Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Sunday, April 19, 2009

#159 Sappho's Language

The two poems lie side by side.
Their words float off the page,
their meaning some place
between two mirrors.
The serpent uncurls and in an instant
all is known and then lost.
I look each word up
in the dictionary of my imagination,
but the nuances shimmer, love,
the letters flicker and twist,
transforming what is known
into something strange and new,
perhaps close to what the poet cried
in her dreams.

This week's Sunday Scribblings asks us to write about language. I remembered reading Pablo Neruda to prepare for a competency exam in Spanish. No matter how long I studied the vocabulary, the meaning in translation kept shifting. I found a book once that had Sappho's fragments in the original Greek and wondered how we could construct meaning out of a partial poem over such a distance of time and culture. Sometimes I think poets write in a very personal code, adding another barrier. Even our popular vocabulary changes over time, so that what once was a "good" translation of a classic sounds somehow off and not true to the writer's intention.


  1. Often, despite changing culture, some statements are so true to the human condition that they can always be understood.
    The poem was excellent.

  2. Very nice. I love looking at mirrored poems -- one in the original language and the other in translation. You depicted this very well in this poem.

  3. Lovely take and you really provided some food for thought. I agree about the shifting form of translations. Thanks for the reminder of why there are indeed many translations for any given piece of genius.
    Have a great week!

  4. oh, that is really wonderful. It really conveys the struggle to find the right words, to express oneself clearly, something I can definitely relate to. Love it.