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and the pleiades
I’ve been looking again at Sherod Santos’ slightly controversial volume Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation. A few of you might remember Garry Wills’ broadside against it, and Rosanna Warren’s response. Wills thought it inaccurate, not really a translation, and hence a betrayal: Warren and others thought the poems, often enough, worked in English, and thought them better than the more literal versions that don’t feel like poems.
What they are, surely, is post-Poundian versions– poems in English based on the originals, and with the same underlying sense. (Sometimes you’ll hear this kind of not-quite-translation of verse called “metaphrase,” though “metaphrase” can also, in discussions of prose, refer to a very literal translation, as opposed to paraphrase.) And as I’ve been rereading them I’ve been noticing how often the ones that seem to work as poems in English are also the ones that feel like they could be accurate translations– the ones that seem to bring into Santos’ English the spirit of another time; conversely, the ones that don’t seem to work as poems are the ones most aggressive in their deployment of terms, ideas, and forms we recognize as alien to the Greek originals.
It’s distracting, to me, to see one of Sappho’s most famous poems turned into a sonnet, a form not invented till thousands of years after Sappho, or to hear Callimachus put into the Celto-English of J. M. Synge’s Aran Islanders. It’s both distracting and bizarre, to me, for Santos’ version of a poem by Solon (the legendary Athenian leader, who died long before the rise of the Roman Empire) to invoke “lares and penates,” the protective household spirits of the Latin-speaking Romans.
Conversely, it’s marvelous to see the stripped-down, streamlined and convincing English for, e.g., this fragment of Sappho’s: “I prayed one word: I want.” It’s even more remarkable, for poets much later than Sappho and much less well-known, to see the language Santos created in order to make their lusts and dissatisfactions– not quite ours, but strikingly close to ours: to show– with far fewer properties, fewer words, fewer resources than later poetry in English usually makes available– the continuity of emotions from antiquity to now: the continuity of a lyric tradition is some of the strongest evidence we have that the emotional lives of people who lived long ago were in some important ways like ours.
That’s what Housman (a real classical scholar) claimed when his poems about Shropshire remembered Rome, and it’s what Santos in his best pages shows too: the sarcastic lustful “Rumor” of Rufinus, for example, or the low-tech seaside metaphor for frustration in the “Beached Dolphin” of Anyte, who “lie[s] land-/ locked on a wide isthmus of bellied sand/ like a promise my own death can’t quite keep.”