BU Today


Student spotlight: a translation by Jesus Kalergis

Sappho’s earliest known poem

Throughout August, BU Today will publish pieces of student scholarship and creative work. The following poem translation by Jesus Kalergis (CAS ’09) is from the inaugural issue of PUSTEBLUME, a journal devoted to translations. The accompanying introductory essay is by Zachary Bos,  coordinator of student publications and editor of PUSTEBLUME, which is available at http://bu.edu/pusteblume and at the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures.


Jesus Kalergis (CAS’09)

(introductory essay by Zachary Bos)

Sappho was born between 630 and 612 BC and died around 570 BC, after establishing herself as a poet of such skill that Plato proposed she be appointed as the tenth Muse. She is considered the mother of the lyric poem, though perhaps more for being the finest practitioner of the time than for being the originator of the form. Much of her reputation depends on the praise of contemporaries, since little of her work remains except in the form of fragments and isolated lines. In 2004, Michael Gronewald and Robert Daniel announced that a dismantled cartonnage (plaster and fiber mummy casing) which had been languishing in the archives of Cologne University contained fragments of text corresponding to verses gleaned from “gravedigging” excavations in the garbage dumps of Oxyrhynchus (now Al Bahnasa, Egypt). The largest portion of the reconstructed, nearly complete poem was copied early in the third century BC, making this the earliest manuscript of her work so far known.

Translator’s Note
In addition to the specific pitfalls of translating ancient Greek was my difficulty with recreating the emotional tone: I don’t share the same nostalgia as Sappho for her old age. However, after reading aloud continuously, I realized that the key was in the opening lines themselves. Sappho frequently dwells on the human helplessness in the face of mortality, to which she resigns herself, since “immortal men are never born.” Never have I been more unsettled by an ancient text than by this reflection on man’s fate; her blunt phrasing refutes all ambition. However, she offers comfort in the opening verse. Humans can overcome death and attain eternal ‘life’ through remembrance, the reverberation of actions or words – or poetry – through history.

Another concern was how to establish a tone that would evoke the rhythmic tune generated by the turtle shell harp. This consideration often conflicted with my desire for fidelity to the rhyme, sentence structure and syntax, as permitted by the constraints of English. I wanted to remain faithful to the original, in which each word is of vital importance to the line, just as each verse is precious to the entire fragment. Finally, I had to represent Sappho’s images – the violet-clad arms, the dancing of young deer – while restraining the effect of each so as not to supersede the “alluring” beauty of the entire work. I thank George Kalogeris for pointing me to the original Aeolic text and for his erudite comments on my final work.

Sappho to her female companions
Translated by Jesus Kalergis

Seek the gifts in the violet clad arms of the Muses.
Cultivate the excellence of the turtle shell harp.

For me it’s over, my once delicate skin has been blemished by
The sands of time; my hair ripen, brittle white from blazing dark.

Burdensome spirit, for my knees too heavy to bear,
That once would whirl me, dancing, like deer.

Often I mourn, howling – but what can be done:
Nothing, immortal men are never born

And Tithonus, the tale holds, that rose-breasted Dawn
Love-smitten, carried off to the ends of the worlds,

Tithonus, alluring and youthful, still subdued into time
Despite sharing an eternity with amaranthine Dawn . . . .