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:
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
or all their infantry parading in flashing armor.
Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds whipping desolate mountains,
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.
Eros the limb-shatterer,
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:
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
]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
out of the unexpected.
Eros shook my
mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees
]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
]but what could I do?
]not possible to become
]Dawn with arms of roses
]bringing to the ends of the earth
But I love delicately and this to me –
the brilliance and beauty of the sun – desire has allotted.
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:
The enticing girl’s clinging dresses
leave me trembling, overcome with happiness,
as once, when I saw the Goddess in my prayers
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
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