Filling in the Fragments

Diane Rayor on translating the poetry of Sappho

Detail from <em>Sappho</em> (1909) by Ferdinand Keller
Detail from Sappho (1909) by Ferdinand Keller

The Greek poet Sappho’s reputation looks something like a parabola: at the height of her powers, her lyrics were so beloved that grammarians quoted them as exemplars of the Greek language; Plato called her the “Tenth Muse.” Then, after a thousand years of exaltation, she tumbled from the pantheon. Today, we know very little of her life and precious few of her works remain, most of them recovered from ancient garbage heaps in the 19th century. The surviving 306 fragments of her verse—dozens of them but a single word or phrase—are compiled in a new and updated translation by classicist Diane J. Rayor, simply titled Sappho, out this month from Cambridge University Press. Rayor, Professor Emerita of Classics at Grand Valley State University, joins us on the podcast to discuss the difficulties—and joys—of rediscovering Sappho and translating her verse into English.

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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