The Words She Commands

Translating Sappho From the Heart

Walter Englert | August 2, 1999

Although they are

Only breath, words
which I command
are immortal 

In her memoir Assault on Mount Helicon, Mary Barnard '32 writes that while working on her translation of the Greek poet Sappho, "I searched for the truly equivalent phrase in living, not lexicon English." This brief but telling remark helps explain why her translation of Sappho's poetry has been continuously in print for more than 40 years and has sold more than 100,000 copies. Barnard has taken the fragmentary remains of one of antiquity's greatest poets and made them live and breathe for a modern audience.

Only a few things are known for certain about Sappho. She was born on the Greek island of Lesbos sometime after 650 B.C. and wrote poetry in the Aeolic Greek dialect. She was one of the most famous Greek lyric poets, and a poem attributed to Plato praises her as the tenth Muse. Her poetry was collected later in antiquity into nine books. Only one complete poem and fewer than 200 fragments of her poems remain today. The majority of the fragments were preserved as brief quotations in the works of later Greek writers, with a few others surviving on badly damaged papyrus rolls from Egypt.

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.

Barnard's version is Sappho transformed into modern English poetry. The reader is spared the scholarly apparatus of Campbell's version and does not confront the poem as a fragment of a longer poem preserved for us by an ancient grammarian. Instead, Barnard has made a number of changes to help the fragment stand on its own. First, as with all of the Sappho fragments she translates, she has given the poem a title, "With his venom." The line is not in the Greek, but helps alert the reader to an aspect of the main theme of the fragment. Second, Barnard has played freely with the word order, dividing the poem into three two-line stanzas instead of preserving the simple two-line structure of the Greek. Third, she has emphasized to great effect elements that are there in the Greek, especially in her last stanza. She has translated the Greek word orpeton vividly as "reptile-like," and the verb doneo as "strikes down." The result is to make the work stand on its own as a beautiful, vivid piece of poetry. Barnard does inform the reader that this fragment is preserved in Hephaistion, but does so unobtrusively in a brief set of notes in the back of the volume.

Another example of Barnard's virtues as poet and translator can be seen in her version of one of Sappho's most famous poems:

To an army wife, in Sardis:

Some say a cavalry corps,
some infantry, some, again,
will maintain that the swift oars

of our fleet are the finest 
sight on dark earth; but I say
that whatever one loves, is.

This is easily proved: did 
not Helen-she who scanned
the flower of the world's manhood-

choose as first among men one 
who laid Troy's honor in ruin? 
warped to his will, forgetting

love due her own blood, her own
child, she wandered far with him.
So, Anactoria, although you

being far away forget us,
the dear sound of your footstep
and light glancing in your eyes

would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored
tread of mainland infantry.

This poem, unlike the fragment discussed earlier, survives not in a quotation from a later Greek author but in a poorly preserved papyrus from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. In the original papyrus, two of Sappho's original five stanzas were so badly damaged that parts of the text cannot be completely reconstructed. Barnard, following earlier scholars, supplies words necessary to complete the sense in stanzas four and five of her translation. What she has done can best be judged by comparing her stanzas four and five with the same passage in A.M. Miller's translation (Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation, Indianapolis, 1986) that indicates where the papyrus is defective:

noblest of men, to sail away to Troy;
neither of child nor of beloved parents
did she take thought at all, being led astray by . . . .
[one line missing]

. . . for pliant. . . 
. . . lightly . . .
. . . now has brought Anaktoria to my mind,
though she is absent:

Miller's translation gives the reader an accurate knowledge of the state of the papyrus and the lacunae in Sappho's poem, and it can be useful for scholars who want this level of detailed information. For other readers, however, this verbatim translation can be off-putting.

Barnard takes exactly the opposite tack from Miller, presenting the poem as a unified whole. She further accomplishes this goal by adding a title ("To an army wife, in Sardis") that is not present in the Greek, to help provide a possible context, and also rearranges Sappho's five four-line stanzas into seven three-line stanzas. The result is a very effective translation, allowing the reader directly to confront Sappho's bold poetic move in contrasting traditional epic male objects of admiration and eros with a female model of eros for a beloved.

Barnard accomplishes similar feats with all of the fragments of Sappho she has collected and translated. Poem after poem, her reader is grateful that she relied less on her Greek lexicon and more on her poetic instincts to resuscitate the fragments of Sappho and make them live as poetry. A final example of Barnard's moving translations is a fragment in which Sappho describes her sadness at a departed beloved:

I have had not one word from her

Frankly, I wish I were dead. 
When she left, she wept

a great deal; she said to
me, "This parting must be
endured, Sappho. I go unwillingly."

I said, "Go, and be happy
but remember (you know
well) whom you leave shackled by love

"If you forget me, think 
of our gifts to Aphrodite
and all the loveliness that we shared

"all the violet tiaras,
braided rosebuds, dill and
crocus twined around your young neck

"myrrh poured on your head
and on soft mats girls with
all that they most wished for beside them

"while no voices chanted
choruses without ours,
no woodlot bloomed in spring with-
out song. . . ." 

Walter G. Englert III, Omar and Althea Hoskins Professor of Classical Studies, has taught at Reed since 1981. A dedicated teacher and scholar, his research interests are primarily in hellenistic philosophy. His last article for Reed was "Translating across times and cultures," August 1997. 

Poems from Sappho: A New Translation by Mary Barnard, University of California Press, 1958.

Recent studies of Sappho include Williamson, M. Sappho's Immortal Daughters (Cambridge, MA, 1995); Greene, E. ed. Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches (Berkeley, 1996); Greene, E. ed. Re-reading Sappho: Reception and Transmission (Berkeley 1996); Wilson, L.H. Sappho's Bittersweet Songs(London, 1996); Snyder, J.M. Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho (New York, 1997); and Prins, Y. Victorian Sappho (Princeton, N.J., 1999).

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