Monday, May 26, 2008

Sappho and the Bible

Because there's been this subtle hint of a suggestion that translation scholarship may get tainted somehow if in any way motivated by "feminist presuppositions,"
and because that's already been reiterated rather loudly elsewhere ("Remember that"! like it's the Alamo or something),
I thought we'd best keep talking.

Here below is some of the work of some of the best scholars in the world translating a fragment of Sappho. And how do excellent and honest scholars do without feminist presuppositions when there's "scholarly" sexism and when it's Sappho? They don't do without them, that's how. However, for a few sexist "scholars" of the Bible who just think and argue about translation, a little Greek word becomes, in translation, a big sacred cow. (At stake for these male teachers is whether women today can teach men today in the church and whether Christian wives today get the exclusive role of submitting to their Christian husbands and whether the sacred Bible with its sacred cow Greek words and their sacred cow English translations can really endorse all of that with scholarship untainted by feminism). So with honest and purposeful motivation, with some serious attempt at a little humor, some of us who say sexism sucks also say today in English translation: "Moo!"

The particular Sappho fragment given below is from her Hymn to Aphrodite (whom Willis Barnstone calls Afroditi). I've clipped that in here below also because a certain Bible "scholar" is trying to make some fairly circumscribed assertions about "the Greek word aner" and about how feminist scholars allegedly and "[r]ecently, with no new evidence, but [applying] cultural pressure, . . . have discovered a new meaning, 'person'," which would overturn what "Greek scholars for hundreds of years have known," namely "that aner means 'man' not 'person.'"

If we're not too distracted by the agendas (both A. the sexist "scholarly" claims that feminists are wrecking scholarship not restoring it and B. the unnecessary concession to the sexist "scholars" that scholarship really best does do without feminist work), then you might just enjoy the translations below.

I've bolded a couple of key words under consideration. Look how the respective (honest, feminist) scholars have translated differently. Wonderfully differently!

νδρα, "one," "him," "man," "men / kin," and "husband."

νθρώπων, "mortal," "mortals," "other woman," "mortals," and "everyone."

Ο] μν ππήων στρότον ο δ πέσδων
ο δ νάων φασ π γν μέλαιναν
]μμεναι κάλλιστον γω δ κν
ττω τς παται.

πά]γχυ δ εμαρες σύνετον πόησαι
πά]ντι τ[ο. γρ πόλυ περσκόπεισα
κά]λλος νθρώπων λένα [τνδρα
[κρίννεν ρ]ιστον,

(Sappho, Hymn to Aphrodite III, 1 and 2)


Some say that the fairest thing upon the dark earth is a host of horsemen, and some say a host of foot soldiers, and others again a fleet of ships, but for me it is my beloved. And it is easy to make anyone understand this. When Helen saw the most beautiful of mortals, she chose for best that one,

(J. M. Edmonds)


A troop of horse, the serried ranks of marchers,
A noble fleet, some think these of all on earth
Most beautiful. For me naught else regarding
___Is my beloved.

To understand this is for all most simple,
For thus gazing much on mortal perfectino
And knowing already what life could give her,
___Him chose fair Helen,

(Edwin Marion Cox)


Some say nothing on earth excels in beauty
Fighting men, and call incomparable the lines
Of horse or foot or ships. Let us say rather
Best is what one loves.

This among any who have ever loved
Never wanted proof. Consider Helen: she
in beauty no other woman came near
Left the finest man

(Margaret Reynolds)


Some say cavalry and others claim
infantry or a fleet of long oars
is the supreme sight on the black earth
I say it is

the one you love. And easily proved.
Did not Helen who far surpassed all
Mortals in beauty desert the best
of men, her kin,

(Willis Barnstone)


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

(Anne Carson)


update to clarify: aner and andra are (transliterated) variants of the Greek word νδρα

update to link:

Sappho, the Bible, and Feminism


Nathan Stitt said...

Great timing. I just noticed a copy of Mary Barnard's Sappho A New Translation on my dad's shelf and borrowed it yesterday. I don't think this particular hymn is in the book, but I am amused by the timing. I'll be posting soon about the the recent gender discussion.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks Nathan. Mary Barnard's terrific: I'm going to find her Sappho if I can. (Booksellers should thank you for all the great recommendations!)

I wanted to include Jane McIntosh Snyder's translation in The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome but don't have a copy with me as I posted and comment now.