Sappho 31

That guy       a god
who sits       near you
Your voice     your eyes
For him

My heart       it stops
My tongue      it's stuck
To watch       you there
with him

I sweat        I'm cold
I shake        I'm pale
I'm grass      that's bleached
I'm stunned

My lips        won't move
My ears        hear buzz
I spark        lit up
I'm done

This poem by Sappho, which survives in the fragment beginning phainetai moi (“it seems to me”), may be the best known and most often translated lyric from ancient Greece or Rome. Here are 43 translations, offering diverse responses to Sappho’s lines and illustrating the evolution of English since the 1500s.

I tried a compressed translation, with no adverbs, no adjectives as modifiers (only predicates), and the fewest words possible. I chose 30 iambs to stand for Sappho’s 202 syllables. I consulted the Greek text but had many difficulties with the dialect (Aeolic), so I leaned on previous translations. This is like an amateur’s sketch of a famous painting, merely recording the outlines.

I agree with readers who see three persons here: the narrator, a man, and the “you” who is giving attention to that man. If the narrator is Sappho (or has her gender) then the poem is spoken by a woman who loves “you,” and you could be a second woman. However, the genders of the narrator and the beloved are never specified and can be imagined differently.

In a somewhat less compressed version, the man mentioned at the outset would not be a god. The text says that he seems similar to a god, and the point may be that his situation is divinely fortunate. The narrator is paler green than grass; and a thin or delicate signal fire flows through her. (I can’t help thinking of an electrical charge.) At the end, she says it seems she’s nearly dead, the verb “to seem” echoing the first line.

But that wasn’t the end of the original poem. This is all we have of the remaining stanzas:

But things      go on 
[…]             The poor        

One of many debated points is whether the narrator is jealous. I doubt it. She (?) focuses on and talks to the other person, and perhaps neither of them cares much about the man. Hence my somewhat dismissive opening (“That guy …”).

Another good question is what Sappho wrote after the last words that survive: “But all is to be endured, and the poor man/person …” Our text ends there because this poem only survived as a quotation in Longinus’ On the Sublime, and Longinus left off in mid-thought. Although I blame him for the lost strophes, I also find this a moving place to stop. Things must go on; we know that. But how did Sappho actually go on? And what did she say about “the poor”?

See also: when you know, but cannot feel, beauty (on “The Ode to a Nightingale,” which is influenced by Sappho 31); “The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis,” the sublime and other people, and “Madonna è disiata in sommo cielo.”