Bringing Sappho to Life:
The Innovative Translations of Michael R. Burch
by Martin Mc Carthy
Not much is known about the Greek poet Sappho, except that she was born
around 630 B.C. on the island of Lesbos in the port city of Mytilene, and was
apparently exiled to Sicily around 600 B.C. and may have continued to live there
until her death around 570 B.C. She was also a musician who played the lyre and
was accomplished enough to set her own work to music.
In regard to that work, what survives of it is mostly Fragments, and this makes
it particularly hard to translate, even in a word-for-word manner that might
only give us a slight sense of who she really was. Yet, despite these major
obstacles, Michael R. Burch’s innovative English translations bring her
startlingly to life, both as a poet and as a woman who was modern, fearless,
erotic, and way ahead of her time – as can be as can be attested to by these
fine Fragments from his small archive of substantial Sappho poems:
Warriors on rearing chargers,
columns of infantry, fleets of warships:
some say these are the dark earth’s redeeming visions.
But I say –
the one I desire.
And this makes sense
because she who so vastly surpassed all mortals in beauty
– Helen –
seduced by Aphrodite, led astray by desire,
set sail for Troy,
abandoning her celebrated husband,
leaving her parents and child!
Her story reminds me of Anactoria,
who has also departed,
and whose lively dancing and lovely face
I would rather see than all the horsemen and war-chariots of the Lydians,
or all their infantry parading in flashing armor.
Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds whipping desolate mountains,
Virgins, be zealous for the violet-scented Muses’ lovely gifts
and those of the melodious lyre…
by my once-supple skin sags now;
my arthritic bones creak;
my ravenblack hair’s turned white;
my lighthearted heart’s grown heavy;
my knees buckle;
my feet, once fleet as fawns, fail the dance.
I often bemoan my fate … but what’s the use?
Not to grow old is, of course, not an option.
I am reminded of Tithonus, adored by Dawn with her arms full of roses,
who, overwhelmed by love, carried him off beyond death’s dark dominion.
Handsome for a day, but soon withered with age,
he became an object of pity to his ageless wife.
Eros the limb-shatterer,
She keeps her scents
in a dressing case.
And her sense?
In some undiscoverable place.
Burch’s achievement here is no small thing, given that nearly all other versions
of the same Fragments are flat and lifeless and overly prose-y, and offer no
sense of Sappho’s living presence. A presence which, in Burch’s versions, is not
only there, but seems to be imbued with an innate emotional intensity and
musicality. And this, to me, is perfect, because Sappho was not only an
accomplished musician – but she was also (as evidenced by some of her themes
here) a passionate and uninhibited lover.
Indeed, most other translators of Sappho offer little more than literal
translations of the surviving Fragments, and do not even aspire to meet the high
standard that is expected of ‘great poetry’, despite grandiose claims – made
invariably in their Introductions – that Sappho was ‘a great poet’.
One has to look no further than Anne Carson’s mildly acclaimed and relatively
recent volume of translations, titled If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, to
see the vast difference between what Burch does, and what others do with the
very same material. These are from Carson:
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
behind and went sailing to Troy.
Not for her children nor her dear parents
had she a thought, no –
]led her astray
]reminded me now of Anaktoria
who is gone.
I would rather see her lovely step
and the motion of light on her face
than chariots of Lydian ranks
of footsoldiers in arms.
]not possible to happen
]to pray for a share
out of the unexpected.
Eros shook my
mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees
]makes a way with the mouth
]beautiful gifts children
]song delighting clearsounding lyre
]all my skin old age already
hair turned white after black
]knees do not carry
]but what could I do?
]not possible to become
]Dawn with arms of roses
]bringing to the ends of the earth
But I love delicately and this to me –
the brilliance and beauty of the sun – desire has allotted.
Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me –
sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in
Burch largely constructed his Fragment 156 out of just a few words by Sappho,
and Carson has no matching Fragment for it, so I couldn’t include one. Yet this
highlights even more their contrasting styles of translating. On the one hand,
you have these Fragments by Carson that simply fail to show Sappho as the
mesmerising poet she undoubtedly was – and on the other, you have Burch’s
innovative reconstructions of what he often imagines those Fragments to have
been, given what’s there and what’s known about them, and her.
Perhaps one needs to be a poet, and a really good one, to be able to bring
another poet’s work vividly to life in another language, in another time,
especially when so much of each poem is missing, and what remains are only hints
and clues to what they were, and still could be, in the right hands – hands such
as Burch’s, that are perhaps guided by an intuitive, sixth-sense knowledge of
how to embody the art of another within a well-crafted and well-researched
reimagining, in order to make it live again in some of its original glory.
Burch says: “I started translating poems because I was unhappy and frustrated
with the translations I found. So many of them seemed prose-y, awkward, not
really poetry. I had never dreamt of attempting a translation myself, because I
had a smattering of French and German, and I had forgotten more than I
remembered. But I fell in love with ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ and thought it was a
shame that translations seemed so lacking. I thought to myself, ‘I’m good at
research, so why don’t I research the words and phrases, try to grok the poet
and the poem, and see what I can do?’ My first attempt seemed better to me than
all the translations I had read, so I decided to attempt my own translations of
other poems I liked. I kept surprising myself with my favorite non-English
poets: Basho, Issa, Sappho, Rilke, et al. So I kept doing the same thing, and I
thought it would be a favor to the poets, their poems, and to the readers, to
have better translations.”
This statement by Burch is only a spontaneous, off-the-cuff reply to a question
regarding his motivation for translating poetry in general, but there is,
nevertheless, a whole lot in it for other translators to reflect upon, if they
aspire to do their work well, and to serve the Muse with equal distinction. So
let’s pause here a moment and savour three more of Burch’s sumptuous Sappho
The enticing girl’s clinging dresses
leave me trembling, overcome with happiness,
as once, when I saw the Goddess in my prayers
soon you’ll lie dead, disregarded,
as your worm-eaten corpse like your memory fades:
for those who never gathered the roses of Pieria
must mutely assume their places
among the obscure, uncelebrated
A short revealing frock?
It’s just my luck
your lips were meant to mock!
Now it remains only for me to say that I firmly believe Sappho herself is there
somewhere, smiling her approval on what Burch has done to endow her Fragments
with many of the striking qualities they originally possessed. And that time
will, in due course, judge this to be a truly magnificent achievement.
Carson, A. If Not, Winter. Great Britain: Virago Press, 2003.
Michael R. Burch’s translations are taken by permission from his archive of
Sappho translations, and can be found at: www.thehypertexts.com
Martin Mc Carthy lives in Cork City, Ireland, and spent several years working
for the Defence Forces, before studying English at UCC and becoming a secondary
school teacher. He has published two poetry collections: Lockdown Diary (2020)
and Lockdown (2021). He was shortlisted for the Red Line Poetry Prize, and was a
nominee for the 2022 Pushcart Prize. At present he is completing a long sequence
of love poems, titled Book of Desire. His website is:
All translations and quotations are used by permission. Copyright, Michael R.