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."

Originally Published: September 19th, 2007

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

  1. September 19, 2007
     Alicia (A. E.)

    Hi Steve,
    This is a subject close to my heart!
    I admire the verve and spirit and variety of Santos’ Greek Lyric Poetry very much, though I agree they are certainly versions.
    But as to being distracted by, say, turning a poem of Catullus into a sonnet–the suggestion, perhaps, that all ancient poetry needs to be turned into lucid free verse or loose blank verse–I don’t agree. There are many poems of Catullus that strike me as essentially proto-sonnets–that is, poems of 13, 14, 15 lines, often with a turn, and in hendecasyllables, the syllable count of the sonnet line for many Romance languages, and only one syllable off form our own usual iambic pentameter. And indeed Petrarch’s tropes and unrequited romance are heavily indebted to Latin love elegy and its situations of love-lorn poets and cold and unattainable mistresses.
    Choosing free or even blank verse (which was invented for translating Virgil) for a line of classical metrical poetry (which is metered in a different system of syllable length rather than beats) is just as arbitrary a decision as turning it into iambic pentameter. The advantage of free verse is that there are no metrical or rhyming considerations to take into account, and so one has none of those pressures in rendering fidelity to the meaning. But one has certainly not been faithful to the formal pressures of the poem. So be it–it may be a wonderful free verse poem in English. All translation is compromise, and any decision leans one way or the other, but the idea that free verse is automatically the best and most “transparent” choice is full of assumptions, as is the idea that blank verse is somehow the perfect choice for the dactylic heptameter of classical epics. The suggestion seems to be that free verse is the default mode in our language.
    A stripped-down fragment of Sappho may be beautiful to our ears, accustomed as we are to Modernism’s love of the fragmentary, but it does not represent Sappho as she wrote. That isn’t to say it can’t be beautiful in its own right. I certainly admire Carson’s recent volume of translation for getting across the impression of reading these in their fragmentary textual state. And I admire Mary Barnard’s for getting across Sappho’s charming limpidity. With translation, I am very much of the “more the merrier” camp.
    And to get back to Devil’s advocacy--isn’t it just as distracting to read, say, a tightly rhymed (rime riche) poem of Cavafy’s, such as “The City,” in the plain spoken free verse idiom of contemporary American poetry? Yet this is how most people know the poem in translation. Are we starting to expect all poetry of all ages to sound like our own? Is anything other automatically distracting? Is “distracting” in reading poetry of other cultures and times always a bad thing?
    Sorry to put so much into a comment! I was energized by the post.

  2. September 19, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    oops--don't think I can correct a comment after I posted--read "hexameter" for "heptameter"... sorry!

  3. September 19, 2007
     Alicia (A.E.)

    PS--and then I'll stop, really! Just to add that Santos' versions are themselves often supply metrical and elegantly and lightly rhymed.

  4. September 19, 2007

    I was hoping you would comment, Alicia! I'm willing to believe that some of Catullus can work in sonnets, and I know that Catullus read Sappho, and I know that we receive Sappho in fragments, or as somehow essentially fragmentary, which isn't how she seemed to her first audiences (either to her girls' school, if she really did run a girls' school of sorts, or to the first people who read her poems as transcribed). I certainly favor the translation of some classical poetry into rhyming versions in English, even though classical poetry doesn't rhyme-- shoutout here to Ben Jonson, who would barely exist as a nondramatic poet if he didn't think it OK to make Horace rhyme. And yet I just can't believe in Santos' Sappho as a sonnet-writer. The problem isn't that it is anachronistic; it's that it sounds and feels anachronistic: Santos doesn't convince me that sonnet form fits.

  5. September 20, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    I am not sure it is the fault of the sonnet form exactly--though maybe it is a consequence--but the problem, it strikes me, with Santos' "To Anaktoria" (a poem I've translated myself) is that it is heavily padded--and Sappho really doesn't survive padding.
    He begins:
    Some men say it's the sight of ramparts fronted by cavalry,
    others that it's a field of foot soldiers closing ranks,
    still others claim that the heart thrills to no spectacle more
    than a fleet of warships churning the wine-dark waters white.
    The workaday prose of Campbell's Loeb is actually more effective here, because it doesn't add anything:
    Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry, and others of ships, is the most beautiful thing on the black earth, but I say it is whatsoever a person loves.
    There are essentially only two modifiers--black ("melainan") and beautiful ("kalliston"). Weirdly, Santos has also omitted "the black earth." Perhaps free versions work better translating lesser-known poems, and less exacting authors.