Translator’s Preliminary Note

This is an original translation of a poem by Sappho (630-580 BC), traditionally known as the “old age poem” or the “Tithonus poem” (in the standard numbering by Lobel and Page, it is “Fragment 58”). Tithonus, mentioned in the poem, was a mortal whom the goddess Dawn loved. She convinced Zeus to grant him eternal life, but neglected to ask for his eternal youth. A few words about the translation are warranted. The original poem has a complicated meter that is difficult to emulate in English; the hexameter of my poem is a poor man’s substitute for Sappho’s meter, but I hope it conveys a bit of the music nonetheless. In the same vein, my translation is not a word for word rendering, but more of an interpretation, intended to convey the music rather than the exact sense of the poem. The couplets of the original poem did not rhyme, as mine do; again, perhaps the rhyming will restore a bit of the music lost in translation. Finally, I want to note that the last four lines of my translation are drawn from fragments of the poem which only appear in one surviving manuscript; there is some scholarly debate as to whether those four lines should be part of the poem or not. In any case, my translation of them is very loose, since only fragments of those lines remain.

 

Old Age

Hold on, little girls, to the beautiful gifts of the violet Muses,
and cling to your love of the clear sweet lyre, that lover of music.

My skin was once supple and smooth, but now it is withered by age;
my hair had been lustrous and black, but now it is faded and gray.

My heart grows heavy; my knees, too weary to stand upon,
though once, they could lift me and dance, and could leap as light as a fawn.

I grumble and groan on and on—and yet, what else can I do?
No woman has lived without aging, no man has eternal youth.

They say that Tithonus was held in the rosy arms of Dawn,
who carried him off to the ends of the earth, so her love would live on.

Though charming and young at the time, and despite his immortal wife,
he too would succumb to old age in the end of his endless life.

Yet, thinking of all that I’ve lost, I recall what maturity brings:
the wisdom I lacked as a youth, and a love for the finer things.

And Eros has given me beauty not found in the light of the sun:
the passion and patience for life that so often is lost on the young.

 

J. Simon Harris lives with his family in Raleigh, NC. He is a graduate researcher in Materials Science at NC State University. Much of his poetry, including his ongoing translation of Homer’s Iliad in dactylic hexameter and samples of his translation of Dante’s Inferno in terza rima, is available on his website (www.jsimonharris.com). His novel, Lemnos, is available now on Amazon Kindle.”

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27 Responses

  1. Bruce E. Wren

    Very nicely done. Tackling Sappho in translation is no easy task, but I think you have done a fine job here.

    Reply
  2. James Sale

    Very lovely – ‘in the end of his endless life’. Some beautiful moments in this, and I would not judge a poem by its fidelity to the original, but by how it works in the guest language, which here is English. And this works just fine. Well done J. Simon

    Reply
  3. David Watt

    I really like your translation! It is touching and beautiful.

    Reply
  4. David B. Gosselin

    Simon,

    I thought this was a pretty decent translation and I’d never seen this Sappho poem by so it was a pleasure. As well, the final likes ring like the authentic conclusion of the poem, so congratulations on that!

    I’ve published translations of Sappho and Ibykos fragments by Mike Burch on thechainedmuse.com. I think he manages to really bring out the riveting sense of passion these poets could wield, notably:

    Sappho, fragment 47

    Eros harrows my heart:
    wild winds whipping desolate mountains,
    uprooting oaks.

    Or Mike’s translation of Ibykos:
    https://www.thechainedmuse.com/single-post/2018/05/03/Ibykos-Fragment-286-Circa-564-BC

    With that said, I felt disappointed at times that much of the poetry available from these poets tended to be concerned with passion and lust. The poem you chose has a more elevated theme, which is very welcomed and I think more becoming for a poet of such virtuosity.

    If you have any other translations by poets like Anacreon or the other greats, I’d interested to see what you have. I know only fragments remain, but I’d be very happy to see what you have. Feel free to send something my way via thechainedmuse submissions page.

    Best,

    David

    Reply
  5. Leo Yankevich

    To me this sounds tin-eared, but my early translations were no better, though at the time (25 years ago), I thought them “great.” You are a young man. Keep reading, reading… then when the time comes, raise the bar. Remember, pay no heed to empty praise. It’s worse than harsh criticism.

    Reply
  6. Charlie Southerland

    Hi Simon–

    I tried to translate your translation into sapphic stanzas. I tinker around with sapphics a bit.

    Best to you and your efforts. Quantitative verse isn’t easy.

    Hold you little girls to the gifts of violet muses.
    Beauty clings for love of a sweet clear lyre, like
    skin so supple, smooth— but it’s withered now,
    hair too, once black, grayed,

    fading like the daylight at even’s tide, my
    heart grows heavy while these arthritic knees ache
    once upon a time, they could lift me leaping
    light as a fawn’s kick.

    I could dance back then but I grumble much now.
    What else can be done by an aging woman?
    Where is Helen, where is Penelope’s youth?
    Men hold no favor

    with the gods– poor Tithonus, held by Dawn’s arms
    listless, left to pluck at a cat gut string, sings,
    quavers. Carried off to a far flung corner,
    memories dying–

    sits there glassy-eyed and unable, morbid.
    Dawn comes early every day, immortal
    wife of love, and this has been on my mind, late–
    wishing a better

    Fate than theirs, and all that I’ve lost with living
    life, maturity how it reaches outward
    holds and clings like wisdom misplaced, re-found, claimed
    love for the finer

    things that Eros gave, like the beauty passion
    brings and patience next to it, light defining
    life so often lost on the young, discarded,
    filtered by storm clouds.

    Reply
    • J. Simon Harris

      Wow, nice work. I haven’t written anything in Sapphic stanzas, but I did try the form once before abandoning it. I found it very difficult to map onto natural English rhythms. Your version isn’t perfect (neither is mine), by I admire your skill with Sapphics.

      I will note that this particular poem of Sappho’s wasn’t written in Sapphic stanzas (although that’s no reason not to try them out in translation). And of course, even the concept of meter is quite a bit different than in Greek (stress based rather than length based). Anyway, thanks for posting your take on the poem, I enjoyed reading it!

      Reply
  7. Esiad L. Werecub

    1. I agree with Mr. Southerland that quantitative verse in English isn’t easy; I would go one step farther and say it is nigh-high impossible.

    2. Because there are no normalized rules for such, and because I neither have the passion (obsession), nor inclination to set up new rules, I find it unacceptable for my own writing, try as I may have in my past. To actually accomplish such a mission, in my late twenties, everything that I wrote, I wrote phonetically. I even made new letters, etc.

    3. I did learn a lot about our language from such an experiment; but in the long run I found such half-hearted attempts of writers, like Shaw and Pound, even Noah Webster, rather quirky crackpot concoctions, and greater writers, like Spenser and Tennyson, disappointing.

    4. I know Mr. Southerland, and those of his ilk, will disagree with me; but here goes. I would like to mark long and short vowel sounds in the first line of his “sapphic” stanza.

    Hōld yoū lĭttlē gīrls tō thě gīfts ōf vī ōlēt mūsēs.

    – – u – – – u – – – – – – –

    I count 14 syllables. [And I think I am in disagreement with Mr. Salemi, Mr. Anderson, Mr. Harris, and others, when I suggest that girls itself can be either a long syllable with a duration of a 1.5 or a 2 count].

    For me there are only two short vowels, the first syllable of little and the schwa of the.

    5. It is Horace who could handle the Sapphic stanza, outside of Greek literature, though he regularly lengthened the fourth syllable and placed a caesura after the fifth, and by doing so slowed Sappho’s line. In short, in Horace’s hands, the Sapphic stanza is weighted, made stately and solemn; this is the problem we (and the Romans too) have had in facing the fluidity of Greek poetry. Here is a line of Horace.

    Integer vitae / scelerisque purus

    – u – x – / u u – u – –

    6. Yes, by all means, Mr. Harris (and everyone else as well) we should all keep on reading, writing, speaking, thinking, singing, reciting, et cetera; and maybe he (and others too) may move English poetry to realms it has not yet achieved. But as Mr. Yankevich rightly writes, we should pay no heed to empty praise, nor even any praise at all. Poetry is not only a “jungle” as Mr. Yankevich recently stated, it is a vital element in the creation of civilization, and as such it really matters.

    7. Beware. Here comes some praise. Though all translations are failures of a sort, Mr. Harris nicely interprets a piece of ancient Greece in his couplets. He is definitely trying.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      This is a note for all who offer translations. I am grateful when the original text is included alongside the translation. Although my ability to actually read such languages as Classical Latin (as distinguished from Liturgical Latin), Classical Greek (as distinguished from Koine, or New Testament Greek), German, French, Russian, Polish, etc. is very limited, I am familiar enough with most of them (with the exception of Polish) to get at least a “feel” for the rhythm, structure, rhyme scheme, etc. of the original. This, in turn, helps me to observe, better understand and (hopefully) appreciate the translator’s efforts all the more. I am quite sure that I am not alone in this desire. In this particular case Mr. Harris’ observation that the original rhythm is “complicated” is one I would have enjoyed seeing for myself. Although the traditional title and fragment number of this poem are given–and I could undoubtedly locate it on-line if I took the time to do so–I am lazy enough to prefer it to be handed to me on a platter. I also want to affirm the commendable efforts at translation along with the constructive critiques and instructive comments offered in response.

      Reply
      • J. Simon Harris

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tithonus_poem

        Mr. Tweedie, the Wikipedia page on the poem (linked above) contains a discussion of the meter of the poem. I agree that a reproduction of the original would be helpful, but it’s difficult in the case of this poem. For one thing, typing in Greek is non-trivial for me, and I would fear making a mistake or formatting error.

        Also, a faithful representation of the text is complicated by the issues mentioned in the note on the poem (multiple manuscripts, debate over whether the final fragments should be included, etc.). That reproduction is best left in the hands of a scholar of ancient Greek. Still, if anyone is able to reproduce the ancient text here in the comments, please do.

        In the meantime, I hope the Wikipedia page can give you basically what you’re looking for. The original meter doesn’t translate into English, I think. Thanks for your comment!

    • James Sale

      Delighted that the great Werecub (consciously) contradicts himself by castigating praise and then praising J Simon’s work – that is an excellent paradox, Werecub – well done. Let’s not forget before we all become monkish devotees of midnight and aconite, what the great American psychologist, William James once correctly observed: ‘the deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated’. That is so true, and those who think not generally tend to deceive themselves and their own motives. Who can forget that agonised cry of Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.” If only he could have been appreciated in his life more than he was, what difference might that have made? It’s impossible to say, of course, but I certainly think he would have produced an even more astonishing output. Appreciation doesn’t weaken us; it strengthens us – as good parenting demonstrates in the first instance of our life. That people can be great though deprived of appreciation, one does not dispute, but it is not something to be looked for or sought out as if it were a badge of honour. That is mere ego, and little to do with the life of the soul from which poetry springs.

      Reply
      • J. Simon Harris

        I tend to agree with you, Mr. Sale. While one shouldn’t seek appreciation as an end in itself, a little affirmation doesn’t hurt. Still, I think praise and criticism should be taken in the same way: all with a grain of salt. Thank you and thanks to everyone for your honest evaluations; honesty is key, whether good or bad.

    • J. Simon Harris

      As you predicted, I don’t agree with your scanscion of the English here. Then again, I tend to scan stress, not length, in English, and perhaps you were going for the opposite. That said, I agree with pretty much everything else you said (and I’m glad you decided to abandon your program for English quantitative verse, although I’m sure it was a valuable effort… but it just isn’t suited to English, if you ask me). Still very astute analysis, as usual. And thank you for your praise, though I pay no heed to it 🙂

      Reply
      • J. Simon Harris

        *The comment about scanscion, etc., is directed to Bruce, of course. Just realized the thread puts the responses a bit out of order.

  8. Charles Southerland

    Hi Bruce–

    In line one, “violet” should have been discarded. It was late and I missed it in my draft. Apologies.

    And yes, sapphic stanzas are extremely difficult because of the way one has to count. A purest would count long stressed or sounding words along with short unstressed words as opposed to merely stressed and unstressed. Swinburne was the best I’ve seen to write modern sapphics. I aspire to be that accomplished.

    Reply
  9. Esiad L. Werecub

    1. Now that is something I’ve not heard, Mr. Southerland aspires to write sapphics at the level of Swinburne. Who seriously praises Swinburne in 21st century poetics? While I very much like the agenda of the Victorian Hellenists, I am not as satisfied with them as I am with the late English Romantics and the German Classical Romantics in that direction, a place Mr. Whidden occasionally goes to in his sonnets. It does seem that Swinburne comes out of that feverish realm of Byron, Keats and Shelley, particularly the latter; but for me, Swinburne has always seemed too diffuse and too focused on words. For me, the two short Catullan sapphics, Catullus 11 and Catullus 51 are more invigourating than Swinburne’s lengthier “Sapphics”.

    2. As for writing sapphics in English, I enjoy what one of our contemporaries, the Australian poet John Tranter, had to say about them:

    “Writing Sapphics is a tricky business.
    Lines begin and end with a pair of trochees;
    in between dozes a dactyl, rhythm
    rising and falling.”

    He goes on to say anyone used to English “finds it a bastard”.

    3. I do think there are possibilities with writing Sapphics. Perhaps Mr. Southerland will accomplish what I feel Swinburne did not. In her essay “On Form: Marvelous Sapphics”, the late Rachel Wetzsteon (1967-2009) talked about her own interest in sapphics, and other contemporaries of ours, including Timothy Steele, have written them.

    4. I would be interested in Mr. Harris (or anyone) scanning that first line of Mr. Southerland’s sapphics quantitatively, and show how or why you differ from my scansion. By the way, there is no reason why we cannot scan quantitatively in English, but where is the poet to accomplish such a powerful possibility through his or her poetry? To me, however, there are just so many other issues at hand—most importantly, being relevant in the New Millennium—that I just can’t follow that option, at least at the moment.

    5. I haven’t let quantitative measurements go; I’ve just been focused on regularized iambics, for the first time in my life. Ironically, it was free verse that showed me the power of quantitative verse.

    6. There is also no reason why we can’t have syllabic verse in English as well as metric verse. I know I spent a couple of decades on it, and occasionally Mr. Mantyk publishes syllabic verse here @ SCP. Though Weckherlin (1584-1643) in German literature began such an experiment, without Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, or Dryden behind him; following Opitz (1597-1639), German literature followed metrical patternings, as opposed to French syllabics; and English literature has such a rich metrical tradition, including Marlowe and Donne, through Pope and Wordworth, to Byron, Browning and beyond, that one ignores it at one’s peril.

    Reply
    • Charles Southerland

      Bruce,

      One cannot presume to write sapphics on a Catullan scale. His other quantitative verse forms are likewise, excellent. As Tranter said, “he finds sapphics a bastard. So do I, but I love the challenge and have had limited success in “First Things” and “The Road Not Taken”. I count coup when I can. I have focused on rhyming forms for nearly 7 years now. I love the way sound presents in sapphics much like the sounds of: “Caught Up In A Silk Tornado Cloud” published in The Pennsylvania Review recently. For those who are struck by free verse poetry, sapphics are the way to go. It is only a matter of sound and mathematics which the poet can place for sapphic stanzas to be successful. It requires an ear and ten fingers plus a toe.

      Reply
  10. Leo Yankevich

    Esiad L. Werecub,

    You are an entertaining eccentric, not a critic. Many a time in dark dives, supping ale, have I been amused, by the most loquacious midgets. Swinburne was a great poet. I seriously praise him in the 21st century.

    Reply
  11. Wilbur Dee Case

    On Mr. Southerland’s “Caught Up in a Silk Tornado Cloud”:

    1. The title is Stevensesque.

    2. The rhetorical “I have seen” is reminiscent of Sandburg.

    3. Odd phrasing and biological rumination are reminiscent of Hopkins, the tone, at times, is Catullan.

    4. Ah, “unsoiled”, yet “childlike”.

    5. Shifting metre at stanza 5.

    Reply

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