Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.05.30 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.05.30

Diane J. Rayor, André​ Lardinois (trans.), Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2014.  Pp. x, 173.  ISBN 9781107023598.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by P. J. Finglass, University of Nottingham (


This beautiful book offers exactly what it says on its cover: a new translation of the complete works of Sappho. It includes the new fragments published early in 2014, just as this book was going to press (p. 19), as well as the slightly less new fragments which first appeared in 2004. But it also includes every single fragment from which even a single word can be recovered; contrast the Loeb Classical Library, for example, which usually requires twice as much text before a fragment can be included. The fullness and quality of the work make it a wonderful resource for the Greekless, and it will be of considerable value to students of classical literature too.

The volume opens with a sixteen page Introduction by Lardinois: a masterpiece of concise, effective writing. Lardinois begins by emphasising how difficult it is to make effective use of the information about Sappho’s life that has come down to us. He distinguishes three types of evidence – the testimonia, the fragments themselves, and the historical context – and in separate sections discusses the problems involved in using all three. Wisely, Lardinois dispenses almost completely with references to secondary literature (only seven in all); this is not the place for that.

After a small, rather unsatisfactory picture of P.Köln inv. 21351+21376 (would a plate have been too expensive?) containing the fragments published in 2004, there follows a four page ‘Note on Translation: from Sappho to Sappho’ by Rayor. Rayor explains that she has been guided by ‘the double goal of accuracy, guided by the best textual editions and recent scholarship, and poetry’ (p. 20). This is immediately followed by a Key setting out the meaning of symbols used in the translation to indicate supplements, missing words and lines, and the beginnings and endings of poems; correctly, the authors do not assume that these conventions can simply stand without explanation.

The main part of the book (pp. 25–75) consists of the translation of Sappho’s poems. This is accurate and eminently readable; scholars will find it of great value, and need not hesitate to put it in the hands of their students. The presentation is careful, with, for example, supplements clearly marked. The finds of 2014 allow us to restore the beginning of fragment 5, which is duly rendered ‘O divine sea-daughters of Nereus’; contrast Campbell’s ‘(Cypris and) Nereids’ and West’s ‘Love-goddess and sea-nymphs’, which translate a supplement now known to be incorrect. Scholars should never have printed it in the text of an edition as if no alternative supplement were equally possible; now for the first time a book offers the opening of this poem as written by Sappho herself. The opening of the well-known fr. 31 is translated ‘To me it seems that man has the fortune | of gods’; compare Campbell’s ‘He seems as fortunate as the gods to me’, and West’s ‘He looks to me to be in heaven’. All these seem less striking than Sappho’s forthright statement ‘He seems to me to be equal to the gods’, which for some reason translators appear to shy away from. Sometimes the successive short fragments almost seem to make a new poem in their own right. I particularly enjoyed p. 87, where the translations of fragments 181–6 yield the following: ‘easy passage | I might go | gusting | danger | honey voice | sweet voice | Medea.’ (Perhaps someone could try it out in a practical criticism class?)

The translation is followed by a substantial section of Notes, by Lardinois (pp. 97–154); these helpfully clarify where each of the fragments comes from, discuss occasional problematic readings, and offer contextual information where relevant. The book is concluded by a ten-page appendix containing the new fragments that appeared in 2014, with notes and a brief account of their publication. A ‘Selected Bibliography’ follows. For once, the term ‘Select[ed]’ is justified: the authors cite just sixty items, together with a reference to published and online bibliographies where more can be found. Less is undoubtedly more in a volume of this kind. The volume concludes with an Index of First Lines, in which the first line of each poem appears, in numerical order of the fragments.

It may be a while before we see a full critical edition of Sappho that includes the new fragments published since 2004. In the interim, this book is all the more welcome as the only one currently in existence containing, albeit in translation, all the surviving works by one of the great poets of antiquity. Cambridge University Press deserves our thanks for producing such an accurate and attractive volume at such a reasonable price. Alcaeus next?

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010