Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.09.37

Stanley Lombardo (trans.), Sappho, Poems and Fragments.   Indianapolis:  Hackett, 2002.  Pp. 96.  ISBN 0-87220-591-6.  $6.95.  

Reviewed by Travis Feldman, University of Washington (
Word count: 2685 words

This translation of seventy three fragments of Sappho1 by Stanley Lombardo makes a unique and welcome contribution to the diversity of English translations available. The volume as a whole is well suited for teaching Sappho in translation at the undergraduate level. The simplicity of the book's presentation and organization makes it readily accessible and easy to compare to other editions of Sappho. Perhaps most importantly, its simplicity lends itself equally to reading for pleasure or for learning. The fragments are newly arranged and numbered by Lombardo, but the notes at the back of the book include a concordance to the numeration of Campbell's (1982) Greek Lyric, Volume I: Sappho and Alcaeus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), which is also the source of the Greek translated. Like several other volumes of Sappho's verse currently available in paperback English translation, this book is affordably priced and of compact size, and Hackett has also provided this volume with a sturdily glued spine (which, beyond my expectations, gracefully endured the contortions of repeated back-bending and folding as I prepared this review) -- all features relevant to classroom use. It perhaps most resembles the size and ambitions of Josephine Balmer's (1992) Sappho: Poems & Fragments, Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, though Lombardo's volume is better both for its clear translations, and for the breadth, depth, and up to date bibliography of the critical introduction provided by Pamela Gordon, Lombardo's colleague at the University of Kansas. In fact, Lombardo's translations are pleasantly distinct from those of any others that I am aware of both for their sonorous but straightforward rendering in a modern spoken American English, and for being unencumbered by footnotes, editorial marks, or even page numbers (I have more to say about both of these characteristics below). The reader is invited to contemplate and enjoy the gaps of the text of Lombardo's translations as part of the pleasure of reading and interpreting the text itself. The method of prosody utilized is, in Lombardo's words (xxvii), based upon an interest in "the rhythmic phrase as the main structural element" rather than any attempt to duplicate Sappho's meters or to move Sappho's lines into a traditional English meter such as iambic pentameter. As with Lombardo's previous translations (perhaps most evident in the stylization of the narrator's voice in his Works and Days [1993]), this translation is marked by its attempts to render the particular voicing and tone of the author being translated.

There are four sections to the book: (1) a twenty page Introduction by Pamela Gordon, (2) a two page Translator's Note, (3) the translations of the fragments, and (4) five pages of Notes on Ancient Sources of the fragments, including brief descriptions of the authors and works from which the fragments have been taken, estimated dates of the papyri, and a concordance to Campbell for each translation. These four sections work remarkably well together, presenting the fragments of Sappho according to "the idea of the isolated message" (xvii). The dominant and characteristic interest shared by both Lombardo as translator and Gordon as introducer (also, as well by David Frederick and Kirsten Day, respectively the designer and the photographer of the two montage images which decorate the text) is their concerted effort to validate "fragments as esthetic wholes" (xxvi). I will comment on each of the sections individually. I should mention straightway that I spotted almost no typos or misprints, and I was impressed with the excellent level of editorship throughout.2

Gordon's Introduction fulfils several functions in the volume: (1) it is a terse commentary on an expansive range of social and scholarly concerns that have surrounded, and at times obfuscated, Sappho's fragments; (2) it is an explanation of methods employed to "recover" (in both textual and cultural senses of the word [cf. x]) Sappho's poetry; and (3) it is an annotated bibliography of recent scholarly work done on the fragments of Sappho. The essay begins by detailing the sources of Lombardo 6, which highlights the complex processes of textual reconstruction responsible for most of what we have of Sappho's fragments, as well as the inadvertent transmission and irresolvable issues of interpretation (such as the context and use of the poems) that typify all of Sappho's fragments. The essay diachronically surveys the reception and transmission of "Sappho" throughout history, including a short, non-dogmatic, discussion of Sappho's "sexuality" as it has been portrayed, debated, and problematized in certain academic and literary circles. There are several mentions of important and ambiguous Greek words key to the fragments of Sappho (lusimeles, glukupikron, deute), and some Greek words which allow the reader to contemplate possibilities of meaning beyond the volume's own translations (viz., pais, in Lombardo 36, and mythoplokos, mentioned by Maximus of Tyre [Orations 18.9] but not in any of the translated fragments selected by Lombardo). One of the strongest qualities of the essay is its openness to and articulation of multiple interpretations. While the essay describes some archaic poetic conventions relevant for interpreting the fragments, it seems invested in the attempt to generate further discussion and point towards salient issues rather than staid answers or specific interpretative models of those conventions. One passage in a section of the essay titled "Reading among the Ruins," comes close to an exhortation, but is worded carefully enough to be a suggestion with compelling reasons for the would-be student, rather than a didactic imperative. After having cited pitfalls of two extreme modes of reading the fragments of Sappho, represented respectively by Ulrich von Wilamowitz's "painstaking scholarly work" (xi) on the one hand, and a reader seeking out the "immediacy of the emotions expressed in the poems" (ibid.) on the other, the essay proffers another, "a position somewhere between two extremes: read with one's own desires and interests in the open, but keep one foot in Wilamowitz's study" (ibid.). Gordon continues, arguing that "[o]ne alternative is to read an individual fragment as though we were reading a note in a bottle. Each fragment comes to us against odds and across the centuries, and none arrives with any original instructions about context or meaning." This fairly summarizes the theoretical approach to the poetry of Sappho found everywhere in the volume.

In his Translator's Note, the second section of the book, Lombardo explains that he has attempted to read Campbell's Greek of Sappho's poetry as an isolated text -- as notes found in a bottle. Lombardo says (xxvi), "When I began this project I found myself coming to Campbell's Greek text of Sappho as a pure, received text, that is, as if I had come across it published, perhaps in a contemporary poetry journal, without any introduction or biographical note, as a set of two hundred or so brief numbered pieces." Lombardo's approach is reinforced by the fact that there are no page numbers and no footnotes attached to words or line numbers in the translations. Also, both the text and the Notes on Ancient Sources found in the book's last section are reduced to essentials by not citing scholarly opinion on such things as the discrepancies of attributed authorship (e.g. Lombardo 29 and 73), or the specifics of the variant readings (except briefly in the Note on Ancient Sources, Lombardo 72). Thus, Lombardo's strategy as translator is to convey not only the Greek by means of English, but also the experience of reading "Sappho as a pure, received text" by means of direct, plain presentation of the poem. The Translator's Note concludes with a conscientious effort to acknowledge the effort and input of many people who assisted in the production of the book.

Lombardo's translations, with their contractions and spoken American idioms, are generally less restrained than Campbell's own prose translations (e.g., "I don't want to leave you" [Lombardo 11], "I can't get any words out" [Lombardo 20], "It's easy to show this" [Lombardo 31]). Occasionally, however, Lombardo uses a reserved and ornate, sometimes even slightly antique, idiom (e.g., "abloom" [Lombardo 6], "coverlets" [Lombardo 11], "maidens" [Lombardo 14]). When put together, these contrasting aspects of the translations do not have the effect of inconsistency, rather they fairly balance the mixture of different voices which are found in the Greek itself, which, in its first person immediacy, is private seeming almost to the point of being epistolary or even confessional at times, and at other times is public, distant and formal. This volume, while it captures several of the nuances of voice in Sappho's verse, is not intended to be a literal translation. Lombardo (xxvi) remarks that, "[w]here my translation differs from Campbell's main text, which is not often, I am either using one of the variant readings he prints in his apparatus criticus or simply allowing myself to diverge from a literal rendering." Examples of Lombardo's differing from Campbell, include Lombardo 2, 9, 10, and 61. Also, the case of Lombardo 19 is puzzling, since it inexplicably does not include all of Campbell's main text, but suddenly stops after three lines of the ten included in Campbell -- I was left to conclude that a decision sui generis must have been made by the translator about the content of these lines.

The presentation of the translations at times replicates the appearance of the Greek stanza and line forms (e.g. Lombardo 3, 11, 24), and other times suggests a certain mood or a tempo through typographical irregularity and whimsical punctuation that deviates from Campbell's Greek (e.g. the very beginning of Lombardo 1, Lombardo 8, 9, 10). The text of Lombardo's translations therefore sometimes appears in disjointed and dangling clusters even when the Greek exists in full or nearly full stanzas (e.g., the end of Lombardo 66, which Campbell [p. 101, n. 3] says is the "end of poem"). Lombardo explains in the Translator's Note (xxvii), "I sometimes deliberately treat a more or less intact passage as if composed of fragments that reduce to rhythmic phrases." Even in situations where the Greek may not have been quite so fragmented or tentative as the English appears, the reader is everywhere encouraged to meet the text as isolated messages and shattered phrases. The effect is becoming for the fragments but, concomitantly, makes it impossible for the reader to distinguish the ravages of time on Sappho's verses from the preferred practice of the translating American poet-scholar. This is mostly because it lacks editorial marks or consistently punctuated cues such as might designate a conjectured reading, a break in the papyrus text, or that the fragment is at the beginning or end of a poem.

Allow me to cite Lombardo 69 as one example of Lombardo's virtuoso command of the "rhythmic phrase" presented in a euphonious, spoken American idiom. The poem is based on the rhythm of the anapest, loosely developed among trochaic and iambic foot variations. Notice the many sounds played within and against the stress arrangement, especially the labials of the second line which accentuate the stresses:

Like the sweet apple reddening on the topmost branch,
the topmost apple on the tip of the branch,
and the pickers forgot it,
well, no, they didn't forget, they just couldn't reach it.

Like the hyacinth in the hills the shepherds
trample, and on the ground the purple blooms

The first line is a four-stress line that begins with two anapests, the second of which runs right over the important syllables of the thematic centerpiece of the poem, the red apple. The marching rhythm of the second line, also four-stress, lands squarely on the first syllable of "apple" as though, like the apple pickers of the poem, we are at this point in the poem awakened to (the apple's) tantalizing presence. The two iambs and two anapests of the second line give a particularly expressive rendition of the repetitions of the Greek, ἄκρον ἐπ' ἀκροτάτῳ. The conversational tone of the words in the poem's turning moment in line four effectively dissipates the building rhythmic march of the first three lines, and then recovers it with two iambs and a feminine ending: "they just couldn't reach it." The poem's transitions are complex and quick, but orderly and unified throughout; for instance, the poem achieves a unity (in spite of the disparate sources of the Greek of the poem's two halves3) by the imperfect rhyme between "apple" and "trample," and the assonance among short 'i' vowels after the word "tip" appears, which crescendos in the aspirates of "hyacinth in the hills the shepherds."

The Notes on Ancient Sources, the fourth and last section of the book, make it usable for academic settings and, in a few entries, allows the reader to enjoy Lombardo's expert opinion. For the most part, the Notes follow with little or no embellishment Campbell's own citations for the dates of papyri and the name of the source text and author. Occasionally the commentary extends itself to mention that an authorial attribution is suspect, and frequently it offers a trenchant summary of a given ancient work. For instance, in summarizing the content of On the Sublime, Lombardo (p. 65) injects a provocative and important parenthetical comment when he says, "Longinus, a first-century C.E. critic who writes about the quality of thought and style (including the emotional element) that makes writing sublime."

Finally, I want to briefly comment on the mark of Professor Lombardo's personal investment in this book. Initially I had been puzzled by his arrangement of the fragments, and tried to understand his decisions in reordering the fragments. One motivation to rearrange them in an order different than Campbell's was clearly because this book is a selection of particular fragments from Campbell rather than a complete edition of new translations. But the rearrangement is not merely incidental to the collection. Lombardo comments on the importance of the ordering in his Translator's Note (xxvi), saying, "[h]aving translated these pieces, I felt compelled to order and arrange them into a collection with some kind of esthetic coherence. Every poet or artist who has arranged pieces for publication or for an exhibition can understand the enjoyment this process brings and how important it is for an appreciation of the total body of work." He has included only two poems which match Campbell's numbering, Lombardo 1 and Lombardo 49.4 Campbell's first poem is an optimal starting place since it is the only complete poem of Sappho that remains. The reasons for Lombardo 49 being Campbell's Sappho 49, on the other hand, are less apparent. The poem faces the only illustration inside the book's pages, a montage piece of a small girl looking directly at the camera, and, I would venture to guess, standing near a piano and performing a song. The girl happens to be Nancy Brehm, Professor Lombardo's sister. And while Lombardo's previous translations published by Hackett have made brilliant use of photographs,5 this one captures something of Sappho's own intimate and confident appreciation of transitory beauty and the beauty of the transitory (e.g. see Lombardo 31, as well as 49). It is an utterly charming image and an inspired moment in the book: emotional associations that belong to the poet-translator are invoked at precisely the only moment after the first fragment where the translated text is numbered the same as the Greek source text. This seems to me to pay homage simultaneously to the impersonal, "isolated" existence of the Greek text, even as it intimates a set of very personal associations with that same text. In his Translator's Note, Lombardo explicitly claims (and no one familiar with any of his translations would doubt) that as a translator he is "ever mindful of performative qualities, quality of voice, changes of voice" (xxvii), and then he concludes his Note by dedicating the book to his sisters, "Shirley and Nancy, whose voices are ever in my ears, and who have taught me much about love" (ibid.). It seems to me that this photo and its placement in the book make an interesting contribution to the translator's performance of Sappho's voice. It also tacitly reinforces Pamela Gordon's suggestion that one should "read with one's own desires and interests in the open, but keep one foot in Wilamowitz's study" (xi), and it strengthens my own admiration for a work of translation that is wholly successful.


1.   The first poem of the collection, Lombardo 1, is the only one considered to be a complete poem, but, as I discuss below, this volume deliberately and effectively renders moot the distinction between "fragment" and "complete poem," and thus in this review I will refer at times to "poems" in this volume (e.g., Lombardo 69), which are actually fragments of Greek.
2.   The typos which I did spot are miniscule: (1) In the note for Lombardo 37 (p. 66) the abbreviation for the word "fragments" should be corrected from "fr." to "frr." (2) In the note for Lombardo 66 (p. 68), the abbreviation for Oxyrhynchus, "P. Oxy 1781 fr. 1," is missing a period and should read "P. Oxy. 1787 fr. 1." Also, Lombardo 66 is one example of an abbreviation of the citations of the papyri which was slightly inconsistent. Essentially, the problem is that, while the editorial decision may have been made to simplify the source citations by excluding line numbers, in some cases the multiple sources or multiple papyri are cited and in other cases they are not. In the case of Lombardo 66, there are three sources for Campbell's reconstruction (P. Oxy. 1787 fr. 1. 4-25, fr. 2 1 + fr. Nov. (Lobel Σ. μ. p. 26) but only one is cited in the Notes on Ancient Sources. There are also citations for singular sources for Lombardo 34 and 37, while in both cases there are two papyri used for Campbell's Greek. Contrast the note provided for Lombardo 57, which seems a fair comparandum to 66, 34, and 37 and which follows Campbell's citation of two papyri as sources for its Greek.
3.   The fragment compiles two fragments from two sources: (1) Syrianus on Hermogenes's On Kinds of Style, and (2) Demetrius, On Style (cf. Campbell [ibid., 130-33]).
4.   Lombardo does, however, follow Campbell's consecutive ordering three times: Lombardo 8-10, 15-16, and 18-19.
5.   To cite the two most recent examples, cf. "Into the Jaws of Death. June 6, 1944," on the cover of Lombardo (1997) Iliad, and "Earthrise" on the cover of Lombardo (2000) Odyssey.

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