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Sappho printed in letterpress for the first time

The work of Greek poet and lyricist Sappho has been translated for the first time, in a special letterpress edition by The Folio Society.

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Artist Jenny Holzer contributed her work for the cover

If Not, Winter is the surviving oeuvre of Sappho, originally translated by Anne Carson in 2002 in this special letterpress edition of the book. Of all of the nine volumes of work Sappho is believed to have written, just one complete poem remains.  

Charlotte Tate is the senior designer at The Folio Society and is responsible for designing all of the interiors for all of the company’s core and limited edition books.

“We’ve published the great works of classical antiquity for 70 years from Homer to Plato, but we’ve not yet done Sappho. She is one of the great lyric poets and it’s a particularly important time to publish a woman author so firmly in the Canon.”

The Folio Society had not published any of her works previously due to the lack of great translation, until the work of Anne Carson. “Her 2002 translation is the work of a poet and translator absolutely at the top of her game, boldly reimaging the Fragments of Sappho as a coherent corpus for the first time.”

With If Not, Winter, the team at The Folio Society wanted the edition to be as authentic to the original and the translation as possible. Selecting the format of the book was important in that it needed to allow the text to incorporate the variety of margins without looking cramped on the page.

Each page is uniquely typeset, making this edition as close to the original works as possible

Tate adds: “For this, we really wanted to give each page space and for [the text] to be really beautifully set on the page. The biggest challenge when typesetting this particular book was the requirement to individually indent every page to its own set of margins.”

“Every single page is totally indented differently, and it was a further challenge in that the Greek and the English translation don’t necessarily have the same indents due to the number of characters. It requires really careful planning and a lot of cross referencing with a ruler and an existing edition to ensure they are set in the right place.”

The book took about six months to put together from start to finish, with the initial design and typesetting stage taking a significant amount of the time. “It was really exciting exploring printing with polymer plates as opposed to hot metal setting, as a designer, that gives me the flexibility to choose any digital typeface,” says Tate. “It was really important to select a suitable typeface for both the Greek and Carson’s English translation.”

Tate used her experience in letterpress printing and applied the characteristics and specifications required for traditional hot metal setting, but with the flexibility of having any typeface and no restrictions to make this edition one-of-a-kind. For the English translation, Tate chose Aria Text to set the words which uses robust letter forms suited for letterpress printing.

“It’s also really important to keep in mind that small serifs and extremely thin details on typefaces are susceptible to be washed away in the platemaking process or are prone to breaking on the press,” says Tate. “So, it was a fine line between picking a typeface that really we knew would reliably print without any issues.”

The biggest challenge when typesetting this particular book was the requirement to individually indent every page

The book was letterpress printed by Phil Abel of Social Enterprise Printing, which is one of the few commercial printers in the UK with a large-format letterpress machine. Abel has worked with The Folio Society on previous editions and was chosen to print this edition based on his care and attention to the trade.  

The Folio Society worked closely with Anne Carson and decided to take an art-focused approach to any textual enhancement which led to the involvement of renowned conceptual artist Jenny Holzer.

“Anne herself suggested that we consider Jenny Holzer to write a preface,” Tate explains. “It turned out that Jenny was actually ready to contribute some of her own art, rather than writing for us.

"From that, it cropped up that she and Anne had collaborated only a few years previously on the same text and Jenny had some selected lines from Anne’s Sappho translations that she carved into rock faces in Norway’s Ekebergparken sculpture park.”

“She was more than happy to share her gorgeous photographs for this project, which is how we came across using it for the binding of the book.”

A total of five members of staff at The Folio Society worked on the project; editor Sophie Lewis, art director Sherri Gee, production manager Julie Farquhar, proof reader Philip Riley and senior designer Charlotte Tate.

“We’ve had feedback from people saying that this is actually the first time that they can read the poetry,” says Tate. “Even Anne Carson herself said this was a truly lovely edition.”

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