KAT PEDDIE: Translating Sappho

I started thinking about translation, and translating Sappho, nearly two and a half years ago. I translated fragment 31 for an MA translation class that Simon Smith kindly allowed me to sit in on. We translated other poets for the class too, but this was the poem that seemed to ask me to encounter and think through what I was doing in the act of translation. The scenario of the poem seemed mine – the desire in the poem mirrored by my own experience of reading her and writing to, or from, or about her.


looking at him                        listening to you

he a God feeling he

can come close

to you

   I     seeing               you only

in reflecting [refracting?]

mirror     fragments[1]


I left her alone for a few years after that, and in the meantime focused my ideas on creative translation into critical work, until I heard Anthony Barnett give a talk on translation in October 2014 and felt drawn back to her. In terms of poetry, I’d mainly been making collages in the intervening years, but it seems to me that making a collage and writing a translation are rather similar activities. I always seem to write from another text. Sometimes I wonder if that’s because I was a critic long before I started writing poetry, but I think both stem from a similar root – they’re both acts of attention. The poems don’t always perform the same kinds of attention, but I think they all share a similar desire – for relationship, community, love.


Sometimes I think of it as an act of listening intently to a poem, drawing out a way it echoes – which says as much about the places it can echo – in gaps (this is one of the reasons I like Sappho so much), in the spaces of things not quite said,in my own imagination, as much as it does the words on the pageeven if they’re what I ostensibly take.I speak back when I listen.[2]


Sometimes I get a kick out of thinking of it as stealing. I imagine there’s a similar drive in some forms of kleptomania – the relationship to that which you’ve stolen from (here a poem) is bound up in that which you’ve stolen.


I remember being surprised when Rachel Blau DuPlessis described George Oppen as defining himself as stealing:


I simply didn’t understand what Oppen meant when he said in effect, I didn’t use you, ‘but your words I simply stole ‘em’ (SL 301). Of course I confused me and my words — who wouldn’t? Or better, I didn’t understand (in the words of my epigraph from Oppen) that this is ‘I’ but not ‘mine’ (NCP 75). No surprise — in so many ways young females had reason to feel possessive of their smallish goods when they were not feeling muse-like and generous.[3]


Quite. Collage and translation are ethically complicated, bringing together – if they weren’t already together – love and appropriation. I’d like to say I get round it by stealing only from those who have rather larger goods, as it were. Or, at least, that’s when I think of it as stealing – perhaps where the kick comes from. But I can’t steal something and think of it as shorn from its origin – I don’t think I’d make a very good professional thief.


I stole the other day from Spenser. I don’t think I could steal from Sappho. Sappho makes me encounter the difficulties of encounter.


There are certain kinds of poems you can steal from, and some you can’t – when I was collaging Berrigan there was a permissiveness to the playfulness of his attitude towards collaging which meant almost anything seemed allowed. He gave me a license, which I extended to others, as did he. Perhaps then I stole. That started out with a love poem too. They’re all love poems, really.


And collage and translation are linked partly because I’m not doing what might traditionally be thought of as translating – my Sappho poems are composed of reworkings or collages of and reactions to, others’ translations and critical writings on Sappho. This is important to the project in two ways – one of which being that what it’s not trying to do is make any kind of pretense towards a kind of authenticity – an exact correspondence of Sappho’s Greek with modern English – it’s more like the way Jack Spicer talks about correspondence in After Lorca – one that takes in the idea of correspondence as letter writing. The love letter’s important. Secondly, I wanted to think about how my interest in Sappho was based in difficulties of access – in an interest in the fragility and failures of these exercises in communication, or love. About accessing someone who’s come down to us mainly through others’ representations (there are more poems about Sappho than existing Sappho poems); about accessing something that exists so far apart from us in history; about access to fragments which once formed part of a larger whole. I think of myself as writing into these distances, though not to overcome them, but because I like the gaps. I don’t want to fill them.


So partly this is about what the Sappho critic Page duBois calls hauteur – which is really distance, but more evocative of the deliberateness of this distance – which is to say, and a lot of Sappho critics remark upon this, that the love lyric of Sappho is always, in one way or another, about the unobtainability of the loved one. So, and duBois uses fragment 105a, which is translated by Anne Carson as:


as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch

high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot –

no, not forgot: were unable to reach[4]


duBois says about this:


We can know the apple only through the poem. The poem cannot be the apple, can only realize for us its unobtainability.[5]


The genres of the love poem & the love letter are always at a remove, standing in for, but not, the person they talk of.


It’s this, for which many Sappho poems could have let me in, but it’s also the particular way Sappho has been received and disseminated that strikes a chord with the gendered positions of this particular poem.


So a woman sits looking at a man listening to the woman she addresses, and so I sit addressing Sappho, who I cannot see without the mediating influence of the men that have listened to her and said her words.


I was talking to Jan Montefiore about this & she said that she used to set that first bit of this poem to students anonymously, to see if they could identify the gender of the poet. They usually thought it was a man. Which, whilst it says much about heteronormativity, is also usually who these lines are spoken by. When Catullus says these lines, as he does in his poem 51 – a man looking at a man listening to a woman he’s addressing is rather different – it’s not just that it becomes potentially heterosexual; the homosociality that is then inflected onto the god-like man changes that relationship too. Which is to use terms that don’t adequately describe the identities of any of these people – it’s worth noting on this point that Sappho became a lesbian only in Victorian times and often isn’t one any more.


It’s important, too, I think, that until the late Victorian age, this fragment and fragment 1, Ode to Aphrodite, were the main pieces of Sappho still existing – much of the later fragments were found during archeological digs – on papyrus, sometimes on the windings of mummified bodies, on shards of pottery. Fragment 31, as with other bits of Sappho, come down because later writers thought she was a good enough writer to be included in later classical texts defining and analyzing good writing – the most famous being Longinus’s On the Sublime, which gives us the extract we now know as fragment 31. His interest is in the latter part of the poem, which I have not translated:


Is it not wonderful how at the same moment soul, body, ears, tongue, eyes, colour, all fail her, and are lost to her as completely as if they were not her own? Observe too how her sensations contradict one another—she freezes, she burns, she raves, she reasons, and all at the same instant. And this description is designed to show that she is assailed, not by any particular emotion, but by a tumult of different emotions. All these tokens belong to the passion of love; but it is in the choice, as I said, of the most striking features, and in the combination of them into one picture, that the perfection of this Ode of Sappho’s lies. Similarly Homer in his descriptions of tempests always picks out the most terrific circumstances.[6]

I can’t read much of the latter half of the poem without hearing it through the conventions of renaissance love poetry – now become cliché – although Sappho is saying it fresher, nearer the beginning of a tradition, now often taken as orthodoxy of lyric poetry and performances of self-utterance. But I come to Sappho after Wyatt, after courtly love, after many men have burned with the icy fires of love for an unattainable woman. So I’m not sure yet how to translate the latter half of the poem, though my anxiety around this is there in my translation of the first half. Carson herself has interesting things to say on cliché and translation, which may yet prove a way through.[7]


And I know that these men have got to sit closer to Sappho because they are men and have been allowed to, or, rather, allowed themselves to, historically in a way that women have not – to write, to learn Greek, etc. Which is why I said that relationship, too, has changed in the Catullus poem, or at least for me reading it.


What’s also interesting to me is the way in which this fragmentation of the body – and this is what Longinus links to the sublime – speaks strangely fortuitously to the fragments of her body of work. But it also speaks to other notions of gender in the language of love poetry and desire – if we’re familiar with the fragmenting male lover we’re also familiar with the fragmented female object of desire, Marvell’s mistress (coy) and Donne’s (going to bed) and many others made a catalogue of body parts. Here Sappho’s speaker is both the one who experiences love as a ‘limb-loosening’, and the broken down female body we’re asked to look at. We see much more of her than those she looks at.


Lyn Hatherly Wilson has made quite an interesting argument about the way in which the catalogue of breaking body parts of the desiring subject engage with the literally broken body parts of Homeric catalogues of death in battle.[8] Love is very martial in Sappho. In 16 she says:


Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot

and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing

on the black earth. But I say it is

       what you love.

But loving (or desiring, in other translations) is rather like warring in Sappho – it has pursuers and prey. Aphrodite promises Sappho in the Ode to Aphrodite that her loved one, ‘if she flees, soon she will pursue’ ‘If she does not love, soon she will love / even unwillingly’, which I guess is what gives Swinburne some of his license for his porny Sadist Sappho. It’s certainly not utopian female community – which brings me back to why it seemed to me to be interested in the same things I was interested in in translation, in what might be an erotics of it, the idea of trying to make a community or communication with another poem that is also in the very act of doing so, in translation, partly a wrenching – encoding questions of violence, of permissions, acquiescence.


This would be a distinctly Bataillian kind of erotics, of course. Eroticism, for Georges Bataille, is bound up with the transgression of the limits of being – defining human existence as primarily an experience of what he terms discontinuity, what he sees as the knowledge that ‘[e]ach human being is distinct from all others. […]He is born alone. He dies alone. Between one being and another, there is a gulf, a discontinuity’. The sexual act achieves ‘one instant of continuity’: it is the fleeting transgression of one’s discontinuity that produces the feeling of eroticism. Eroticism then, as a transgression of the limits of identity, is always imagined by Bataille to be a violence: ‘What does physical eroticism signify if not the violation of the very being of its practitioners…? The whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participants as they are in their normal lives’. [9] It seems to me that the ruptures and transgressions of both translation and collage contain this erotic violence. This isn’t the only way one could read an erotics of transgression – collage, or translation – of course: one could think of jouissance, an altogether more empowering understanding of the breaking out of one’s subject position as deployed by Barthes, Kristeva and many feminist critics (though Kristeva’s concept of the abject, the part of ourselves we exclude through social taboo, tempers her understanding of transgression and limitlessness as experienced as jouissance). And Stephen Fredman’s latest book, Contextual Practice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art, argues persuasively for a fundamentally playful erotics of mid- to late-twentieth century collage. I’m reminded again of the way in which collaging Berrigan felt much more playful than translating Sappho does. Translating Sappho, to me, brings these more discomforting procedural aspects to the fore. The content of the poems – the distances, the painful dissolutions of the body, encourage a certain problematizing of the idea of translation and its desires, or erotics. And Sappho’s reception and dissemination strengthen this feeling – those gaps, or gulfs, or discontinuities, filled in, written over, transgressed, or made continuous, with a male-dominated tradition of the Western love lyric. To me it seems increasingly that speaking about translation is also to speak about the love lyric.




[1] With thanks to Aidan Semmens, who first published this poem in Molly Bloom: http://mollybloompoetry.weebly.com/katharine-peddie.html

[2] This has echoes in, though is not quite the same as, Benjamin’s famous statement on ‘the task of translator’, which ‘consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original….Unlike a work of literature, translation does not find itself in the center of the language forest but outside; it calls into it without entering, aiming at that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one.’ (Walter Benjamin, ‘Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers’, preface to Bejamin’s translation of Baudelaire (Heidleburg, 1923), 77 quoted in Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (London: Virago, 2003), xii.

[3] Rachael Blau DuPlessis, Oppen from seventy-five to a hundred, 1983–2008 Jacket 36 (2008) <http://jacketmagazine.com/36/oppen-duplessis.shtml> [accessed 06/04/2015].

[4] Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. All subsequent Sappho translations are from this edition.

[5] Page duBois, Sappho is Burning (London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p.10.

[6] Longinus, On the Sublime trans. H. L. Havell <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17957/17957-h/17957-h.htm>

[7] http://poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_carson.php

[8] See Lyn Hatherly Wilson, Sappho’s Sweet Bitter Songs: Configurations of Female and Male in Ancient Greek Lyric (Routledge, 1996). Longinus’s bringing of Sappho and Homer into conjunction is also interesting here.

[9] George Bataille, Eroticism, translated Mary Dalwood (London: Penguin, 2012) p.12, 14-15, 17.


Kat Peddie is a PhD student and assistant lecturer at the University of Kent. She has published poetry in Shearsman, Tears in the Fence, Litmus and Molly Bloom magazines (http://mollybloompoetry.weebly.com/katharine-peddie.html) . She has written for The Writing Occurs as Song: A Kelvin Corcoran Reader (Shearsman, 2014). She can be heard here (http://pianointhewoods.com/2013/12/03/1st-december-2013-five-of-us-bow-the-piano-while-kat-peddie-reads/) performing with Sam Bailey and the Canterbury Scratch Orchestra at Piano in the Woods, an event associated with Free Range (http://free-range.co), with whom she is in the process of setting up a press. She also co-edits ZONE magazine (http://www.zonepoetrymagazine.com).

Katharine Peddie



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