Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


Reimagining the Fragments of Sappho


Classics Department


College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Date Range



Arts and Humanities


Recent Sappho discoveries allow us to reinterpret old fragments in light of the new additions to them. This paper focuses on the process of translating fragments, particularly the New Kyprispoem, which is the more complete fr. 26 (Voigt), as well as (briefly) the re-translations of frs. 5, 9, and 17. While fr. 5 requires the additional pieces to fill in gaps and confirms a clear scenario, fr. 9 merely adds a few word images to the current list, and fr. 17 demonstrates how tenuous are our guesses in filling gaps. The new Kypris poem, however, radically changes the reading of the fragment 26 (Voigt) to which it adds. The initial six lines of the Kypris poem overlap with fr. 26 sufficiently to show that the previous suppositions were completely incorrect, and that the three stanzas address Aphrodite and most probably focus on the pain of erotic passion. Translations of Sappho, particularly those for readers who cannot consult the Greek, optimally work on three levels: 1) The translation invokes the absent song. This involves working with sound, as well as paying attention to signs that could indicate performance possibilities (such as feminine plurals for choral song). 2) The translation reads as poetry. This involves compensating for missing words by helping the reader fill the gaps. 3) The translation evokes the physical fragment on worn or torn papyrus through various strategies. Readers of Sappho come to the Greek text with their own expectations of what makes a Sappho poem. Because translators are readers first and then writers of text, translations provide a lens on the storytelling process. In translating fragments, the reader imagines a story, the song behind the scraps of words and phrases; the mind connects the dots to produce some kind of story. As Rayor notes, The holes in the text are not left empty in the reading process. As we read, we fill in, read between the lines. (15) This happens even with small scraps (cf. Anne Carsons If Not, Winter in which if is not fully visible in the Greek fragment [22], yet the title of the book and the translation of the fragment build a story of Sapphos poetry). A single word can shape the tone of the fragment. An example is the word choice for the sole word visible in the P.Oxy. 1231 of fr. 26.5: »µ¼¬Ä[ (idle, vain, crazy, day-dreaming). Each possibility calls up a different image of the speaker and referent. Yet in the context of the Kypris poem additions (P. Sapph. Obbink), it is most likely an adverb referring to the goddess: Old Version Fr. 26.1-6 &often& &because the people I treat well, wrong me most of all [ ] &day-dreaming& [ ] New Version with P. Sapph. Obbink How could someone not keep feeling pain, Queen Aphrodite, wishing most of all to call back the person one loves? [What] do you have [in mind], to idly rend me [with shaking from desire] loosening [my knees]? Expectations of Sappho as a historical person, her poetry, and the individual fragment guide translation. We translate each piece as fitting into the overall picture in our minds (the way she ends her poems, whether it is choral, the speaker is Sappho, addressed to women, etc.). Retranslating Sapphos fragments in light of new finds illuminates the process and demonstrates the necessity of shedding previous assumptions to incorporate new discoveries. Citations: Burris, S., Fish, J., Obbink, D. New Fragments of Book 1 of Sappho, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 189 (2014) 1-28. Obbink, D. Two New Poems by Sappho, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 189 (2014) 32-49. Rayor, D. Translating Fragments, Translation Review 32/33 (1990) 15-18. Venuti, L. Translation Changes Everything: Theory and Practice. Routledge 2013.

Conference Name

Annual Meeting of Society for Classical Studies

Conference Location

New Orleans, Louisianna

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