem ends with a military reference (this military nature is clear in all three versions ). A particularly interesting note is that all three versions use the feminine pronoun for the lover, although Elizabeth Vandiver mentions in her footnotes that we cannot be certain that this is what is actually implied in the original Greek. It was also interesting that Peter Saint-Andre did not set up lines fourteen through twenty one as a direct quote from Aphrodite. While this may have been the structure that he felt would best show us Sappho’s voice, I felt that it confused the point.
Comparing these three different versions has really made me think about the way a translator’s voice is carried into their translation. Was Sappho speaking to me through William Harris, or was William Harris speaking to me through Sappho? And what does that tell us about the translating styles we’re developing as young classics scholars ourselves? How do our own tastes and experiences play into the way we try to portray Ovid or Catullus or Cicero to modern readers?
Happy translating, friends.