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Thursday, July 19, 2007

From Sappho 3

Equal to the Gods by Sappho, verse 3 (verse 1, verse 2)
    ἀλλὰ κάμ μὲν γλῳσσα έαγε, λέπτον
    δ᾽ αὔτικα χρῷ πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμακεν,
    ὀππάτεσσι δ᾽ οὐδὲν ορημ᾽,
    ἐπιβρόμβεισι δ᾽ ἄκουαι.

    But tongue snaps and thin
    fire runs fast under skin
    In eyes no sight,
    thrumming in ears.
γλῳσσα - "tongue" - 1 Cor. 14:18. This refers to either the physical tongue or a language. Sometimes our tongues break or snap and we are speechless.

έαγε -ἀγνυμι - "breaks, snaps" (not in the Christian scriptures)

λέπτον - thin, slight - Matt. 12:42. It is the widow's mite, a very small thing.

χρῷ - χρώς - "skin, flesh, body" - Acts 19:12. In this poem the "thin fire under the skin" speaks of the tingle of physical attraction, quite the opposite of our expression that someone can "get under our skin."

πῦρ - fire. 1 Cor. 7:9. In this verse the cognate "burn" could possibly mean judgment, but more likely refers to sexual attraction or desire.

ὐπαδεδρόμακεν - ὑποτρέχω - "to run under". This is one of those very awkward verbs which has a completely different form in the past tense, like "go" and "went" in English. Found in Acts 27:16 - Paul's shipwreck.

ὀππάτεσσι - "eyes" (Archaic) related to ὄπτομαι - a very common NT word for "to see".

οὐδὲν - none

ορημ᾽ - ὁράω - "to see", also used throughout the NT.

ἐπιβρόμβεισι - this is an onomatopoeic word to represent a drumming sound. It is related to words like βρομος - a "roaring sound". Sort of like vroom - vroom in English, but probably refers to the sound of one's own heartbeat.

ἄκουαι - ἀκοή - in the singular the "sense of hearing", but in the plural it is a synonym for "ears". Acts 17:20.


I have explained many of my thoughts on language learning in my previous post on verse 2. I suppose now someone might ask why I have chosen the poems of a bisexual female poet for a teaching object. I would respond - do you mean, as opposed to the proverbs of a Hebrew king with 700 wives and 300 concubines?

These poems of Sappho are intensely feminine, and express a female preoccupation with clothing, hair, flowers, dance, and ritual. They were composed to be sung in public and cover the topics of love, desire, marriage, goodness, the drape of a dress, the light of the moon, the colour of a flower, and the harvest of chickpeas.

The translation is my own and is designed to be as literal as possible, maintaining the original word order to make the Greek more accessible. The result is only slightly more literal than the translations of Anne Carson*. Some earlier translations of Sappho's poems were ornate and flowery, actually verbose - beyond what is useful to create beauty.

If you really want to learn a language then I think it helps to have a strong affective or emotional attachment to that language. One way is to make the language a part of one's own identity or story; it becomes a part of one's life narrative.

I feel that I can appreciate the sentiments found in these poems by understanding them as an expression of the universal longing for love and companionship that we all have - the simple desire to be with someone. In this case, it is a poem of lost love.

This series is in response to a conversation last fall on This Lamp about what other material one could read in order to become familiar with the Greek language.

* Note: I have taken the Greek text and some help in the translation from If not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson.
Poems of Sappho on the internet here.

Here is the entire poem excepting the fragments of a last verse. Although it is an extremely literal translation it is now gender neutral to communicate better a universal sentiment. (The lines also fit better this way.)

Equal to the Gods

Seems to me - that one - divine,
who opposite you sits,
And close, to your sweet voice,

Your lovely laughing
the heart in my breast agitates.
For when I look at you, even briefly,
my voice is gone

Tongue snaps and thin
fire runs fast under skin
In eyes no sight,
thrumming in ears

Sweat trickles down
trembling shakes me
Greener than grass
I die at least a little -
it seems to me.


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