Bright Lyre Becomes Voice: Translating Sappho into Songs

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Most translations are translations into a specific idiom: Elizabethan iambic pentameter, William Carlos Williams's American 3-step line, and so on. Our musical group, Old Songs (Liz Downing, Mark Jickling, and myself), translates out of archaic Greek poetry and into twentieth-century American folk music, often with an Appalachian Mountain flavor.

When we started, our goal was to bring this ancient literature close. Sappho and the other lyric poets sang their poems, but we don't know what the music sounded like. To bridge the gap, translating song into song seemed more promising than producing still another printed English version of Sappho. Mysteriously, ancient lyrics and old-time music turned out to be a good fit.

The lyric poets plucked or strummed tortoise-shell lyres; we pluck or strum banjos and guitars. Sappho was said to be the first person to use a plectrum to strum or pluck the lyre. We can guess the situations in which she played from lines in her songs, though these are only guesses:

                   What are you like dear bridegroom
                   You are like a slender sapling
   Religious ceremonies and festivals:
                   Come to me from Crete,
                   To this holy temple
   Gatherings of friends:
                    For you, beautiful ones,
                    My thoughts will never be changed
   A meeting with one person, a beloved:
                    I loved you, long ago, Atthi
                    A small child you seemed to me, and clumsy 

We haven't sung her songs at any religious ceremonies, but we did sing them at a seasonal festival out in the country, and my daughter and I sang a medley of Sappho wedding songs at my brother's wedding. And we are always singing them for our friends.

The rural origin of American folk music reminds me of the pastoral settings where the archaic Greek poets lived: Mytilene, the city in which Sappho lived, was the size of one of our small towns. One fragment shows what Sappho saw as the flocks and shepherds went out in the morning and came back at night:

    Evening star brings back
   what bright dawn has scattered
   brings back the sheep
   brings back the goats
   brings back the children to their mother 

As I translate, competing forces shape the song. The syntactical, literal sense of her words and their metrical rhythm play with and against each other. The musicality of Sappho's Greek inspires a melody, which coaxes the English words into different patterns than if we had been translating into spoken English. With Sappho especially, there is a music of vowel and consonant that flows through the poems "mellifluously," like honey:

   meite moi meli, meite melissa
   Neither for me, honey nor bee 

Translation cannot re-create the hypnotic repetition of m and l ("mmmm," "la la la," "the language of love") but the repetition of the other liquids--n and r--try their best, while retaining the sense.

Another fragment is a song about the death of Adonis, the beautiful young man whom Aphrodite loved:

   kat'thnaskei kutherei, abros Adonis, ti ke theimen
   kattuptesthe korai kai katereikesthe kithonas
   He is dying, Aphrodite, what should we do?
   Beat your breasts girls and rip up your clothes 

The repetition in the Greek of the k and th sounds create a haunting and percussive phonemic music (the th does not sound like our th, but is an aspirated t). We cannot get anywhere near that effect, but we use repeated d, b, and p to give the voice some percussive quality. The tune is a repeated minor phrase which becomes higher and brighter during the words "abros Adonis" (gentle Adonis) where she doesn't use k or th.

The development of a song from the ancient Greek happens in different ways. The three of us have different and conflicting approaches, which lead to more interesting results than a single approach would. …