Translations of Sappho

Old webpages are like fossils; they preserve earlier interests and selves. To launch my glitter blog, let me resurrect one of my old webpages from the Lost Continent of Geocities, written back when I was an MA in classics and could actually remember ancient Greek declensions. I originally wrote this article for the UCI college newspaper in (I think?) 1996.

The first Lesbian sings. 

In Sappho’s day, poets not yet partitioned off poetry from music. Therefore, translations of Sappho are missing not only the delicate sounds of her ancient Greek, but also the notes of her lyre. Almost none of her poems have come down to us intact. Rather, we only have brief fragments quoted by later Greek and Roman authors, whose own manuscripts may be damaged and fragmentary.

Of Sappho’s life we know little. Her writings suggest she was mentor to a group of girls, perhaps training them for adulthood and marriage. She lived around 600 BCE on the island of Lesbos, in the “archaic” period after Homer when Athens and Sparta were only two city-states among many. Almost six centuries later, the Roman poet Catullus imitated her poems in style, meter, and even word-for-word in translation, calling his girlfriend “Lesbia” in homage to his famous predecessor.

Most but not all the characters Sappho names are female. Inscriptions and later sources show she was married and probably had a daughter. Her poems do not mention sex explicitly, so there is a long history of scholars who have downplayed or denied the eroticism in her writing, or dismissed it as mere poetic convention. Yet male same-sex love is well-attested in other writers and in Greek art. Anacreon, writing a generation after Sappho, joked that the girl he loved was from “well-built Lesbos, and gapes after some other girl”. That tells us something about the island’s reputation, and perhaps Sappho’s legacy.

Selections from Sappho

Numbers are from the 1994 edition of David A. Campbell’s Greek Lyric Poetry, which included notes for students to help them with translations.

1

Deathless Aphrodite of the finely-painted throne,
wile-weaving daughter of Zeus, I pray you,
no longer with sorrows and burdens damn
my heart, Lady,

but come hither, if ever at another time
you heard my words from afar 
and heeded, and, having left your father's
golden house, came

on yoked chariot; and the lovely swift
sparrows led you over the black earth
beating whirling wings down from heaven 
through the middle air,

and suddenly they alighted. And you, oh blessed one,
smiled with immortal visage,
and inquired what I was suffering this time and why
again I had called,

and what I really wished to happen to me
in my frenzied heart: "Whom this time should I persuade
to bring you at once into her love? who, O
Sappho, wrongs you?

But if now she flees you, soon she'll pursue you;
if she won't receive gifts, then she will give them;
if she doesn't love you, soon she will love you,
although reluctant."

Come to me even now, and loose hardship
from my anxious thought, and bring to pass as many
things as my heart desires to happen. You yourself
be my ally for the fight.
Hither to me (come) from Crete to this holy 
temple, where lies your charming grove of apple,
and altars with smoking 
incense.

And here the cold water murmurs through the branches
of apples, and the place by roses everywhere
is shaded, and from the shivering leaves
rest drifts down.

Here a meadow grazed by horses
blooms with spring blossoms, the airs
breath honey-sweetness...

Now here you... (flowers?) having gathered, Kypria,
in golden cups delicately pour
the nectar mixed for the banquet
like fine wine.

16

Some say a squadron of horses, some of foot-soldiers,
some of ships is the fairest thing on the dark earth,
but I, that one, whomever someone
loves.

And altogether easy it is to make this comprehensible
to all, for fair Helen, vastly surpassing the rest of humankind (in beauty), abandoning 

the best of all men, went sailing off to Troy 
and for her child or dear parents had no
thought at all, but [love] led her astray...

...
...lightly... 
she has reminded me now of Anactoria
who is not here.

I would rather see her lovely walk
and the bright sparkle of her face
than the chariots of Lydia and full-armored
foot soldiers.

31

That man seems to me to be equal
to the gods, who sits facing you
and close at hand listens to the sweetness
of your speech

and the loveliness of your laugh, which--ay me!
flutters my heart in my breast.
For when I look upon you for a brief moment, 
it's not possible for me to speak a single 
word still,

but my unwilling tongue breaks, and suddenly
a thin flame has run under my skin,
and I see nothing with my eyes, and hear
a thrumming noise,

and cold sweat takes hold of me, and a tremor
seizes all of me, and I am greener than grass,
and I seem to myself to be barely short
of dying.

But all most be endured, since even a poor...

34

The stars around the lovely moon
at once hide their shining form
whenever, having come to the full, she especially
lights up the earth.

96

...Sardis...
...often bringing thoughts there...
....

when.... we dwelt... 
she [honored] you like a famous goddess,
and took joy in your dance.

But now she is distinguished among the
Lydian women just as when the sun has set
and the rosy-fingered moon

surpasses all the stars and spreads light
equally upon the salt sea and the
much-flowering meadows,

and pours down the lovely dew to freshen
the roses and the soft chervil
and the flowering honey lotus.

Wandering many places, recalling gentle
Attis with desire, her delicate heart is
eaten up, so to speak, by your fate...

35

       And Eros shook my
heart, like the wind that down the mountain rushes upon the oaks.

454

I loved you once, Attis, long ago...
you seemed to me to be a small and graceless child.

55

Dead you shall lie, nor will there ever be remembrance
of you nor longing in the days to come. For you have no share
in the roses of the Pierian (muses), but invisble even in the house of Hades
you'll roam near shapeless shades, having passed away.

81b

And you, Dike, wrap your mane with lovely garlands 
plaiting shoots of anise with your tender hands.
For the blessed Graces look rather upon that which is well-
flowered, but turn away from the ungarlanded.
104a
Vespera brings all things, as many as shining Dawn dispersed,
bringing lamb, kid, and child back to their mothers.

105a

Just like the sweet apple reddens on the tip of the branch,
upon the top of the highest, [which] the apple-pickers forgot.
Yet they didn't really forget; but they could not reach it.

105c

Just like the hyacinth on the mountains [which] the shepherd-men
trampled underfoot, and on the ground the purple flower...
110a
The doorman's feet are seven fathoms long,
his sandals five ox-hides,
and ten shoemakers labored to make them.

111

Now raise on high the roof-beam ã
Hymen!
Lift it up, carpenter-men!
Hymen!
The groom marches in like Ares,
Much greater than a great man.

115

To what, oh dear groom, shall I fairly liken thee?
I will liken thee most of all to a slender shoot.

130

Again Eros the loosener of limbs rattles me,
that bittersweet unmanageable creeping-creature.

132

I have a fair child who has a form like 
golden flowers, my beloved Cleis;
in her stead I certainly [would not have] all Lydia or lovely...

102

Sweet mother, I can't weave at my loom like this,
overpowered with desire for that girl because of slender Aphrodite. 

Image Credit: “Sappho” by Luigi De Luca, photograph by Carlo Raso, released to public domain.

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