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Open Access Publications from the University of California

(Un)veiling Sappho: Renée Vivien and Natalie Clifford Barney’s Radical Translation Projects

Published Web Location Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

In 1894 a strange book titled Les chansons des Bilitis (The Songs of Bilitis) was published by the popular French writer Pierre Louÿs. A collection of erotic poetry, it began with an introduction that claimed the poems were found on the walls of a tomb in Cyprus and were written by an ancient Greek woman named Bilitis, a courtesan and contemporary of the ancient Greek poet Sappho. In fact, Loüys fabricated Bilitis and the majority of the poems in the collection. He cites some of Sappho’s real verses, but credits them to his invented Bilitis. To lend authenticity to the forgery, he listed some of the poems as “untranslated” in the book’s index, and included a bibliography with earlier translations of collections of Bilitis’s poetry, which were, of course, also false. Yet upon publication, the fraud eluded even the most expert of scholars. Perhaps most surprisingly, even when the literary hoax was eventually exposed, it did little to diminish the book’s popularity. Louÿs’s endeavor both challenges the ethics of “faithful” translation and raises the question: why didn’t readers care that Bilitis wasn’t a real poet?

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