By meaghan menzel
Tuesday, April 14 marked the fourth and final event of the “What’s Found in Translation Series” at the Rose O’Neill Literary House. Visiting Assistant Professor of English Dr. Philip Walsh gave a lecture titled “Seven Sapphos” that included translations, tea, and stewed strawberries.
According to the Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House Dr. Jehanne Dubrow, Dr. Walsh’s “research focuses on the reception of the classics in various modern contexts, for instance in translation and in visual illustration.” He teaches several courses in English as well as in ancient Greek and Latin. He is currently editing “Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Aristophanes” which is “a collection of over 20 essays that investigates the long and diverse reception of Aristophanic comedies,” according to Dr. Dubrow.
Dr. Walsh said, “The title of this event ‘Seven Sapphos’ takes inspiration from an essay by Reuben Brower called ‘Seven Agamemnons.’ It was published in October of 1947.” Brower’s essay “analyzes various translations of Aeschylus’ ‘Agamemnon,’ a notoriously long and difficult play to translate.” In response to this essay, Dr. Walsh conducted a slow reading and translation of two of Sappho’s fragments for his lecture.
Dr. Walsh started studying Sappho as a junior at College of William and Mary. Sappho was a woman who lived on an island called Lesbos. “It was a Greek island but very far away from classical Athens, from fifth century Pericles, and of course Sappho lived before the fifth century,” Dr. Walsh said. “She is a fierce and unafraid poet. She is the first definitive female voice in Western literature [and]…she was a phenomenon in the ancient world.”
However, according to Dr. Walsh, of Sappho’s nine books, which contain “as many as 10,000 lines of Greek,” only 250 fragments (or 1 percent) remain. What we have comes from all kinds of different sources such as pieces of papyrus or even quotes from other essays. Dr. Walsh explained Sappho’s ‘Fragment 31’ was found as a quote in Longinus’ essay “On the Sublime.”
“These poems were once whole. They weren’t reduced… as fragments. She was a living poet, a living, breathing poet, not just a fragmentary voice from antiquity,” Dr. Walsh said.
During his lecture, Dr. Walsh had freshman Andrew Wells read two of Sappho’s fragments. Wells said, “I met with Professor Walsh a couple of times to talk about the fragments and meter and such. He gave me a sheet with all the ancient Greek on it with notations over each of the syllables as a metric guide.”
The two fragments read were “Fragment 130” and “Fragment 31.” Dr. Walsh did a slow reading on a literal translation of “Fragment 130” and went over published translations for both fragments by John Addington Symonds, Anne Carson, and Guy Davenport in order to show the differences in translations.
For example, “Fragment 31” is composed of four whole stanzas and a fifth stanza that cuts off at the first line. “Most people lament the loss of stanza five,” Dr. Walsh said. “Davenport goes in a different direction. Davenport satisfies our need… for an end by making the fragment new and creating an ending… We may not like this editorial logic, but he gives the poem fresh and meaningful energy.”
According to Dr. Walsh, Brower says in his essay “A translation is like a stewed strawberry.” Dr. Walsh said, “What is it like to eat a raw strawberry? What is it like to eat a stewed strawberry? With what feelings are we left when we chew and swallow a raw or a stewed strawberry?” This was to help audience members think about the similarities and differences between an original piece and its translations.
“I believe in the power of literary translation,” Dr. Walsh said. “Translations offer us a way to transcend the quotidian rhythms of our daily lives, to get outside of ourselves, so that paradoxically we can look inwards in pursuit of self knowledge.” He said, “I like the possibility of looking at a single word and [knowing] you have to translate it. How does that become a poetic translation? How do you create something out of something that is broken and as broken as a single word, or as broken as a half word, or a suggestion of what the word might be?”
“I believe in the power of art, and I believe that art can change the world. These are humanistic sentiments, and I stand on the shoulders of those who came before and believed similarly,” Dr. Walsh said. “I believe that the most sublime artists not only tell their story but also tell our story… Sappho… [is] one of those sublime artists.”