A few years ago I did a post about homophonic translations, where the translator tries to preserve the sound of the original poem; blind translations (from Cipher Journal, which publishes “creative works of art & literature that call attention to the process of translation”) are superficially similar but turn out much better to my mind:

Blind Translations (elsewhere known as homophonic translations) are a fine blend of translation & creativity: the poet-translator can neither speak nor read the poem’s original language but has formed a translation nonetheless. The linguistic materials are laid bare as acrylic in an abstract painting, and the poetic result is at once a rigidly excising form poem and a tribute to Surrealism, an extension of avant-gardist poetic activity spanning many traditions.

I don’t agree with the identification with homophonic translations, since in my experience the latter are done with an awareness of the original text’s meaning and a stronger commitment to keeping the sound; these, at least from the examples they give, use the sound/look of the original as a springboard to inspire a new poem in English, and I think utter ignorance of the meaning is a help to producing good work. Here’s a brief example; the original is by the Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun, the “translation” by John Bradley:

Yes, you, my angel.
You used to, possibly in a cradle
Slowly but always sooner.
A meadow talking in its sleep.
Barely gone no beetle pulls you.
I ravine your oxygen.
Just please slap me pretty hard.

My Slovenian is nonexistent, but with the help of a dictionary plus general knowledge of Slavic [plus bulbul’s comment—thanks!] I can tell you that the original (below the fold) means ‘You are my angel / mouth sprinkled with chalk / I am a servant of the ceremony. / Untouched [intact/virgin] // White mushrooms on a white field. / In a plain of fire. // I walk on golden dust.’

Ti si moj angel.
Usta, posuta s kredo
Služabnik obreda sem.
Bele gobe na belem polju.
V ravnini ognja.
Jaz po zlatem prahu hodim.

(Via wood s lot.)


  1. posuta s kredo
    “posuti” means “sprinkled with (cheese, sauce), covered with (dust)”.
    “kreda” (Instrumental: “(s) kredo”) = “chalk”. Might also mean “makeup”, but I’m not so sure.
    Jaz po zlatem prahu hodim.
    I’d translate that as “I walk on golden dust”.

  2. No one mentioned “One-Ton Tomato” on the homophonic translations thread?

  3. The phrase “can neither speak nor read the poem’s original language” led me off (mentally) in the direction of translation-via-crib, where the translator starts with a fairly literal rendering by someone else and riffs on it according to their best shot at global understanding, like Hofstadter on Nabokov on Pushkin, Le Guin on various people on Laozi, and me on Systran on Lope.
    But to return to our muttons (itself a semi-blind translation), I posted two examples based on the same bit of Sindarin from the first Lord of the Rings movie.

  4. Cf. Russian song “Mal’chik hochet v Tambov” (‘the boy wants to go to [the town of] Tambov’), said to be a remake of Portuguese “Bate forte o tambor”, originally by Carrapicho, a misic band from Brazil.

  5. I was doing some research into homophonic translations earlier this year, and (unfortunately, to my tastes) a lot of contemporary poets (from various schools of poetry) seem to think that homophonic translations are blind translations. This tends to mean their “homophonic translations” don’t even vaguely map up to the sounds of the original.

  6. There seems little phonetic reason to render ‘ti’ and ‘si’ with the English ‘you’ and ‘yes.’ Looks to me like the translator’s homophonia was tinctured by a familiarity with Spanish. A more homophonic rendering of the first line, for instance, would be something like “To see my angel.”
    KCinDC’s idea of construing Mondegreens as homophones is interesting–besides being a good excuse. (“Of course I know what the real lyric is; I’m just giving the piece a homophonic interpretation. Gol. You are such a Philistine.”)

  7. Michael Farris says

    T.C., my angle!

  8. Constant Reader says

    “Blind translations” used to be a regular challenge in Mary Anne Madden’s bi-weekly literary games column in New York Magazine. Some of them have been collected in Thank You for the Giant Sea Tortoise, a book that still can make me squirt milk out of my nose. (Wanna watch?)

  9. I dug out my notes from a literary translation workshop I once attended and it appears that we also made the distinction between homophonic and blind translations. The way I understand it, the former tries to reproduce the sound of the original as closely as possible, while the latter attempts the same with the written form. I still remember the fun we had with my rendition of some modern Lebanese poet and a Swahili poem. And re Q’s comment, it’s funny how often people tried to find something even remotely familiar to hold on to. Some participants were speakers of Hungarian and managed to find Hungarian words in that Swahili poem.

  10. T.C., my angle!
    You’re on, Michael:
    Used to, posted as creed
    Who’s next? :o)

  11. Q, I’d only count cross-language mondegreens (like “One-Ton Tomato”/”Guantanamera”) as homophonic translations, but who knows? Maybe you can use dialectal differences to explain some of the “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy”/”there’s a bathroom on the right” examples. But probably not.

  12. the quidnunc kid says

    “Blind translations”, eh?
    “The poet-translator can neither speak nor read the poem’s original language but has formed a translation nonetheless”, huh?
    Well, if that means anyone can be a translator, I’m all for it! BUT – looks like Mr smarty-pants languagehat and his working knowledge of 47 languages is out of a job! HA HA HA! I bet you reget all that time you spent learning Albanian now, buddy – you coulda been down the bar with the rest of us! Now I’m off to “translate” some Ismail Kadare novels! HA HA HA! LOSER!

  13. T.C., my angle!
    Used to, posted as creed

    Slews of nickels read a seam.
    This is fun . . .

  14. Ned, oh take nine!

  15. My brother used to be exceedingly fond of a video that was floating around the internet called “Hatten ar din.” The song in the video is in Arabic, but the “lyrics” that float across the screen, and that inspired the visuals, are in fact a blind translation into Swedish. You can watch the delightful “Hatten ar din” here:
    When I first started listening to Hindi songs it was tempting to undertake blind translations for amusement. Now that I know some Hindi I, alas, can’t do that any more. But some of their residue remains – the famous ghazal “Dil cheez kya hai” is still referred to in my home as the Havarti song, in blind-translation-esque honor of its first two words, “dill cheese”.

  16. Re: Slovenian poem by Tomaž Šalamun, with the “translation” by John Bradley. I enjoyed it. I like nature poetry in any language even Japanese for that matter, as well as European languages. A good translation accompanying it, however, always helps!

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