Sappho, the earliest and most famous Greek woman poet, sang her songs around 600 BCE on the island of Lesbos. Of what survives from the approximately nine papyrus scrolls collected in antiquity, all is translated in the second edition of Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works. The power of Sappho’s poetry – her direct style, rich imagery, and passion – is apparent even in these remnants. We hear her voice in these poems about love, friendship, rivalry, festivals, and family.
Bringing Sappho’s fragmentary poetry into English is a difficult balancing act between Sappho’s Greek and modern English. In my “Note on Translation: from Sappho to Sappho,” I discuss some of the ways that I attempt to draw the reader closer to Sappho, conveying the pleasures of her Greek to a non-Greek-reading audience.
Sappho changed my life in college, initiating my career as a translator. With new fragments discovered in 2004, and even newer discoveries published in 2014 right before the first edition of Sappho went to press, it was time for a more “complete” book. The second edition has drawn on a recent flourishing of Sappho scholarship and new Greek editions, primarily Camillo Neri’s (2021), which he graciously allowed us to use before its publication. With these resources, I have been able to add thirty more (mostly very fragmentary) fragments and to make additions or changes to another seventy fragments. This book includes every surviving piece of Sappho’s songs and twenty-two fragments that are most likely Sappho’s (fragments 287–306A).
For the second edition, besides revising many poems and fragments from my earlier Sappho publications, I also made many small corrections for clarity, accuracy, consistency, and sound. Even small changes can make a stark difference. The very first line of poem 1 (perhaps our single complete poem) exemplifies some of the possibilities and problems in translation. The Greek on the papyrus, ποικιλόθρον’ ἀθανάτ’ Ἀφρόδιτα (poikilothron’ athanat’ Aphrodita), literally means “poikilos-throned immortal Aphrodite.” I have been trying to figure out a way to translate the word poikilos in numerous poems for over forty years. Poikilos can be the dappled pattern of a fawn or the light filtered through trees; multiple textures or materials, like embroidery or inlaid woods; many colors or hues; something fancy; or a metaphorical representation of complexity of any kind. For consistency, it would be optimum for the translation to modify throne, sandals (#39), trinkets (#44), hairband (#98), and Gaia (#168C). For all but Earth, I chose “iridescent”: It carries the complexity of color and light, and its sound and rhythm are better than in the earlier version (“On the throne of many hues, Immortal Aphrodite”).
Aphrodite rightly begins poem 1 on a seat and position of power before she swoops down from Mt. Olympos to exert her will:
Deathless Aphrodite on your iridescent throne,
wile-weaving daughter of Zeus, I beg you
not to break my spirit, O Queen,
with pain or sorrow
but come – if ever before from far away
you heard my voice and listened,
and leaving your father’s
golden home you came,
your chariot yoked with lovely sparrows
drawing you quickly over the dark earth
in a whirling cloud of wings down
the sky through midair,
suddenly here. Blessed One, with a smile
on your deathless face, you ask
what have I suffered again
and why do I call again
and what in my wild heart do I most wish
would happen: “Once again whom must
I persuade and lead into your love?
Sappho, who wrongs you?
If now she flees, soon she’ll chase.
If rejecting gifts, then she’ll give.
If not loving, soon she’ll love
even against her will.”
Come to me now – release me from these
troubles, everything my heart longs
to have fulfilled, fulfill, and you
be my ally.
Here, Sappho prays to Aphrodite and reminds her of the last time that the goddess flew down to assist in love matters. Quoting Aphrodite makes it seems as if the goddess manifests herself once again to help Sappho with her latest female (apparent in the sixth stanza) beloved. Indeed, Sappho is most famous for songs depicting homoerotic desire for women.
Wherever possible, I translate the gender explicit in the Greek, such as “May you sleep on the breast of a tender girlfriend” (#126). Hetaira means female companion or girlfriend, with the same double meaning as the English. Where gender is not clear in the Greek, sometimes the context of the fragment or Sappho’s work provides a guide. In the 2014 edition, mine was the first English translation (as far as I know) to choose the feminine rather than the masculine for the Greek neuter paidos (child, girl, boy, youth, slave) in #102:
Sweet mother, I cannot weave –
slender Aphrodite has overcome me
with longing for a girl.
The weaver must be a daughter addressing her mother about the girl’s erotic desire for some young person. Based on Sappho’s use of this noun and her homoerotic poems, it seems to me most likely to refer to desire for a girl. There is no way to know for sure. As all readers do, translators interpret as they read and then write the work new again.
What remains consistent in my translations is the double goal of poetry and accuracy, guided by the best textual editions and recent scholarship. Beauty and precision in language need not be mutually exclusive. As I have done since Sappho’s Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece (1991), I indicate where the fragments are missing pieces with ellipses for missing words, asterisks for missing lines, and brackets for editorial suppositions. Then I try to guide the reader over and through the gaps, particularly by carefully selecting the words on either side:
. . . because you, too, [were] once a child
[who loved] to dance and sing. Come, talk . . .
. . . this through and so favor us . . .
since we’re off to a wedding. Yes, you [know]
this well, but as quickly as possible . . .
send the unmarried girls away, and may
the gods keep . . .
[There is no] path to great Olympos
for humans . . .
My translations neither embellish nor simplify, unlike many earlier translations that tended to fill in or otherwise erase the gaps. (For more from me on translating fragments, see Translation Review 94.1(2016), 32 (1990), and 23 (1987).) Ideally, the experience of reading these translations should be as close as possible to that of reading and hearing what remains of the Greek. I aim to reveal the uncertainties of the physical texts, without sacrificing the clarity and grace of Sappho’s poetry.
Fragment 130 provides an example of a revision for this edition where I endeavor to move the English a little closer to Sappho.
Once again Love, that loosener of limbs,
bittersweet and inescapable, crawling thing,
Once again Love, that loosener of limbs,
seizes me –
sweetbitter, inescapable, crawling thing.
This is one of my favorites and one that all my students have heard in Greek:
Ἔρος δηὖτέ μ’ ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει,
Eros dêute m’o lusimelês donei
Literally: Love, once again me, the limb-loosener, shakes,
γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον
glukupikron amachanon orpeton
Literally: sweetbitter; no machinery, no technology, no remedy can help; creepy crawly thing, reptile, snake (herpeton in other dialects, as in “herpetology”).
In the revision for the second edition, I return the verb to the end of the first declaration, as in the Greek. In Greek, the first line shows what love or passion does to one by visually squeezing the abbreviated me (m’) between Eros and its limb-loosening adjective. In the final line, two neuter adjectives grammatically modify the crawling thing, all of it referring to Eros. This expresses how one experiences Eros. Although the word “bittersweet” is common and “sweetbitter” is not, the latter is gaining familiarity. The revision from “bittersweet,” a compound first coined by Sappho, to “sweetbitter” follows the Greek word order. The sweet comes first, luring us back to Eros once again. My hope is that this more accurate version also speaks as vividly.
Since Sappho’s lyrics were composed for performance, I focus on the harmonious sound of the language. The poems must be pleasant in the mouth and to the ear in order to convey the Greek accurately:
Once Kretan women danced just so to the beat
with their delicate feet around the elegant altar,
treading lightly on the grasses’ tender bloom.
To re-create the vivid and direct effects of the Greek, I retain all specific details and imagery. Where the printed fragments show all the gaps and messiness of the surviving Greek texts, the audio recordings that supplement the second edition attempt something different. For more substantial poems, the oral readings echo the printed, very precise translation. For the more fragmentary ones that are only bits and pieces, however, I asked Kate Reading to ignore the ellipses, brackets, and missing lines. We aimed instead to help them sound more like snippets of overheard conversation or poetry. The audio recordings of all the poems help provide an experience of performance.
The value of translating all the fragmentary pieces that remain lies in sharing these pieces of song that give us glimpses into a life and woman’s voice from ancient Greece that we otherwise lack. We can picture Sappho singing among and to other women, as she says, “to delight my [female] companions” (#160), including perhaps some of the women she names in her poems. Sappho also performed in festivals and other public events for her own community on Lesbos, who would know her and her family. The women of her audience, and later audiences, could recognize themselves in the familiar situations, such as missing absent family, friends, and lovers. The surviving poetry expresses and rejoices in women’s lives. With the passage of time, Sappho’s work has been transformed over and over, from performed song, to written poem, to torn fragment, to this latest English translation.