Translating Corinna and Erinna
India Halstead

I learnt what poetry could do by reading the works of Homer, Sophocles, Hesiod, Euripides. Ancient Greek verse belonged, according to the records, exclusively to men. The only surviving female poet of antiquity––or apparently the only one worth reading––was Sappho. Sappho, though, is rarely taught in Greek language classes because her verses are so heavily fragmented. The same is true of the dozen or so Ancient Greek women whose lyrics I found sprinkled across anthologies of classical Poetry. Women’s exclusion from literary archives is nothing new, but I am interested in the role that fragmentation has played in this exclusion.

In the context of classical poetry, a ‘fragment’ is any poem spliced from its original context by accident or design. A text may survive only as an excerpt, quoted by another author, abridged, or buried under another layer of text. It might disintegrate through slow erosion, or rupture by more violent means: burning, tearing, such that passages, lines, words or letters become illegible.

The translator of a fragment might choose to translate only what is visible, so as not to risk misrepresenting the author and leaving it up to the reader to make sense of the gaps. Anne Carson takes this approach with Sappho’s poems, sometimes presenting a solitary word in a sea of blankness, amplifying the already-elliptical tone of Sappho’s lyrics. Or they might try to create something more helpful for the reader, filling the gaps with likely words to produce a legible whole. The risk here is that such a guess might be wildly off, resulting in more erosion, the translator’s voice drowning out the author’s voice. Neither method is foolproof: both mislead the reader, albeit in different ways.

I wanted my translation to greet an English reader as a fluent reader of Classical Greek might read a fragmented papyrus. How might they strive to complete the puzzle; what possibilities might be foreclosed to them? I want to signal the materiality of fragments: what it might feel like to look at a fragment, at the snippets of words and letters.

The norm in both transcribing and translating fragments is to use square brackets to separate original words from supplemented ones. I don’t like brackets: they feel incongruous with poetry, they disrupt the flow of reading and, well, their sharp edges bother me. So in translating these poems, I adopted an approach that can be explained using the metaphor of pen and pencil.

The Greek text is taken from editions compiled and ‘completed’ by male scholars, and used fainter text to show which words they have supplied, as if in pencil. The unsupplemented words - the words visible on the original fragment are more solid, suggesting pen. My English versions are presented the same way, but since languages do not correspond so neatly––since translation is always an imperfect science––these really are meant as a gesture, not as a direct translation.

As I did this, I realised that, with a little tweaking, I could actually create a coherent, alternative narrative––another ‘version’ of the poem––occupying the same space: a kind of palimpsest, simply by adjusting the syntax or choosing a different synonym.

This exercise produced some interesting results. I didn’t want to stray too far from the sense of the original poem, but I wanted to show the variety of meanings that can be extracted from fragmented words. Take the lines:

οὐδὲ γοᾶσαι

γυμναῖσιν χαίταισιν, ἀτὰρ φοινίκεος αἰδὼς

δρύπτει μ᾿ ἀμφι . . .

φοινίκεος αἰδὼς––‘crimson(?) shame’––is a likely subject for δρύπτει (‘rips’) but the inconclusiveness of ‘μ᾿ ἀμφι (at/around me/my…) means that meaning is not foreclosed.

Their fragmented state, the visible words gesture towards the speaker’s confusion of emotions: the mingling of grief and shame.

To show how easily decontextualized words can be misunderstood yet still manage to produce something analogous to the intentions of the original author, I chose to play on the dual meaning of the English word ‘tears.’ So the line, with its supplements and inferences, reads:

‘I can’t throw down my wild hair and cry, but shameful crimson tears at my cheeks…’

But, once the supplemented words are removed, there appears a pared-back alternative message within the text that, though it is the ‘chance’ product of the target language’s conventions, still somehow gets back to Erinna’s feelings in these lines:

‘I can’t throw down my wild hair and cry         shameful           tears’

I am aware of the hypocrisy of taking such creative license in a series of translations aimed at exposing the co-optation of Greek women’s voices. If they help to keep Erinna’s and Corinna’s voices alive, then, I think, it will have been worth it.

India Halstead teaches, researches and publishes work on Classical Mythology, Literary Translation, Gender and Sexuality and Poetry and Poetics. Under the supervision of Professor Emily Wilson, recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” grant for her translation of Homer’s Odyssey, she began writing poems of her own this summer. She was awarded the Laurel Wreath at The 2020 International Poetry Olympics run by Cerasus Press, with whom she is now working to publish a first solo collection.

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