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 interrupt and reinterrupt 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 & translated by Josephine Balmer, Bloodaxe Books, 2018:

Sappho fragment 31


It seems to me that man is equal to the gods,

that is, whoever sits opposite you

and, drawing nearer, savours, as you speak,

the sweetness of your voice

and the thrill of your laugh, which have so stirred the heart

in my own breast, that whenever I catch

sight of you, even if for a moment,

then my voice deserts me

and my tongue is struck silent, a delicate fire

suddenly races underneath my skin,

my eyes see nothing, my ears whistle like

the whirling of a top

and sweat pours down me and a trembling creeps over

my whole body, I am greener than grass;

at such times, I seem to be no more than

a step away from death;

but all can be endured since even a pauper...



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 short-listed 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).