Prose from Poetry Magazine

Miidash miinawaa zaka’iyan sa: And you have set me on fire

Translating Sappho into Anishinaabemowin.

Imagine the stories exchanged after pelts and prayers had been put away for the day along the shores of Hudson Bay in 1680; or the tales told at Fort Meigs or Fort Mackinac during the “Second War of Independence” in 1812. There must have been times when soldiers, translators, and spies thought about their most reliable means of education and distraction. Whenever cultures collide, lyric and verse are part of the mix. As nations are built, which stories and which languages are silenced, go underground, and wait to be retold again? As the Indigenous people of the Great Lakes area in North America encountered settlers and colonization, the “classics” of one culture were shared and tested against the “classics” of another. Stories of the Wife of Bath might have been traded for stories of  Toad Woman. Debates over whether to “take arms against a sea of troubles” might include contemplation of whether or not to dance with the ducks in Wenabozho’s lodge. Cross-cultural comparisons about life, love, and the unknown could have included fragments and tools of divination imported from far corners and other planes. What might have been said, of course, can’t actually be known, but it is important to consider the ways the words of others are retold and rewritten. More than a liberal experiment in creativity and global inclusion, translation offers an opportunity to rewrite history, to rename and reinterpret the acts of enemies, fools, and lovers. And if one can do so while holding steady the lens of language and culture, keeping the views of both sides balanced, readers will be reminded that translation is more a path of ambivalence than equivalence.

This excerpt is part of a larger project which allows an Anishinaabe literary perspective to shape the translation and narrative theories of the stories brought to the Great Lakes by other cultures. One of the authors included is Sappho, whose verse has been carried forward on parchment, potshards, paper, and now the internet. Very little is known of  Sappho that has not been filtered by time and interpretation. Her lyrics were first remembered by the first-century literary critic Longinus, who cites her “ode to jealousy” as an example of the sublime, which he defined as μεγαλοφροσύνης ἀπήχημα (megalophrosunēsapēchēma) or the product of a great soul. In Anishinaabemowin, one might express this as gichi-ojichaa-giizhenijige, an act of creation originating in the soul. If this is possible, it might explain how her verse continues to fascinate centuries later, becoming the source of many attempts at translation and sublimation. Poets and critics have worked to fill narrative gaps and impose interpretations. The work here is informed by the fine scholarship of Yopie Prins, who explores numerous English translations of fragment 31 in her book, Victorian Sappho. This specific exploration would not have happened without Elisabetta Cova, whose patient analysis of ancient Greek morphology helped create the direct English deconstruction of each line and led to a final Anishinaabemowin translation less influenced by English. Perhaps the value of Sappho, here in fragment 31, is seeing the parts as parts not whole. Like a funerary bundle, each part a memory and message; the fragments remain exchangeable, reconstructable markers on a map redrawn with each new translation.

The original stanzas of fragment 31 consist of three hendecasyllabic lines followed by a fourth line of five syllables known as the adonean line, invoking Adonis as the object of love and lyric lament. Moving between Greek and Anishinaabemowin could begin with a search for the name of that final line. Perhaps to write that final line would be bagwisibiige, to write with supplication, filled with simultaneous hope and despair, evocative of Pukwiss, a well-known character of Anishinaabe story tradition. A translation also requires a slight reduction of syllables to produce a version close in content. To falsely strive for eleven syllables would require the introduction of new nouns, verbs, or forced discourse markers. It is easier to let go of one syllable and allow the pattern to vary slightly. This is the dance of translation. And so:

φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν (it seems to me that one is equal to gods)
ἔμμεν᾽ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι (he is present there the man opposite you)
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί- (sitting and nearby so sweetly speak-)
σας ὐπακούει (ing for you to hear)


inendaagwad a’aw manidoowizi (it seems that one is being a manidoo)
inini ayaad agaamayi’ii noongom (the man across from you now)
besho biidaasamabiyeg mii nitaa- (nearby you both sit so your elo-)
weyan noondawid (quence is heard)

and the reader’s senses are heightened. The polytheistic perspective is maintained and the steady matched-syllable lines lean into the final 
statement which highlights the voice and tension between lovers and sets the senses alight in the following stanza. It is worth noting that the original Greek version alludes to sweetness, while the Anishinaabe translation alludes to skill. This is done to avoid falsely importing a metaphor. Translation should be a conversation, not an act of assimilation. The best choice when moving between forms, ideas, and words is one that leans in neither direction if at all possible. In this case, both lines imply artful but undirected seduction because, without indicating whether the speaker is addressing the godlike man or the poet, we have an unresolved tangent and a more universal verse.

The second stanza translation contains little variation in meaning and adheres to the syllabic rhythm determined by the original. Centuries later it is impossible not to empathize with the poet as the intensity increases. Laughter causes a heart to race and glimpses of the beloved render the poet speechless.

καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ᾽ μὰν (and laughing with longing indeed)
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν (my heart in my chest flutters)
ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ᾽ ἴδω βρόχε᾽, ὤς με φώναι- (when at you I look even briefly, voice-)
σ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἒν ἔτ᾽ εἴκει, (less I become forever)
gaye misawenaapiyan, geget (and you laughing with longing indeed)
niningide’eyaan nikaakigong (my heart trembles in my chest)
apii waabaminan ajina bwaa- (when at you I look even briefly, un-)
kidoyaan gosha (able to speak forever)

Both the first and second Greek stanzas contain enjambment expressed by hyphenation which creates both tension and ambiguity. In keeping with the spirit of Sappho’s intent this is expressed in Anishinaabemowin by separating the morphemes of verbs “eloquence” and “to become mute.” This occurs again in the third stanza, where, in the final line of Sappho’s verse, hearing fails. “Buzzing” is the word most frequently used in English translations. The word used in Anishinaabemowin is gaaskwe, the sound of friction.

ἀλλ᾽ ἄκαν μὲν γλῶσσα †ἔαγε†, λέπτον (but it is as if my tongue is broken)
δ᾽ αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν, (and suddenly a subtle fire runs 
under my skin,)
ὀππάτεσσι δ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἒν ὄρημμ᾽, ἐπιρρόμ- (with my eyes I see nothing, buzz-)
βεισι δ᾽ ἄκουαι, (ing in my ears)
dibishkoo bookodenaniweyaan (as if my tongue is broken)
miidash miinawaa zaka’iyan sa (and you have set me on fire)
mii waabandamaan gaawiin gegoo gaa- (with my eyes I see nothing, buzz-)
skwe nitawagong (ing in my ears)

Only as the poem reaches the penultimate epiphany do the versions stray in content.

†έκαδε μ᾽ ἴδρως ψῦχρος κακχέεται†, τρόμος δὲ (a cold sweat comes over me and shaking)
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας (seizes me all over, greener than grass)
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ᾽ ὀλίγω ᾽πιδεύης (I am, and nearly dead)
φαίνομ᾽ ἔμ᾽ αὔται (I seem to myself)
dakabwezoyaan, baapagishkaayaan (a cold sweat comes over me and shaking)
dakonigaazoyaan, mashkoziyaan (I am seized and turn grass-green)
dapineyaan gegaa miinawaa in- (nearly dead again I)
endaagoziyaan (seem to myself)

And finally, they arrive again in the same place with the poet’s sensory disassembly pulled back into focus as she states:

ἀλλὰ πὰν τόλματον ἐπεὶ †καὶ πένητα† (but everything must be dared or endured)
mii aanawi aabdeg zhiibineyang zoongide’eyang (but we must dare and be strong)

The final line was not included in the earliest repetitions of the verse and might well be the first line of another stanza. Furthermore, palaeographers do not agree on the final verb, whether it is daring or enduring and so the Anishinaabe version of Sappho’s fragment 
offers both. What becomes clear is that Sappho is more and less than real. She is the sublime master of lyric while also being as inspiring and indecipherable as the gods, the manidoog. Many methods for speaking with manidoog were devised over time and most involve disturbances of energy, shaking and rattling of phrases and fragments to create a channel of communication between two worlds not usually connected. This echoes the act of translation — we rattle and render unfamiliar the tools at our disposal to find a means of understanding what was previously not known. Yet, we do so to find the thread of existence and perception that connects us, Greek to English to Anishinaabe, gods and manidoog to humans. For these reasons, Sappho’s ancient poems easily cross the Atlantic and are carried in a new form into the future.

Originally Published: June 1st, 2018

Margaret Noodin, author of Weweni (Wayne State University Press, 2015) and Bawaajimo: A Dialect of Dreams (Michigan State University Press, 2014), is Anishinaabe, teaches at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and edits

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In