Josephine Balmer: a translation



Josephine Balmer writes:


"After hearing his nephew sing one of Sappho's lyric songs, the Athenian lawgiver Solon ordered the boy to teach it to him immediately. When asked why he was so eager, Solon replied: "So that I may die knowing it." This story illustrates the high regard in which Sappho's poetry was held by the ancients. It also reminds us that her poems were composed for music, to be performed in public, often at religious festivals. Sadly, of the ten books attributed to her, perhaps more than 10,000 lines in all, only two hundred or so short fragments survive, some only a few lines, some a few words, some just a string of letters. Their poet is even more elusive. She probably lived on the island of Lesbos c.600 BCE. But despite her many guises throughout history – deviant, lesbian, a sometimes devoted, sometimes adulterous, wife and mother, even political activist – she always eludes us. For her translator, Sappho's fractured verse presents many challenges. As editors interpret and reinterpret damaged texts, the difficulty here is often not how to translate but what to translate. Such considerations have been brought even more sharply into focus by recent discoveries of new papyri with slightly more complete, and hence slightly different, versions of previously translated poems. What remains certain is the force of her sensual verse – so powerful that fragment 31, her description of the physical sensations aroused in the lover at the sight of a loved one, was used by physicians for centuries as a diagnostic worksheet for cases of love sickness."


The following fragment is from Sappho: Poems and Fragments, edited and translated by Josephine Balmer, Bloodaxe Books, 2018:


Sappho fragment 16

Some an army on horseback, some an army on foot

and some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest sight

on this dark earth; but I say it is what-

ever you desire:

and it is perfectly possible to make this clear

to all; for Helen, the woman who by far surpassed

all others in her beauty, left her husband –

the best of all men –

behind and sailed far away to Troy; she did not spare

a single thought for her child nor for her dear parents

but [the goddess of love] led her astray

[to desire...]

[... which]

reminds me now of Anactoria

although far away,

whose long-desired footstep, whose radiant, sparkling face

I would rather see before me than the chariots

of Lydia or the armour of men

who fight wars on foot...



Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. Her translations of Sappho have been continuously in print since 1984 and in 1989 were shortlisted for the inaugural US Lambda Literary Awards. In 2018, they were reissued in an expanded edition to include newly-discovered fragments (Bloodaxe Books). Her recent collection, The Paths of Survival (Shearsman), was shortlisted for the 2017 London Hellenic Prize. Other works include Letting Go (Agenda Editions, 2017), The Word for Sorrow (Salt, 2007), Chasing Catullus (Bloodaxe, 2004), Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate (Bloodaxe, 2004) and Classical Women Poets (Bloodaxe, 1996). She has also published a study of classical translation and versioning, Piecing Together the Fragments (OUP, 2013).