B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
Translations of Sappho, until recent years, have been fantastically inappropriate. . . . Today a sufficient number of literal translations by modern poets may enable the reader of English to envelop Sappho and measure her as we do distant stars by triangulation from more mundane objects. It then becomes apparent that we are not deluding ourselves. There has been no other poet like this. Wherever enough words remain to form a coherent context, they give one another a unique luster, an effulgence found nowhere else. Presentational immediacy of the image, overwhelming urgency of personal involvement in no other poet are these two prime factors of lyric poetry raised to so great a power.
—Kenneth Rexroth, Classics Revisited
Sappho’s poem of jealousy survives only because the ancient critic Longinus quoted it as a supreme example of poetic intensity: Are you not amazed at how she evokes soul, body, hearing, tongue, sight, skin, as though they were external and belonged to someone else? And how at one and the same moment she both freezes and burns, is irrational and sane, is terrified and nearly dead, so that we observe in her not a single emotion but a whole concourse of emotions? Such things do, of course, commonly happen to people in love. Sapphos supreme excellence lies in the skill with which she selects the most striking and vehement circumstances of the passions and forges them into a coherent whole (Longinus, On the Sublime).
Below are some of the many translations of this poem (there have been well over 100 into English alone). Most of the early ones have little resemblance to the original, but I have included a few for their historical interest.
The poem as we have it is apparently incomplete, as there is the beginning of an additional line at the end (But all must be endured . . .). Most translators have ignored this fragment and concluded with the previous line, but a few modern ones include it.
Here are two slightly different versions of the original poem, transcribed in Roman characters (the differences presumably reflect different decisions regarding textual emendation or different styles of Romanization). I have replaced macrons (horizontal lines over vowels) with circumflexes, as macrons do not reproduce consistently in Internet formats.
phainetai moi kênos îsos theoisin
emmen ônêr ottis enantios toi
isdanei kai plâsion âdu phonei-
kai gelaisâs îmeroen to m êmân
kardiân en stêthesin eptoaisen
ôs gar es s idô brokhe os me phônai-
s oud en et eikei
alla kam men glôssa eâge lepton
d autika khrôi pur upadedromâken
oppatessi d ouden orêmm epirom-
beisi d akouai
kad de m idrôs kakkheetai tromos de
paisan agrei khlôrotera de poiâs
emmi tethnakên d oligô ‘pideuês
phainom em autai.
Alla pan tomaton . . .
phainetai moi kênos isos theoisin
emmen ônêr ottis enantios toi
isdanei kai plasion adu phônê-
kai gelaisas imeroen to m ê man
kardian en stêthesin eptoaisen
ôs gar es s idô broche ôs me phônê-
s ouden et eikei
alla kam men glôssa eage lepton
d autika chrôi pur upadedromaken
oppatessi d ouden orêmm epibro-
meisi d akouai
ekade m idrôs kakcheetai, tremos de
paisan agrei, chlôrotera de poias
emmi, tethnakên d oligô ‘pideuês
phainom em autai.
Alla pan tomaton [epei kai panêta] . . .
Sappho (ca. 500 BC)
Ille mi par esse deo videtur,
ille, si fas est, superare divos,
qui sedens adversus identidem te
spectat et audit
dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis
eripit sensus mihi, nam simul te,
Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi
vocis in ore,
lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
tintinant aures, gemina teguntur
Otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est.
Otio exultas nimiumque gestis.
Otium et reges prius et beatas
Translated into Latin by Catullus (Carmina #51, ca. 50 BC)
[In his translation Catullus inserts the name of his own love (Lesbia) and adds a coda in which he addresses himself (Otium, Catulle . . .). Some of the following versions are actually translated from Catulluss version and thus include that coda. In such cases I have omitted it.]
Je suis un Demidieu quand assis vis-à-vis
De toy, mon cher souci, jescoute les devis,
Devis entrerompus dun gracieux soubrire,
Soubris qui me detient le coeur emprisonné;
Car en voyant tes yeux je me pasme estonné,
Et de mes pauvres flancs un seul mot je ne tire.
Ma langue sengourdist, un petit feu me court
Honteux de sous la peau; je suis muet et sourd,
Et une obscure nuit de sur mes yeux demeure;
Mon sang devient glacé, lesprit fuit de mon corps,
Je tremble tout de crainte, et peu sen faut alors
Quà tes pieds estendu, sans ame je ne meure.
Translated into French by Pierre de Ronsard (1560)
Je le vis, je rougis, je pâlis à sa vue;
Un trouble sélèva dans mon âme éperdue;
Mes yeux ne voyaient plus, je ne pouvais parler;
Je sentis tout mon corps et transir et brûler. . . .
French adaptation from Jean Racines Phèdre (1677)
[For 98 other French versions, see LÉgal des dieux: cent versions dun poème de Sappho, Éditions Allia, 2001.]
My muse, what ails this ardour?
Mine eys be dym, my lymbs shake,
My voice is hoarse, my throte scorcht,
My tong to this roofe cleaves,
My fancy amazde, my thoughtes dulld,
My head doth ake, my life faints
My sowle begins to take leave,
So greate a passion all feele,
To think a soare so deadly
I should so rashly ripp up.
Translated by Sir Phillip Sidney (1554-1586)
Happy as a God is he,
That fond Youth, who placd by thee,
Hears and sees thee sweetly gay,
Talk and smile his soul away.
That it was alarmd by Breast,
And deprivd my Heart of Rest.
For in speechless Raptures tost,
Whilst I gazd, my Voice was lost.
The soft Fire with flowing Rein,
Glided swift thro evry Vein;
Darkness oer my Eyelids hung;
In my Ears faint Murmurs rung.
Chilling Damps my Limbs bedewd;
Gentle Tremors thrilld my Blood;
Life from my pale Cheeks retird;
Breathless, I almost expird.
Translated by John Addison (1735)
Thy fatal shafts unerring move,
I bow before thine altar, Love.
I feel thy soft resistless flame
Glide swift through all my vital frame.
For while I gaze my bosom glows,
My blood in tides impetuous flows,
Hope, fear, and joy alternate roll,
And floods of transports whelm my soul.
My faltering tongue attempts in vain
In soothing murmurs to complain;
Thy tongue some secret magic ties,
Thy murmurs sink in broken sighs.
Condemned to nurse eternal care,
And ever drop the silent tear,
Unheard I mourn, unknown I sigh,
Unfriended live, unpitied die.
Translated by Tobias Smollett (1741)
Good Heavens! what were the thrillings of my soul at that instant! my reflection was overwhelmed with a torrent of agitation! my heart throbbed with surprising violence! a sudden mist overspread my eyes! my ears were invaded with a dreadful sound! I panted for want of breath, and, in short, was for some moments entranced! This first tumult subsiding, a crowd of flattering ideas rushed upon my imagination. . . .
From Smollett’s novel Roderick Random (1748)
Equal to Jove that youth must be
Greater than Jove he seems to me
Who, free from Jealousys alarms,
Securely views thy matchless charms.
Ah! Lesbia! though tis death to me,
I cannot choose but look on thee;
But, at the sight, my senses fly,
I needs must gaze, but, gazing, die;
Whilst trembling with a thousand fears,
Parchd to the throat my tongue adheres,
My pulse beats quick, my breath heaves short,
My limbs deny their slight support;
Cold dews my pallid face oerspread,
With deadly languor droops my head,
My ears with tingling echoes ring,
And life itself is on the wing,
My eyes refuse the cheering light,
Their orbs are veild in starless night:
Such pangs my nature sinks beneath,
And feels a temporary death.
Translated by Lord Byron (ca. 1820)
I watch thy grace; and in its place
My heart a charmed slumber keeps,
While I muse upon thy face;
And a languid fire creeps
Thro my veins to all my frame,
Dissolvingly and slowly: soon
From thy rose-red lips my name
Floweth; and then, as in a swoon,
With dinning sound my ears are rife,
My tremulous tongue faltereth,
I lose my color, I lose my breath,
I drink the cup of a costly death,
Brimmd with delirious draughts of warmest life.
I die with my delight, before
I hear what I would hear from thee.
Paraphrase by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (ca. 1850)
Peer of gods he seemeth to me, the blissful
Man who sits and gazes at thee before him,
Close beside thee sits, and in silence hears thee
Laughing loves low laughter. Oh this, this only
Stirs the troubled heart in my breast to tremble!
For should I but see thee a little moment,
Straight is my voice hushed;
Yea, my tongue is broken, and through and through me
Neath the flesh impalpable fire runs tingling;
Nothing see mine eyes, and a noise of roaring
Waves in my ears sounds;
Sweat runs down in rivers, a tremor seizes
All my limbs, and paler than grass in autumn,
Caught by pains of menacing death, I falter,
Lost in the love trance.
Translated by John Addington Symonds (1883)
O, it is godlike to sit selfpossessed
when her chin rises and she turns to smile;
but my tongue thickens, my ears ring,
what I see is hazy.
I tremble. Walls sink in night, voices
unmeaning as wind. She only
a clear note, dazzle of light, fills
furlongs and hours
so that my limbs stir without will, lame,
I a ghost, powerless,
treading air, drowning, sucked
back into dark
unless, rafted on light or music,
drawn into her radiance, I dissolve
when her chin rises and she turns to smile.
O, it is godlike!
Imitation by Basil Bunting (1927)
He is changed to a god who looks on her,
Godlike he shines when hes seated beside her,
Immortal joy to gaze and hear the fall of
Her sweet laughter.
All of my senses are lost and confounded;
Lesbia rises before me and trembling
I sink into earth and swift dissolution
Seizes my body.
Limbs are pierced with fire and the heavy tongue fails,
Ears resound with noise of distant storms shaking
This earth, eyes gaze on stars that fall forever
Into deep midnight. . . .
Translated by Horace Gregory (1931)
That man is peer of the gods, 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
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 grass and lack little
Translated by William Carlos Williams (1958)
He is more than a hero
He is a god in my eyes
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you he
who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice, the enticing
laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast. If I meet
you suddenly, I cant
speak my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,
hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body
and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isnt far from me.
Translated by Mary Barnard (1958)
Like the very gods in my sight is he who
sits where he can look in your eyes, who listens
close to you, to hear the soft voice, its sweetness
murmur in love and
laughter, all for him. But it breaks my spirit;
underneath my breast all the heart is shaken.
Let me only glance where you are, the voice dies,
I can say nothing,
but my lips are stricken to silence, under-
neath my skin the tenuous flame suffuses;
nothing shows in front of my eyes, my ears are
muted in thunder.
And the sweat breaks running upon me, fever
shakes my body, paler I turn than grass is;
I can feel that I have been changed, I feel that
death has come near me.
Translated by Richmond Lattimore (1960)
Hell hie me, par is he? the God divide her,
hell hie, see fastest, superior deity,
quiz sitting adverse identity mate, in-
spect it and audit
youll care ridden then, misery hold omens,
air rip the senses from me; now you smile to
me Lesbias aspect no life is to spare me
[voice hoarse in a throat]
linked tongue set torpid, tenuous support a-
flame a day mown down, sound tone sopped up in its
tinkling, in ears hearing, twin eyes tug under
luminous a night.
Translated by Louis & Celia Zukovsky (1961)
(The bizarre style stems from the translators attempt to echo the sound of Catulluss Latin.
The first line, for example, reads: Ille mi par esse deo videtur.)
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
Translated by Robert Lowell (1962)
he to me wholly godlike seems
he (please god forgive) seems higher than god
who sits across from you and over and over
looks at you and hears you
sweetly laughing, miserably which all
my senses rips from me, for the minute Lesbia
I lay eyes on you nothing is left me
but torpid my tongue, thinly down under my skin
flame trickles, with their own sound
roar my ears, twin night
covers my eyes
Translated by Frank O. Copley (1964)
To me that man equals a god
as he sits before you and listens
closely to your sweet voice
and lovely laughter which troubles
the heart in my ribs. For now
as I look at you my voice fails,
my tongue is broken and thin fire
runs like a thief through my body.
My eyes are dead to light, my ears
pound, and sweat pours down over me.
I shudder, I am paler than grass,
and am intimate with dying but
I must suffer everything, being poor.
Translated by Willis Barnstone (first version, 1965)
To me he seems like a god
as he sits facing you and
hears you near as you speak
softly and laugh
in a sweet echo that jolts
the heart in my ribs. For now
as I look at you my voice
is empty and
can say nothing as my tongue
cracks and slender fire is quick
under my skin. My eyes are dead
to light, my ears
pound, and sweat pours over me.
I convulse, greener than grass,
and feel my mind slip as I
go close to death,
yet, being poor, must suffer
Translated by Willis Barnstone (second version, 1988)
He is a god in my eyes, that man,
Given to sit in front of you
And close to himself sweetly to hear
The sound of you speaking.
Your magical laughter this I swear
Batters my heart my breast astir
My voice when I see you suddenly near
Refuses to come.
My tongue breaks up and a delicate fire
Runs through my flesh; I see not a thing
With my eyes, and all that I hear
In my ears is a hum.
The sweat runs down, a shuddering takes
Me in every part and pale as the drying
Grasses, then, I think I am near
The moment of dying.
Translated by Paul Roche (1966)
Godlike the man who
sits at her side, who
watches and catches
which (softly) tears me
to tatters: nothing is
left of me, each time
I see her,
. . . tongue numbed; arms, legs
melting, on fire; drum
drumming in ears; head-
lights gone black.
Translated by Peter Whigham (1966)
He seems to be a god, that man
Facing you, who leans to be close,
Smiles, and, alert and glad, listens
To your mellow voice
And quickens in love at your laughter
That stings my breasts, jolts my heart
If I dare the shock of a glance.
I cannot speak,
My tongue sticks to my dry mouth,
Thin fire spreads beneath my skin,
My eyes cannot see and my aching ears
Roar in their labyrinths.
Chill sweat slides down my body,
I shake, I turn greener than grass.
I am neither living nor dead and cry
From the narrow between.
But endure, even this grief of love.
Translated by Guy Davenport (1980)
I think that man is like a god
Who faces you, and sits by you,
And listens to your gentle words,
And to your silver laughter. But I—
My heart explodes within my breast;
One timid glance, and all my voice is gone,
My tongue breaks, and a subtle flame
Races below my flesh, my eyes
Refuse their sight, my hearing is a gong,
Cold sweat clings to me, and I shake
From head to toe, my skin the color
Of grass: I am about to die, I think. . . .
Translated by T.G. Rosenmeyer (ca. 1982)
Equal to the gods does he appear,
that man who sits close by you,
hears the sound of your sweet voice
and your delightful laughter. That sight,
I swear, sets my heartbeat pounding;
the slightest glance at you puts my
speech to flight!
My tongue unhinges, a delicate
flame slips racing neath my skin,
I see nothing, am blinded, my ears
a cold sweat commands me, dread
grasps at my heart. More pallid
than grass, I appear to myself
Translated by Jeffrey Duban (1983)
To me it seems
that man has the fortune of gods,
whoever sits beside you, and close,
who listens to you sweetly speaking
and laughing temptingly;
my heart flutters in my breast,
whenever I look quickly, for a moment
I say nothing, my tongue broken,
a delicate fire runs under my skin,
my eyes see nothing, my ears roar,
cold sweat rushes down me,
trembling seizes me,
I am greener than grass,
to myself I seem
needing but little to die.
But all must be endured, since . . .
Translated by Diane Rayor (1991)
In my eyes he matches the gods, the man who
sits there facing you any man whatever
listening from closeby to the sweetness of your
voice as you talk, the
sweetness of your laughter: yes, that I swear it
sets the heart to shaking inside my breast, since
once I look at you for a moment, I cant
speak any longer,
but my tongue breaks down, and then all at once a
subtle fire races inside my skin, my
eyes cant see a thing and a whirring whistle
thrums at my hearing,
cold sweat covers me and a trembling takes
ahold of me all over: Im greener than the
grass is and appear to myself to be little
short of dying.
But all must be endured, since even a poor . . .
Translated by Jim Powell (1993)
He seems to me equal to the 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
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead or almost
I seem to me.
But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty . . .
Translated by Anne Carson (2002)
To my eyes, that man is equal to a god,
or (if I dare say it) surpasses all of them.
Time and again, as he sits opposite,
he sees and hears you
sweetly laughing — a fact that takes away
all sense from poor old me. For no sooner,
Lesbia, do I catch sight of you than
[my voice dies inside my mouth].
My tongue is paralysed, a subtle fire runs
through my limbs, my ears are ringing
with some sound their own, a double darkness
covers now my eyes.
Translated by Tim Chilcott (2013)
He must feel blooded with the spirit of a god
to sit opposite you and listen, and reply,
to your talk, your laughter, your touching,
breath-held silences. But what I feel, sitting here
and watching you, so stops my heart and binds
my tongue that I can’t think what I might say
to breach the aureole around you there.
It’s as if someone with flint and stone had sparked
a fire that kindled the flesh along my arms
and smothered me in its smoke-blind rush.
Paler than summer grass, it seems
I am already dead, or little short of dying.
Translated by Sherod Santos (2005)
He appears to me, that one, equal to the gods,
the man who, facing you,
is seated and, up close, that sweet voice of yours
he listens to
And how you laugh your charming laugh. Why it
makes my heart flutter within my breast,
because the moment I look at you, right then, for me,
to make any sound at all wont work any more.
My tongue has a breakdown and a delicate
all of a sudden fire rushes under my skin.
With my eyes I see not a thing, and there is a roar
that my ears make.
Sweat pours down me and a trembling
seizes all of me; paler than grass
am I, and a little short of death
do I appear to me.
Literal translation by Gregory Nagy (date unknown)
30 translations of an ancient Greek poem by Sappho.
[Passages from other recommended works]
[Gateway to the Vast Realms]
[Rexroth essay on Sappho]
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