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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

18-and-under, commended

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Holly Whiston

Sappho 31

A god he seems to me, that man,
The one sitting so close to you,
Enveloped in your honey voice

                           And lovely laugh.

That giggling, that makes my heart
Madly dance beneath my breast,
And every glimpse of you I catch,

                           I cannot speak,

At once my tongue is frozen hard
And fine flames lick beneath my skin –
And raucous fury fills my ears –

                           I cannot see,

And perspiration drenches down,
And I am trembling throughout,
And I turn pale as straw and seem

                           So close to death.

Translated from the Ancient Greek by Holly Whiston

The original poem may not display properly in older browsers or on computers running non-unicode-compliant operating systems. To view an image file of the poem, click here (opens in new window).

Sappho 31

φαινεται μοι κηνος ισος θεοισιν
εμμεν' ωνηρ οττις εναντιος τοι
ισδανει και πλᾱσιον ᾱδυ φωνει-
σᾱς υπακουει

και γελαισᾱς ῑμεροεν το μ' η 'μᾱν
καρδίᾱν εν στηθεσιν επτοαισεν ·
ως γαρ ες σ' ῑδω βροχε' ως με φωναισ'
ουδ' εν ετ' εικει

αλλ' ακᾱν μεν γλωσσα εᾱγε λεπτον
δ' αυτικα χρωι πῦρ υπαδεδρομηκεν
οππατεσσι δ' ουδ' εν ορημμ' επιρρομ-
βεισι δ' ακουαι

καδ δε μ' ιδρως κακχεεται τρομος δε
παισαν αγρει χλωροτερᾱ δε ποιᾱς
εμμι τεθνᾱκην δ' ολιγω 'πιδευσην
φαινομ' εμ' αυτᾱ


Translation commentary

'Sappho 31' had an honesty and a directness that appealed to me when deciding what to translate. It didn’t over-romanticise the situation. I liked how personal it was, a total immersion in the narrator’s mind, and yet how universal the feelings she described were. Any reader, homo- or heterosexual, contemporary or ancient Greek, can relate to her description of love’s simultaneous pleasure and pain, its physical awkwardness, and way of turning human beings into gibbering wrecks.

As ‘Sappho 31’ is a Sapphic ode, a form named after the author herself, it seemed essential to keep as close as possible to its original structure. This was not easy. Maintaining the rhythm of Sappho’s lines sounded uncomfortable in English, but when I shortened them, my translation sounded far too jaunty. To combat this I introduced dashes and line separations, forcing readers to pause and making my shorter, stress-based lines more contemplative.

Through my lexis, I wanted to evoke the movement of the poem from its more delicate, sensual earlier stanzas – translating ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν, for example, as ‘lick’, to suggest both the flickering flames and a certain sensuality – to the bluntness of stanza 4. Problematic there was the simile. ‘Green as grass’ seemed too bizarre, so I opted for ‘pale’, the other possible translation of χλωροτέρα. To highlight Sappho’s increased turmoil throughout, I emphatically repeated my ‘and’s to evoke her δε, and in stanza 3 I alliterated ‘f’s to evoke the hiss of flames, as Sappho uses π.

I wanted to emulate the poem’s directness, by making my English as unaffected as possible. I changed lines 8 and 12, for instance, from ‘no voice comes to me’ and ‘my eyes no longer see’, to sound more natural and to emphasise the narrator’s own emotions as the focal point of the poem.

Holly Whiston