Sunday, November 9, 2014


Josephine Balmer, Piecing Together the Fragments: Translating Classical Verse, Creating Contemporary Poetry. Classical Presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. ix, 271. ISBN 9780199585090. $99.00.

Reviewed by Marguerite Johnson, The University of Newcastle, Australia (

Version at BMCR home site


Josephine Balmer is well placed to write this book on practice-based research in Classical Reception Studies. A poet, translator, literary critic and Classics scholar, Balmer has published translations of Sappho, other ancient female poets, and Catullus. Her own poetry, inspired by the ancients, particularly Catullus and Ovid, is characterised by boundary-crossing, genre-crossing and era-crossing collections that are powerful reminders of the ancients' proximity to their artistic successors.1

Balmer's contribution to Oxford Press' Classical Presences series is based in part on her PhD in Translation and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia and is divided into four parts. Part One has its origins in her graduate exegesis, and interrogates the suspicions of some that practice-based research and the 'art' of translation are 'unscholarly and overly subjective' (vii). As Balmer shows, however, there is now an established scholarly counter-argument to such conservatism, which regards practice-based research as 'an integral part of our corpus of translated literature' (vii).2

Composed of three chapters, Part One addresses the intellectual processes of translation praxis by addressing the historical background of translations of ancient poetry into English and analysing individual approaches. In Chapter One, she discusses the uneasy relationship between the 'scholarly' and the 'personal', citing examples of individual Classicists who have crossed this boundary-line. She reminds readers of ground-breaking works such as Compromising Traditions: The Personal Voice in Classical Scholarship3 and Living Classics: Greece and Rome in Contemporary Poetry in English.4 Although these books brought the personal and artistic voice to the forefront, Balmer maintains that 'the classical translator's voice is still more often heard as a small part of a more general discussion' (6). The chapter then proceeds to discuss the history of translation studies in the West, beginning with the ancients themselves and ending with Renaissance translators such as Arthur Golding.

Chapter Two succinctly plots the burgeoning of what may be cautiously described as a 'more personal translation' and Balmer illustrates this development with fascinating examples, such as the Earl of Roscommon's advice to aspiring translators: 'seek a Poet who your way does bend/And choose an author as you choose a Friend.' (22). Other well-known translators such as Alexander Pope, William Cowper and Matthew Arnold are then discussed with attention to their views on their craft, and their conflicting approaches. Balmer then turns to translators such as William Morris, Richard Jebb, Ezra Pound, and the Imagists, ending with the translators of the mid-twentieth century and their occasional reluctance to 'explain'. 'Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid (1997), is a later example of such a reluctance, with only the briefest of prefaces that concentrates on qualities he admires in the Roman poet rather than a discussion of his own approach to the work.' (39) Where does one draw the line between the artistic and the scholarly?

Chapter Three deals with one of Balmer's main interests, female poets and female translators. This chapter is prefaced by the treatment of Anne Carson's work at the end of Chapter Two and again takes a chronological approach. There is fascinating detail here and some insightful observations as Balmer discusses women's translations of Greek tragedies such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 1833 Prometheus Bound and Augusta Webster's 1866 'feminist version of Euripides's Medea' (45). Practising her own philosophy concerning the personal voice, which is at the heart of her creative-scholarship, Balmer discusses her own approaches to translating Sappho.

Part Two, covering Chapters Four to Five, examines the very 'distinctive nature' of translating the 'dead, classical languages' (viii). Chapter Four begins with the shifting terrain of interpretation of ancient texts as literary theory and perspectives change, destabilising the interpretive meanings of texts. For some scholars, such developments are to be avoided, yet for others such 'intellectual uncertainty and mystification' (60-61) are exciting and full of endless possibilities. Translating is as much subject to theoretical metamorphoses and constructionism as interpretation and, as interpretation, it brings its own challenges of decoding. She also discusses individual words (the meanings of which change over time), the fact that 'we can no longer hear' 'our dead texts' (62) and, essentially, our own limitations of knowledge.

Chapter Five is a discussion of Balmer's Sappho project; the inspirations that shaped it and the challenges of badly broken archaic Greek texts. Fragments 31, 16 and 94 furnish case studies and Balmer includes valuable insights for translators such as the artistic pursuit of making 'early poetry seem freshly minted' (81) and her own drive to coax 'new readers into the strangeness of the world' (81). There is much to absorb in this chapter, from issues of punctuation to the critical, self-reflexive process of rereading one's previous translations.

Part Three, Chapters Six to Eight, expands upon the many references to poets, scholars and philosophers mentioned throughout Chapter Five to underline Balmer's interest in, and commitment to, the reciprocity between translation and research. Chapter Six discusses the challenges of translation in terms of its coincidental or symbiotic engagement with scholarship as well as creativity. Is translation scholarship or creativity? Is it both? What exactly is being 'made' – academic writing or art? Such questions underpinned Balmer's 1996 project, Classical Women Poets, which involved a creative process of scholarly investigations and detective work to excavate inscriptions, some 'obscure but fascinating' (106), and to unearth 'riddles' and 'folk songs' (106), for a volume that, at the beginning, threatened to be too slim. Balmer's debt to feminist scholars at the vanguard of new approaches to Classics during the 1980s and 1990s, Page duBois, Mary Lefkowitz and Judith Hallett, is another theme throughout the book and an important factor in Balmer's overall creative / scholarly process. Of particular interest is her discussion of the translation of Erinna's Distaff, which proved an overwhelming challenge because of its fragmented condition and the numerous emendations that required attention and decisions: 'I had to make a large chart for myself, shaded with different colours for all the different suggested emendations … the problem … was not how but what to translate.' (117) Balmer includes her translation of this piecemeal lament, enabling readers to consider the product of the process, namely, Balmer's success at creating 'a series of fragmented memories falling across the page; of torn lines, broken conversations and dangling voices' (120)

In Chapter Seven, a continuation of the discussion of the volume, Classical Women Poets, Balmer reflects on translating more complete, or complete poems. The focus here is on Sulpicia (I and II) and issues pertaining to the écriture feminine and, finally, the means by which she assembled the final monograph. Chapter Eight discusses Balmer's Catullus project and its challenge to gender binaries as the female poet impersonates the male poet. The importance (as well as the novelty) of Balmer's translational transvestitism is put into sharp focus by her observation that 'of the 100 or so translators whose work is anthologized in Julia Haig Gaisser's 2001 anthology Catullus in English, only five of the translators are women' (142) Balmer nonetheless sought out her own Catullus, finally settling in part on Catullus as the joker, satirist and ironist, the poet of self-deprecatory confessions and 'mocking tales' (146). Again, she includes case studies and translations as well as reviewers' responses to the volume.

The last section, 'Classical Translation and Creativity', extends Balmer's ideas of the translator's creativity. She engages with the multifarious ways of extending the process of translation, reinterpreting and pushing the boundaries of the role – and the rights – of the translator. In the collections where Balmer begins 'to transgress' (177), the translator becomes the artist, a star in her own right. Thus, in Chapters Nine and Ten, respectively, she addresses Chasing Catullus: Poems, Translations and Transgressions and The Word for Sorrow. In both volumes, Balmer mixes translations, original poetry, adaptations and paraphrasing; combining and recombining Homer, Sappho, Plato, Catullus, Vergil and Ovid; mixing in T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and Christopher Logue (among others).5 Returning to her concerns about the personal voice, she reflects on her poems about her six-year-old niece's terminal illness and death, which form a major section of Chasing Catullus. The poem that opens this sequence, 'Greek Tragedy', inspired by Euripides' Medea, 'recalls the early days spent in the children's cancer ward of the London Marsden hospital' (184):

But we have Dads shaved in mimesis,
mothers sharing recognition scenes;
family life – or its catharsis –
and now, on cue, your masked faces
stepping up to address her fatal flaw,
the ones to sing out: it shan't be so. (185)
Similarly, in another excerpt, this one from 'Cutting the Hydra', Balmer recalls a doctor's hopelessness in the face of her niece's cancer; comparing him to Hercules confronting the Hydra for the first time:

Afterwards he couldn't even look us in the face.
I saw him going home to his own Deianira,
tucking into cutlets, mash, one more gin with bitters,
white coat deflated on its peg, buff suit skinned and shed. (185)

In Chapter Nine, Balmer discusses The Word for Sorrow, which 'looked to an implicitly more objective narrative drive in order to approach wider, national traumas' (201). The origin of the collection is a fascinating story involving Ovid's Tristia and a name inscribed in her second-hand Latin dictionary. Balmer tracks down the identity of the dictionary's original owner – a man posted to the killing fields of Gallipoli. The chance connections – the Tristia, a tattered dictionary, the shores of the Dardanelles, Turkey and its proximity to Tomis – inspire Balmer to weave together these serendipities in her poetic contemplations of 'the word for sorrow'. The excerpt from 'Hail' chronicles the discovery of the name of the original owner of the dictionary:

and there, as if still fresh, on the front page,
dual initials, double-barrelled surname:
G. A. Lyneham-Forsythe, 6th January 1900
scrawled in schoolboy boredom, thunder-stiff,
blood-brown ink, faint as an old man's vein:
the bruising flare of chained sheet lightning
that flashes, strikes, then moves on
leaving everything changed.

The conclusion returns to the major themes and problems that preoccupy Balmer as a translator, poet and practice-based scholar. Her belief that the translator (and poet) should balance a mutual respect between creativity and scholarship is emphasised in a convincing conclusion.

This is a fascinating, instructive and eminently readable book, and an important contribution to reception and translation studies. It is also a wonderful introduction to the poet's own poetry by the poet herself.6


1.   Translations: Sappho: Poems and Fragments (Brillance Books: 1984), Sappho: Poems and Fragments, revised ed. (Bloodaxe Books: 1992), Classical Women Poets (Bloodaxe Books: 1996), Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate (Bloodaxe Books: 2004). Poetry: Chasing Catullus: Poems, Translations, and Translations (Bloodaxe Books: 2004) and The Word for Sorrow (Salt Publishing: 2009). Cf. BMCR 97.1.4 (Classical Women Poets); BMCR 2005.01.11 (Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate).
2.   Cf., for example, Living Classics: Greece and Rome in Contemporary Poetry in English, ed. S. Harrison, Oxford, 2009; cf. BMCR 2010.11.30
3.   Compromising Traditions: The Personal Voice in Classical Scholarship, edd. J. P. Hallett and T. Van Norton, London, 1997; cf. BMCR 97.7.2
4.   Cf. n.2 (above).
5.   Balmer briefly discusses James K. Baxter's poetry, particularly 'The Flower', and while she cites him via Stephen Harrison's article in Living Classics (295-323), his exclusion from the bibliography is unfortunate.
6.   Some scholars may critique Balmer's lack of engagement with metrical issues, and it would have been interesting to read her views, but this is my only quibble.

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