Anne Carson’s Manipulation of Fragments of Sappho

1 January 2017

In the translation of the remaining fragments of Sappho, the readers of the text can only view Sappho through a narrow lens. Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho’s poetry creates a perspective through which the readers are at the mercy of her editorial choices. Because most of Sappho’s poetry has been lost, translating it into English in a comprehensible way is very difficult. Carson states that, “on a papyrus roll the text is written in columns, without word division, punctuation or lineation. To read such a text is hard even when it comes to us in its entirety and most papyri don’t” (Carson ix).

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Carson’s insertion of word division, punctuation and lineation into the English translation of Sappho’s poetry as a result, may, and probably did, change the meaning, underlying message, or understanding of her thoughts. Carson has “sometimes manipulated it’s spacing on the page, to restore a hint of musicality or suggest syntactic motion” (Carson xi). The question now is: did Sappho’s remaining poetry need the assistance of Carson to retain its musicality? Or is Carson’s manipulation of the text masking other intent?

Anne Carson is known to be reticent regarding her personal life, but her scholarly life has been linked with the subject of eroticism and same sex relations. Some of Carson’s works have become Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) totems, in which the LGBTQ community views her as an advocate for desire, eroticism, and intensity. So much so, that her book Eros of the Bittersweet was heavily discussed in the pilot episode of the L Word, a popular television series that follows the lives and loves of a small, close-knit group of lesbians living in Los Angeles.

In this scene, two women who are flirting casually bring up Anne Carson and how her books have “practically changed my [her] life” (“The L Word” Season 1 Episode 1). Within the next few minutes these two characters were engaging in sexual acts in a nearby bathroom. Here, Carson’s literature was the motivation for these women to engage in erotic behaviors. Due to the popularity of her texts, which depict the “extremes of passion and eroticism,” Carson has developed a large following that look to ancient Greek literature to support their views on same sex relations and eroticism (Smith par. ). This following has made Anne Carson significant enough to discuss on the small screen. Carson’s tendency to incorporate or enhance eroticism in her works is evident in her translations of the remaining fragments of Sappho. “129A but me you have forgotten. ” “129B or you love some man more than me” (Carson 263). These two fragments were originally on two different columns on the original Greek papyrus, however, Carson intentionally places these two thoughts on the same page in the English translation to invoke emotion from the reader.

Upon reading this translation, the average reader would believe that Sappho is heart-broken over someone who has forgotten her and moved on to a different lover. The placement of these fragments on the same page implies that the love that Sappho speaks of is a female that loves a man more than Sappho. Carson’s editorial choice in this instance makes the reader pity Sappho for she is seen of as less valued than a man to her previous lover. The depiction of Sappho’s unrequited love is indicative of Sappho’s erotic behavior that has been continually depicted in the text. Sappho’s unrequited desire for other women is further expressed: I want ] of desire ] for when I look at you ]such a Hermione ]and to yellowhaired Helen I liken you ] ]among mortal women, know this ]from every care ]you could release me ] ]dewy riverbanks ]to last all night long” (Carson 41-43). From this fragment, it seems as if Sappho is physically attracted to Helen of Troy and would like to engage to in sexual intercourse with her. Sappho states, “from every care/ you could release me…to last all night long. ” Her thoughts are already quite controversial without the editorial manipulation of Carson for they infer that that having sex all night long could lead to a sexual climax or release.

This sex would be so earth shattering that they would release Sappho from “every care,” which could be societal boundaries, cultural norms or gender norms. Carson’s insertion of a comma between “among mortal women, know this,” however changes the meaning of this fragment entirely. This comma causes the reader to pause when reading Sappho’s thoughts and think that the following thoughts of engaging in sexual intercourse are directed solely to Helen. It is unknown as to whether Sappho intended for her thoughts of sexual desires to be directed toward Helen because the spacing before this phrase suggests that there is a line of poetry missing.

Therefore, the insertion comma is critical to the reader’s understanding of Sappho’s desires and whom it is directed towards. With this comma, we understand that Sappho would like to break away from societal and cultural norms and engage in sexual relations with another woman. Without this comma, it is unknown as to who she yearns for, whether a man or woman. Carson assumes that Sappho wants to engage in sexual intercourse with a woman, when in fact it will forever be questionable as to who she directed these thoughts towards.

Her strategic manipulation of punctuation proves that Sappho yearns for a female when in fact, there is nothing to substantiate these claims. Editorial manipulation clearly changes the way in which readers comprehend the meanings of a text. This is seen in Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho’s remaining poetry, where she controlled the way in which Sappho was portrayed to modern day society: as a highly sensual and erotic woman who engaged in same sex relations. Therefore, you can see that Carson inserts her own biases or predilections to depict Sappho as desiring or yearning women.

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