Sappho Fragment 31

Sappho Fragment 31 The Issue of Translation

The difficulties of translation are compounded by poetry, in which sonic and stylistic content is often just as if not more important than the literal meaning of words. Some languages may lend themselves more easily to certain rhyme or metrical schemes. Idioms and other culturally determined forms might be confusing if left as in the original text, and forms like alliteration, which rely on the sounds of specific words, might be difficult to preserve in a different vocabulary while retaining the meaning of the original. Translators are thus often forced to pick and choose which elements of a poem are most important to preserve, and, conversely, to add new elements in order to convey the essence of the poem.

With nearly two thousand years' worth of translations and adaptations, it should come as no surprise that there’s so much debate about the best way to bring “Fragment 31” to a non-Greek-speaking audience. Early translations tended to heterosexualize the poem, blatantly changing the meaning of words in order to tell a narrative the translator was more comfortable with. Modern translations are more faithful, but there are still broad differences between different versions.

This guide quotes primarily from Anne Carson’s translation of the fragment. It is not only the most widely used translation, but one of the most effective ones, as it stays close to the literal translation of the poem while deftly using alliteration, parallel, and metaphor to convey themes that other translations have to explain or leave out. Carson leans on modern poetic sensibilities to translate the way Sappho would have sounded to her own audience—fresh and new. In the introduction to If Not, Winter, Carson emphasizes her belief in the importance of sticking to Sappho’s minimalist vocabulary, and thus reaching to the essence of her style.

Two of the other best-known translations are Richard Lattimore’s 1955 version in the anthology Greek Lyrics, and Mary Barnard’s 1958 collection, Sappho: A New Translation, which this guide draws from as a secondary source. Barnard departs the most from Sappho’s original, abandoning the original division of the stanzas and omitting the beginning of the final, fragmentary stanza in order to create a more cohesive poem. Lattimore prioritizes the meter of Sappho’s work and preserving the eleven-syllable line, although this can lead to awkward-sounding English phrases. Reading these many translations in conjunction with one another, and looking to their similarities and differences, can help you get closer to the essence of the original Greek.