top of page
  • By Martin McCarthy

Bringing Sappho to Life: The Innovative Translations of Michael R. Burch


Not much is known about the Greek poet Sappho, except that she was born around 630 B.C. on the island of Lesbos in the port city of Mytilene, and was apparently exiled to Sicily around 600 B.C. and may have continued to live there until her death around 570 B.C. She was also a musician, who played the lyre and was accomplished enough to set her own work to music.


In regard to that work, what survives of it is mostly Fragments, and this makes it particularly hard to translate, even in a word-for-word manner that might only give us a slight sense of who she really was. Yet, despite these major obstacles, Michael R. Burch’s innovative English translations bring her startlingly to life, both as a poet and as a woman who was modern, fearless, erotic, and way ahead of her time – as can be attested to by these fine Fragments from his small archive of substantial Sappho poems:


Fragment 16


Warriors on rearing chargers,

columns of infantry, fleets of warships:

some say these are the dark earth’s redeeming visions.

But I say –

the one I desire.


And this makes sense

because she who so vastly surpassed all mortals in beauty

– Helen –

seduced by Aphrodite, led astray by desire,

set sail for Troy,

abandoning her celebrated husband,

leaving her parents and child!


Her story reminds me of Anactoria,

who has also departed,

and whose lively dancing and lovely face

I would rather see than all the horsemen and war-chariots of the

Lydians,

or all their infantry parading in flashing armor.


Fragment 47


Eros harrows my heart:

wild winds whipping desolate mountains,

uprooting oaks.


Fragment 58


Virgins, be zealous for the violet-scented Muses’ lovely gifts

and those of the melodious lyre…

by my once-supple skin sags now;

my arthritic bones creak;

my ravenblack hair’s turned white;

my lighthearted heart’s grown heavy;

my knees buckle;

my feet, once fleet as fawns, fail the dance.

I often bemoan my fate … but what’s the use?

Not to grow old is, of course, not an option.


I am reminded of Tithonus, adored by Dawn with her arms full of roses,

who, overwhelmed by love, carried him off beyond death’s dark dominion.

Handsome for a day, but soon withered with age,

he became an object of pity to his ageless wife.


Fragment 130


Eros the limb-shatterer,

rattles me,

an irresistible

constrictor.


Fragment 156


She keeps her scents

in a dressing case.

And her sense?

In some undiscoverable place.


Burch’s achievement here is no small thing, given that nearly all other versions of the same Fragments are flat and lifeless and overly prose-y, and offer no sense of Sappho’s living presence. A presence which, in Burch’s versions, is not only there, but seems to be imbued with an innate emotional intensity and musicality. And this, to me, is perfect, because Sappho was not only an accomplished musician – but she was also (as evidenced by some of her themes here) a passionate and uninhibited lover.


Indeed, most other translators of Sappho offer little more than literal translations of the surviving Fragments, and do not even aspire to meet the high standard that is expected of ‘great poetry’, despite grandiose claims – made invariably in their Introductions – that Sappho was "a great poet."


One has to look no further than Anne Carson’s mildly acclaimed and relatively recent volume of translations, titled If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, to see the vast difference between what Burch does, and what others do with the very same material. These are from Carson:


Fragment 16


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.

Easy to make this understood by all.

For she who overcame everyone

in beauty (Helen)

left her fine husband

behind and went sailing to Troy.

Not for her children nor her dear parents

had she a thought, no –

]led her astray

]for

]lightly]

]reminded me now of Anaktoria

who is gone.

I would rather see her lovely step

and the motion of light on her face

than chariots of Lydian ranks

of footsoldiers in arms.

]not possible to happen

]to pray for a share

]

]

]

]

]

toward[

]

]

]

out of the unexpected.


Fragment 47


Eros shook my


mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees


Fragment 58


]

]

]

]

]running away

]bitten

]

]

you


]makes a way with the mouth

]beautiful gifts children

]song delighting clearsounding lyre

]all my skin old age already

hair turned white after black

]knees do not carry

]like fawns

]but what could I do?

]not possible to become

]Dawn with arms of roses

]bringing to the ends of the earth

]yet seized

]wife

]imagines

]might bestow


But I love delicately and this to me –

the brilliance and beauty of the sun – desire has allotted.


Fragment 130


Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me –

sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in


Burch largely constructed his Fragment 156 out of just a few words by Sappho, and Carson has no matching Fragment for it, so I couldn’t include one. Yet this highlights even more their contrasting styles of translating. On the one hand, you have these Fragments by Carson that simply fail to show Sappho as the mesmerising poet she undoubtedly was – and on the other, you have Burch’s innovative reconstructions of what he often imagines those Fragments to have been, given what’s there and what’s known about them, and her. Perhaps one needs to be a poet, and a really good one, to be able to bring another poet’s work vividly to life in another language, in another time, especially when so much of each poem is missing, and what remains are only hints and clues to what they were, and still could be, in the right hands – hands such as Burch’s, that are perhaps guided by an intuitive, sixth-sense knowledge of how to

embody the art of another within a well-crafted and well-researched reimagining, in order to make it live again in some of its original glory.


Burch says: “I started translating poems because I was unhappy and frustrated with the translations I found. So many of them seemed prose-y, awkward, not really poetry. I had never dreamt of attempting a translation myself, because I had a smattering of French and German, and I had forgotten more than I remembered. But I fell in

love with ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ and thought it was a shame that translations seemed so lacking. I thought to myself, ‘I’m good at research, so why don’t I research the words and phrases, try to grok the poet and the poem, and see what I can do?’ My first attempt seemed better to me than all the translations I had read, so I decided

to attempt my own translations of other poems I liked. I kept surprising myself with my favorite non-English poets: Basho, Issa, Sappho, Rilke, et al. So I kept doing the same thing, and I thought it would be a favor to the poets, their poems, and to the readers, to have better translations.”


This statement by Burch is only a spontaneous, off-the-cuff reply to a question regarding his motivation for translating poetry in general, but there is, nevertheless, a whole lot in it for other translators to reflect upon, if they aspire to do their work well, and to serve the Muse with equal distinction. So let’s pause here a moment and savour three more of Burch’s sumptuous Sappho translations:


Fragment 22


The enticing girl’s clinging dresses

leave me trembling, overcome with happiness,

as once, when I saw the Goddess in my prayers

eclipsing Cyprus.


Fragment 55


Lady,

soon you’ll lie dead, disregarded,

as your worm-eaten corpse like your memory fades:

for those who never gathered the roses of Pieria

must mutely assume their places

among the obscure, uncelebrated

Hadean shades.


Fragment 155


A short revealing frock?

It’s just my luck

your lips were meant to mock!


Now it remains only for me to say that I firmly believe Sappho herself is there somewhere, smiling her approval on what Burch has done to endow her Fragments with many of the striking qualities they originally possessed. And that time will, in due course, judge this to be a truly magnificent achievement.


Martin Mc Carthy lives in Cork City, Ireland, and spent several years working for the Defence Forces, before studying English at UCC. He has published two collections: Lockdown Diary (2020) and Lockdown (2021). His most recent poems appear in the pandemic anthology, Poems from My 5k, and in the journals: Drawn to the Light, Seventh Quarry Poetry, Poetry Salzburg, The Lyric, The Road Not Taken, The Orchards, WestWard Quarterly, Better Than Starbucks, Blue Unicorn,Lighten Up Online,The Chained Muse, London & Newcastle, The Madrigal, The Society of Classical Poets, Taj Mahal Review, New Lyre, Southword and The HyperTexts. He was shortlisted for the Red Line Poetry Prize, and is a nominee for the 2023 Pushcart Prize. At present he is completing a long sequence of love poems, titled Book of Desire. His website is: mccarthypoet.com

23 comments

23 comentarios


David Gosselin
David Gosselin
16 mar 2023

Burch has set the standard for translation of the greats. No contest.

Me gusta
Michael R. Burch
Michael R. Burch
11 sept 2023
Contestando a

I recently added this new Sappho translation:


Sappho, fragment 57

loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


1a.

That country wench bewitches your heart?

Hell, her most beguiling art's

hiking her dress

to seduce you with her ankles' nakedness!


1b.

That country wench bewitches your heart?

Hell, her most beguiling art

is hiking her dress

to reveal her ankles' nakedness!


2.

That hayseed tart

bewitches your heart?

Hell, her most beguiling art's

hiking her dress

to seduce you with her ankles' nakedness!


3.

That rustic girl bewitches your heart?

Hell, her most beguiling art's

hiking the hem of her dress

to seduce you with her ankles' nakedness!


Me gusta

Invitado
15 mar 2023

This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking essay in that it raising interesting questions about the practice, and indeed the art, of literary translating/interpretation. A great poem is a kind of alchemy, with some rare balancing of so many ingredients necessary if it is to hold up in an artistic sense. To translate, then, takes a particularly delicate and empathetic touch, as well as a deep connection with the original work. As to how well this can ever be achieved is probably a matter of opinion, in a broad sense as well as a specific one, but this fine and well-considered essay by Mr. McCarthy does a lot to open the debate,

Me gusta
Michael R. Burch
Michael R. Burch
15 mar 2023
Contestando a

I agreed about both the "alchemy" and the "deep connection" in my reply above. One can't claim to have equalled the immortal Sappho, but a good translation does make her more accessible to larger audiences. Readers who REALLY want to know Sappho should read her various translators (and she has many). I have made my translations free, without annoying ads or requests for money, here: http://www.thehypertexts.com/Sappho%20Translations.htm


I have also included some of my favorite translations by other translators, who include famous poets like Sir Philip Sidney, Ben Jonson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Charles Algernon Swinburne, Lord Alfred Tennyson, A. E. Housman, Thomas Hardy, Walter Savage Landor, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell…

Me gusta

jm6783685
jm6783685
15 mar 2023

Despite my woeful inadequacies when it comes to foreign languages I enjoy translating, because it's a very good way of studying another poet closely, and because it's a very good way of practising one's craft without necessarily having to be inspired. Nevertheless I am amazed by how bad most translations are. And I certainly prefer my own translations to those of others, if only because they are more subservient to my own admittedly somewhat idiosyncratic tastes. That said, translation *is* very difficult. I think I've had a go at one poem by Sappho, but, if I have, it was a long time ago. I believe her poems are generally available only insofar as she was quoted by other writers. This…


Me gusta
Michael R. Burch
Michael R. Burch
16 mar 2023
Contestando a

On of my favorite Yeats poem is his loose translation of a Ronsard sonnet, "When You are Old." I believe Yeats wrote it for Maud Gonne. His poem inspired this one of mine...

Hearthside

by Michael R. Burch


“When you are old and grey and full of sleep...” — W. B. Yeats


For all that we professed of love, we knew

this night would come, that we would bend alone

to tend wan fires’ dimming bars—the moan

of wind cruel as the Trumpet, gelid dew

an eerie presence on encrusted logs

we hoard like jewels, embrittled so ourselves.


The books that line these close, familiar shelves

loom down like dreary chaperones. Wild dogs,

too old for mates, cringe furtive in…


Me gusta

Michael R. Burch
Michael R. Burch
15 mar 2023

I'm am honored to have Martin Mc Carthy review my Sappho translations, and thanks to David Gosselin for publishing the review, and for his suggestions during the process. Comments and suggestions are welcome here.

Me gusta
martinmccarthy1956
martinmccarthy1956
15 mar 2023
Contestando a

In preparing for this essay I had the great pleasure of having to read as much of Sappho's poetry as I could get my hands on, including all of your Fragments, from which I selected the eight above. These, to me - and I make no bones about saying it - are outstanding, given what you were working from, and would be my favourite Sappho translations. Can I ask you, Michael, which are your favourite Fragments? And why?

Me gusta

martinmccarthy1956
martinmccarthy1956
14 mar 2023

I wish to thank David and The Chained Muse for publishing this essay. If anyone has a comment, I would love to read it.

Me gusta
bottom of page