Sappho, pt 2: Comparing Translations

October 24, 2022


As promised, this week’s post continues our discussion of Sappho.  I’ve included her three versions of the almost complete fragment #1, along with several others, translated by Carson, Barnard, and others.

There seems to be wide agreement that Mary Barnard’s were a revelation when they came out in 1958–clean and simple, without the flowery ornamentation, accretions, and completely unsupported elaborations of earlier versions.  Barnard’s are the ones I first knew, and I still find them very readable and moving.  The only caveat I have is that she’s added first lines not in the text that serve as titles/ context.  I find that unnecessary and intrusive, and one of them (you’ll see) is cringe-worthy.  But I think her translations are indeed a gift.

Barnard translated a hundred, but since then more have been found–Carson’s If Not, Winter, published in 2002, includes 192 fragments.  And once again, more have been found since then, including two substantial ones–all included in Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works, by Diane Rayor, published in 2014.  But this volume doesn’t include the original Greek, as Carson’s does.

Other contemporary translators of some Sappho fragments include Guy Davenport and Richmond Lattimore–I’ve included one of Lattimore’s here.  I also highly recommend the book I mentioned last time, The Sappho Companion, by Margaret Reynolds.  She includes a wide range of translations over time and interesting contemporary examples.  This is where I found versions of fragment #32 by William Carlos Williams and Robert Lowell.

Sappho’s poems were composed (not written) in 4-line stanzas, now called sapphics.  The first three lines have 11 syllables, and the 4th 5 syllables.  Ancient Greek measured length of syllables rather than stress, which is very difficult for us to hear, so long and short are converted into stressed and unstressed in English.  The feet are a combination of trochees and dactyls:/- /- /- – /- /- for the first three lines, a dactyl sandwiched between two trochees on either side; the third is a dactyl followed by a trochee.  Some versions try to carry over elements of that form.

Please post your comments, and any other versions you come across that you find compelling.  As always, I hope to see you at this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.


FRAGMENT #1  (Hymn to Aphrodite; the most complete fragment)

trans. Anne Carson

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind
child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you
do not break with hard pains

O lady, my heart!

but come here if ever before
you caught my voice far off
and listening left your father’s

golden house and came,

yoking your car. And fine birds brought you
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky

through midair—

they arrived. But you, O blessed one,
smiled in your deathless face
and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why

(now again) I am calling out

and what I want to happen most of all
in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O

Sappho, is wronging you?

For if she flies, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather she will give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love

even unwilling.

Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You

be my ally.


fragment #1

trans. Mary Barnard

[Prayer to my lady of paphos]

Dapple-throned Aphrodite,
eternal daughter of God,
snare-knitter!  Don’t, I beg you,

cow my heart with grief!
Come, as once when you heard my
far-off cry and, listening, stepped

from your father’s house to your
gold car, to yoke the pair whose
beautiful thick-feathered wings

oaring down mid-air from heaven
carried you to light swiftly
on dark earth; then, blissful one,

smiling your immortal smile
you asked, What ailed me now that
made me call you again?  What

was it that my distracted
heart most wanted?  “Whom has
Persuasion to bring round now

to your love? Who, Sappho, is
unfair to you?  For, let her
run, she will soon run after;

if she won’t accept gifts, she
will one day give them; and if
she won’t love you–she soon will

love, although unwillingly….”
If ever–come now!  Relieve
this intolerable pain!

What my heart most hopes will
happen, make happen; you your-
self join forces on my side!


fragment #1

trans. Willis Barnstone

On your dappled throne, Aphrodite,
sly eternal daughter of Zeus,
I beg you: do not crush me with grief,

but come to me now—as once
you heard my far cry, and yielded,
slipping from your father’s house

to yoke the birds to your gold
chariot, and came. Handsome swallows
brought you swiftly to the dark earth,

their wings whipping the middle sky.
Happy, with deathless lips, you smiled:
“What is wrong, why have you called me?”…

God’s wildering daughter deathless Aphrodita,
A whittled perplexity your bright abstruse chair,
With heartbreak, lady, and breathlessness
Tame not my heart.

But come down to me, as you came before,
For if ever I cried, and you heard and came,
Come now, of all times, leaving
Your father’s golden house

In that chariot pulled by sparrows reined and bitted,
Swift in their flying, a quick blur aquiver,
Beautiful, high. They drew you across steep air
Down to the black earth;

Fast they came, and you behind them, O
Hilarious heart, your face all laughter,
Asking, What troubles you this time, why again
Do you call me down?


fragment #104A

trans. Anne Carson


you gather back

all that dazzling dawn has put asunder:

you gather a lamb

gather a kid

gather a child to its mother


fragment 104A

trans. Mary Barnard

[You are the herdsmen of


Hesperus, you herd
homeward whatever
Dawn’s light dispersed

You herd sheep–herd
goats–herd children
home to their mothers


fragment #105 a, c

trans. Anne Carson

as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch

high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot–
no, not forgot: you were unable to reach

like the hyacinth in the mountains that shepherd men
with their feet trample down and on the ground the purple flower


fragment #105

trans. Mary Barnard

[Lament for a maidenhead]

Like a quince-apple
ripening on a top
branch in a tree top

not once noticed by
harvesters or if
not unnoticed, not reached

Like a hyacinth in
the mountains, trampled
by shepherds until
only a purple stain
remains on the ground.


fragment #31

trans. Anne Carson

he seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close

to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing–oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking

is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming

fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, green than grass
I am and dead–or almost

I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty



fragment #31

trans. W. C. Williams

Peer of the gods is that man, who
face to face, sits listening
to your sweet speech and lovely

It is this that rouses a tumult
in my breast.  At mere sight of you
my voice falters, my tongue
is broken.

Straightway, a delicate fire runs in
my limbs; my eyes
are blinded and my ears

Sweat pours out: a trembling hunts
me down.  I grow paler
than dry grass and lack little
of dying.


fragment #31

trans. Robert Lowell

I set that man above the gods and heroes–
all day he sits before you face to face,
like a cardplayer.  Your elbow brushes his elbow–
if you should speak, he hears.

The touched heart madly stirs,
your laughter is water hurrying over pebbles–
every gesture is a proclamation,
every sound is speech….

Refining fire purifies my flesh!
I hear you: a hollowness in my ears
thunders and stuns me.  I cannot speak.
I cannot see.

I shiver.  A dead whiteness spreads over
my body, trickling pinpricks of sweat.
I am greener than the greenest green grass–
I die!


fragment #132

trans. Anne Carson

I have a beautiful child who is like golden flowers
in form, darling Kleis
in exchanged for who I would not

all Lydia as lovely



fragment #132

trans. Mary Barnard

[Sleep, darling]

I have a small
daughter called
Cleis, who is

like a golden
I wouldn’t

take all Croesus’
kingdom with love
thrown in for her






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