Scholars have inferred other facts about Sappho from hints in her poetry: that she was involved in political struggles on Lesbos, that she went into exile for a while in Sicily, that she was married and had a daughter named Cleis, that she was the head of a group of young women, perhaps an informal school or religious association (thiasos) centered around a goddess, and that she was or was not a lesbian in the modern sense of the term.

Scholarly debate on various aspects of Sappho's poetry and life, and especially her conception of eros (desire; erotic love,) have been intense in the last 30 years, with a number of important studies appearing in the last few years alone. What most strikes modern readers about Sappho's poetry, and why she is still being read after 2,600 years, is that she is a poet of the highest order and one of the few ancient women writers whose work survives. Her poems, written not long after the great epics of Homer and Hesiod, speak in vivid, beautiful language of the world seen by a woman through the poetic lens of eros. Especially moving is the way Sappho describes the major theme of much of her poetry: the erotic attachments shared by the women and girls of her immediate aristocratic circle.

Mary Barnard's translation of Sappho has contributed significantly to the contemporary rediscovery of Sappho in the English-speaking world. She selected 100 fragments out of slightly less than 200 remaining and gave them a structure by arranging them into six sections and introducing each of the poems with a title not found in Sappho's original Greek. Barnard also rendered Sappho's poems as finished pieces set attractively on the page, not as shattered fragments torn from their original context. Most important, she did not try to translate the poems with painful literalness. She made sure that the fragments work as poems in English, capturing Sappho's clarity and vividness.

These techniques are different from those of other Sappho translators. For example, a reader who approaches Sappho in D.A. Campbell's 1982 Loeb edition of Sappho and Alcaeus finds the following rendering of Sappho fragment 130:

Hephaistion, Handbook of Metres
The Aeolic dactylic tetrameter acatelectic is as follows:

Once again limb-loosening Love makes me tremble,
the bitter-sweet, irresistible creature.

Campbell sets out the fragment of Sappho so that the reader knows that it is preserved by a second century A.D. Greek grammarian and metricist, Hephaistion, who quotes this passage from a longer poem to illustrate the meter he is discussing. Campbell then gives a very literal, translation of the fragment. Compare this to Mary Barnard's rendering of the same fragment:

With his venom

and bittersweet

that loosener
of limbs, Love

strikes me down.

Next Page
Next Page