Black and white photograph with two women, one in a light dress and Victorian hairstyle seated on a bench, the other behind her in a dark pantsuit and flowing hair.

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

Rebekkah Dilts

Black and white photograph with two women, one in a light dress and Victorian hairstyle seated on a bench, the other behind her in a dark pantsuit and flowing hair.

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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Rebekkah Dilts is a Ph.D. candidate in the Literature department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She studies nineteenth through twenty-first century French and Anglo-American literary works that face(d) both textual and authorial censorship. She is also interested in queer and feminist theories, and how practices of reading and interpretation affect the construction of bodies and subjectivity. This academic year, she is a visiting scholar at SciencesPo in Paris, France, where she has been conducting archival research for her dissertation project, which focuses on the French fin de siècle Sapphic revival.

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