Translating fragments (Sappho Bergk 3)

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Translating fragments (Sappho Bergk 3)

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Edited: Mar 30, 2007, 8:08pm

Over in the favorite poem topic, Hera posted a fragment of Sappho. I am not sure what translation was used: I first thought it was The Penguin Book of Greek Verse, but that has:
The stars about the beautiful moon again hide their radiant shapes, when she is full and shines at her brightest on all the earth.
In any case, here is what Henry Thorton Wharton's Sappho: Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings and a Literal Translation has for it. This is the book that started the Victorian Sappho revival and so a good place to start looking how it gets translated.

Ἄστερες μὲν ἀμφὶ κάλαν σελάνναν
αἶψ ἀπυκρύπτοισι φάεννον εἶδος,
ὄπποτα πλήθοισα μάλιστα λάμπῃ
γᾶν [ἐπὶ πᾶσαν]
— ⏑ — ⏑ ἀργυρία — ⏑ — ⏑ .

The stars about the fair moon in their turn hide their bright face when she at about her full lights up all earth with silver.
Planets, that around the beauteous moon
Attendant wait, cast into shade
        Their ineffectual lustre, soon
As she in full-orbed majesty arrayed,
        Her silver radiance pours
        Upon this world of ours.

        The stars around the lovely moon
        Their radiant visage hide as soon
        As she, full-orbed, appears to sight,
Flooding the earth with her silvery light.

The stars about the lovely moon
Fade back and vanish very soon,
When, round and full, her silver face
Swims into sight, and lights all space.

Stars that shine around the refulgent full moon
Pale, and hide their glory of lesser lustre
When she pours her silvery plenilunar
Light on the orbed earth.
J. A. SYMONDS, 1883.

‘As the stars draw back their shining faces when they surround the fair moon in her silver fulness.’

Quoted by Eustathius of Thessalonica, late in the twelfth century, to illustrate the simile in the Iliad, viii. 551 :—
As when in heaven the stars about the moon
Look beautiful.TENNYSON.

Julian, about 350 A.D., says Sappho applied the epithet silver to the moon; wherefore Blomfield suggested its position here.

This can be found online at The Divine Sappho.
A shorter version, with verse paraphrases by Anne Bunner is online with full view at Google Books.

Edited: Mar 30, 2007, 8:32pm

Again thanks to Google Books, the critical text Greek Melic Poets by Herbert Weir Smyth is online: text and notes.

Over and above the usual challenges of translating poetry, such as how faithful to be and whether to attempt meter or rhyme; and the usual issues with old texts, such as variant readings, there are some issues because this is a fragment: (1) missing pieces, (2) extra pieces and (3) missing context.

As noted by Wharton, we have this much of the poem because it was quoted by Eustathius (Iliad. 729, 20). The line of the Iliad being discussed (viii. 555) is:
ὡς δ’ ὅτ’ ἐν οὐρανῷ ἄστρα φαεινὴν ἀμφὶ σελήνην
Even as in heaven about the gleaming moon the stars shine clear

The reason this warrants discussion is that this isn't how the moon and stars work. The stars are less visible when the moon is out; it outshines them. Which is just what Sappho says. And so do many later poets, such as Horace (Carm. XII, 45):
… micat inter omnes
Iulium sidus, velut inter ignes
Luna minores.
… great Julius' light
Shines, like the radiant moon amid
The lamps of night.
which Smyth uses to title the Sappho fragment or Wotton in Elizabeth of Bohemia. Note how Tennyson cuts Homer some slack by omitting that the moon is gleaming.

(1) missing pieces
The quotation only includes the start of the fourth line. ἐπὶ πᾶσαν 'on the whole _' is an interpolation that fits the sense and the meter. So the translator must decide whether to qualify the earth. Most seem to by about two to one.

(2) extra pieces
Julian, in a letter to his teacher Hecebolius justifying exchanging silver for gold and so looking to prove the worth of silver (XIX), says:
Σαπφὼ δ᾽ ἡ καλὴ τὴν σελήνην ἀργυρέαν φησὶ καὶ διὰ τοῦτο τῶν ἄλλων ἀστέρων ἀποκρύπτειν τὴν ὄψιν.
But Sappho the beautiful says that the moon is silvery and because of that it hides the radiance of the other stars.

It is common to think of the moon as silvery when speaking poetically, but apparently Sappho was the first. Since the second part of his paraphrase matches this fragment, this is where it is placed. But there is no real indication of how it goes precisely. The translator must decide whether to try to work it in somehow or leave the moon unqualified and so possibly give the wrong impression. An unscientific survey seems to indicate that it's about half and half whether they do.

(3) missing context
The second word μὲν implies some kind of contrast; most likely there is a δὲ in the rest of the poem. The contrast can be as strong as English “on the one hand … on the other hand” or as weak as just “… and …”, often “… but …” is about right. One possible comparison would between the shining moon and the beautiful object of the poet's affection. It's hard to convey that the Greek anticipates a contrast in the English;  “though …”,  “while …” or “ … may …” are all too strong. (IANAP)

Edited: Mar 30, 2007, 8:10pm

Google has J. H. Merivale's Collections from the Greek Anthology from the 1833 edition (full view — the first edition was 1813), so we can see some slight variations from the quotation:
Planets, that round the beauteous moon
    Attendant wait, cast into shade
  Their ineffectual lustres, soon
As she in full-orb'd majesty array'd,
        Her silver radiance pours
        Upon this world of ours.

And The Poets of Greece by Edwin Arnold from 1869 (full view).

More interestingly, it has some other Victorian and Edwardian translations of this poem.

Poems and poetical fragments by Henry Alford, 1833 (full view):
All the stars that cluster around the moonlight
Back from sight their glittering faces cover,
Whensoe'er the earth at the full she lightens.

Hope H. Lumpkin in The Sewanee Review, 1892 (snippet view):
Around my Lady Moon, her maiden stars
Must hide their glorious eyes
Whene'er her silver light blesses
Wide the world and the skies.

In Greek Lands and Letters by Francis Greenleaf Allinson and Anne Crosby (Emery) Allinson, 1909 (full view):
The clustering stars about the radiant moon avert their faces bright and
hide, what time her orb is rounded to the full and touches earth with silver.

The Lyric Songs of the Greeks by Walter Petersen, 1918 (full view):
The Moon and the Stars
Around the full moon's silver face,
  When brightest it doth beam,
And when its orb is all ablaze,
  The stars conceal their gleam.

The Poems of Sappho, with Historical and Critical Notes, Translations, and a Bibliography by Edwin Marion Cox, 1925 (online in The Internet Sacred Text Archive):
The stars about the full moon lose their bright beauty when she, almost full, illumines all earth with silver.

I won't name any names, but some of those seem to me, well, uhm, not to have aged very well.

Edited: Apr 2, 2007, 9:26pm

Sappho; A New Translation by Mary Barnard in 1958 was the first to render the poems in a form that modern people would characterize as lyrical. Here is her take:
Awed by her splendor

Stars near the lovely
moon cover their own
bright faces
                   when she
is roundest and lights
earth with her silver

“silver” has been worked in at the end, since no one knows where it really
goes, but not jarringly.

Edited: Apr 2, 2007, 9:44pm

Here is how three modern poets deal with this poem. In translating the papyrus fragments, where parts of several lines in a row will be cut off, they pretty scrupulously mark off the approximate length with space and brackets, like an epigrapher would, while still trying to deal with what remains poetically. Every one has included “silver” but never in the main poem.

Sappho: Poems and Fragments by Josephine Balmer (1984) treats it as a separate fragment and gives it its own number (112) after the main poem (111):
The stars around the lovely moon
hide their brightness when it is full
and shines the clearest over all
the earth

[The moon is]
               like silver

7 Greeks by Guy Davenport (1995) takes Julian's paraphrase and recasts it poetically:
The stars around the moon in her beauty
Dim their bright patterns of fire
When her light is full upon the world.
The Emperor Julian, quoting Sappho in a letter,
remembered these lines as:
When the moon is silver
She hides the stars around her
From our sight.

If not, winter : fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson (2002) lets it stand alone and adds a endnote of explanation:
stars around the beautiful moon
hide back their luminous form
whenever all full she shines
        on the earth


34:5 “silvery”: the adjective is not part of the text of the poem as quoted (vv. 1-4) by the grammarian Eustathius in his commentary on Iliad 8.555, but has been added because the Roman emperor Julian refers to the poem in a letter to the sophist Hekebolios:
    Sappho … says the moon is silver and so hides the other stars from view.

Mar 30, 2007, 8:23pm

I think one could justifiably call Margaret Reynolds' The Sappho Companion a post-modern treatment. In addition to translation, it covers the idea of Sappho in culture, both literary and popular. It works in some, but not too much, of the various -isms of literary theory.

On the matter of this fragment, it proposes a connection (maybe a bit too strong of one, I'd say) to the Tin Pan Alley song. Interestingly, though, only one of the two translations provided includes it, in keeping with the overall percentages I've noticed:
Stars above their faces in awe are hiding,
While the Moon, with beauty the world adorning,
At the full, with silvery beams delightful,
    Shines from Olympus

Percy Osborn, 1909

Stars around the luminous moon – how soon they
hide away their glitter of diamond light, when
she floats over, and at the full, refulgent,
 glamours the landscape...

John Frederick Nims, 1990

Apr 2, 2007, 11:32pm

Thanks for providing all these versions in one place. Speaking as a poet, I think I'd still take Bernard. The ones that come befor and after seem overly pretty and/or ornate.

Edited: Apr 10, 2007, 8:49pm

I think I find the Bernard to be the best poem, but maybe not the best translation. That may just be because I am about the same age as it is. Augustan translations probably felt like poetry should in their time too.

In another topic here, there was discussion of publishing translations other than in their own books. So I looked around a little.

James Stone in American Poetry Review v.19 no.2 (March-April 1990) p.25:
Neighbors of the gentle moon stars
appear in a fluster to disappear
whenever she rises fully revealed
bathing the earth in silver light.
(The translations published there won the 1988 Robert Fitzgerald Translation Prize.)

Here is Willis Barnstone publishing his translations from 1996 in an ebook:
The glow and beauty of the stars
are nothing near the splendid moon
when in her roundness she burns silver
about the world.

Jun 13, 2010, 10:43am


I wish I had found this before finishing A Dolphin In The Woods. Perhaps I missed the entire group, for I put a talk into a smaller group about those of us who "translate, too."

To find both "roundest" and "almost full" is interesting, but would be more intersting if we had a gloss/word-for-word of the original in English and for thinking about the aptness or not of rhyme, it might be nice to see a romanized version of Sapho for all to whom Greek is Greek.

Do, I understand right that the find of that one poem or fragment was enough to start the Victorian Sappho revival? Or, was it one of the translations (perhaps the link explained, but a sentence or two would suffice to get it) you give?

The mention of silver. Basho had several versions of many of his poems. It may be with Sappho that the silver is in a missing part or it may be that she wrote more than one version of her poem from the start. Or it may be in an all-together different poem, no? But, speaking of silver, did you check your Chinese moon poems for color?

That Penguin translation with its "radiant shapes" is the awful sort of thing that made me -- despite feeling not-at-all the poet -- decide I might as well try to translate myself. If there are notes explaining that the ancient Greeks viewed some stars as five-pointed, six-pointed, eight-pointed, twelve-pointed, etc., indeed as variegated as snowflakes, I might feel differently but . . .

Is that, by any chance, what set you off to investigating here? Or, is your interest more in the general styles of the various translations?

Seeing Davenport saddens me, for we exchanged letters when i was in japan -- he, the rare critic who was into country music (another story) and i would have liked so much to bounce The Dolphin In the The Woods off of him! (speaking of which i have some copies here now and will mail you one to the address a search through my g-mail should dig-up, if you do not yet have a copy -- i know i owe you that and more for your input for a couple chapters).

Did Anne Carson explain why she was emphasizing the silver?