Ron Silliman has a post about the odd phenomenon of “homophonic translation”—rendering a poem into English not (primarily) by dictionary meaning but by phonetic similarity. As far as I know (and Silliman agrees), the first practitioner of the art was Louis Zukofsky in his 1969 book Catullus (here are a couple of samples, paired with more normal translations; you’ll get the idea from the rendering of Catullus’s “Minister uetuli puer Falerni/ inger mi calices amariores” into “Minister wet to lee, pour the Falernian/ and gear me chalices, ah by bitterest”). Silliman brings to my attention a more recent example, David Melnick’s 1983 version of the Iliad, Men in Aïda, which begins as follows:

Men in Aïda, they appeal, eh? A day, 0 Achilles!
Allow men in, emery Achaians. All gay ethic, eh?
Paul asked if tea mousse suck, as Aïda, pro, yaps in.
Here on a Tuesday. ‘Hello,’ Rhea to cake Eunice in.
‘Hojo’ noisy tap as hideous debt to lay at a bully.
Ex you, day. Tap wrote a ‘D,’ a stay. Tenor is Sunday.
Atreides stain axe and Ron and ideas ‘ll kill you.

(You can see more of Melnick’s book here, and a transliteration of the Greek here.) I don’t like it as well as the Zukofsky, but that’s a matter of taste. I agree with Silliman that both are more successful than Chris Tysh’s version of a passage of Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror—not for its own sake (it’s quite nice: “All on, Sultan, evoke two languages, debar us, my dizzy song key, sail it o’er the parquet. The bandage is fine…”), but as an equivalent of the French (“Allons,Sultan, avec ta langue, débarrasse-moi de ce sang qui salit le parquet. Le bandage est fini…”): it simply doesn’t sound like it, and Silliman’s conclusion is that “the mapping of sound patterns from French to English” doesn’t work. I suspect he’s right, and some languages are better suited to the technique than others. (You can also read Silliman’s own homophonic version of Rilke and Charles Bernstein’s versions from Basque and Portuguese.)


  1. Richard Buchholz says

    Didn’t Ezra Pound do this sort of thing earlier, to a limited extent admittedly, in his translations of The Seafarer and The Wanderer?

  2. Um, multus es et pathicus does not mean much you are and pathetic/lascivious tyvm. Actually none of those translations really nailed that, I think.
    Anyway, for a similar phenomenon, but done more for comic effect than as a translation, see the book Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames: The D’Antin Manuscript, available e.g. at Amazon. This book shows that it is quite possible to map sound patterns from English to French at any rate. The book is a collection of English nursery rhymes homophonically rendered into bizarre french poetry (there is a plethory of footnotes explaining exactly what it means), but no reference is made to the original rhymes, so you have to figure it out yourself.
    An example:

    Un petit d’un petit s’étonne aux Halles,
    Un petit d’un petit- ah, dégrés te fallent!
    Indolent qui ne sort cesse,
    Indolent qui ne se mène.
    Qu’import un petit d’un petit,
    Tout Guy de Ragènnes.

    (please excuse any errors, as I typed that up from memory.)
    The footnotes claim that this is a poem about the child of a youthful marriage who has been unjustly imprisoned.

  3. The genre is inauspiciously named — some imp is preventing me from looking at it and not thinking, “Homophobic Translation” — The latest course offering from the Bob Jones U. Cultural Studies department? Anyway, I like the Iliad translation a lot. But then I don’t know what the Greek should sound like, to know how close or far off the homophony is.

  4. Richard: That was quite different, in that it was an attempt to mimic the effect of the Anglo-Saxon verse by using native words and the same alliterative scheme; Pound did screw up the meaning at times, but that was from careless ignorance (as usual) rather than the principle of homophony.
    Justin: Good example, and it’s actually much closer to its French than the Tysh. On the other hand, the language and rhythms are much more basic, so an easier task.
    Jeremy: You can get a sense of the Greek by following the link in my post; here are the first two lines:
    mênin aeide thea Pêlêïadeô Achilêos
    oulomenên, hê muri’ Achaiois alge’ ethêke

  5. You can get a fun approximation by spell-checking a foreign text with an English dictionary in your favorite word processor, and accepting the first suggestion. The Mots d’heures gousses rames is a fun book. I had a francophone friend read one of the poems out loud. He was reading it for meaning and didn’t get it, but the others who were listening began to catch on and soon were howling.

  6. C. Bloggerfeller says

    Pound did do something similar to this in his “Homage to Sextus Propertius” where you get deliberate mistranslations. For example he renders “Cimbrorumque minas et bene facta Mari” (roughly, “and the threats of the Cimbri and Marius’ good deeds”) as “the Welsh mines and the profit Marus had out of them”.

  7. Again, I wouldn’t be too sure Pound knew what he was doing (he was extraordinarily lazy about looking things up); even if he did in this case, he was just making a one-off joke rather than employing a consistent translation strategy (which would in any case have had to give something more like “Kim, bro—room came in as at benefactor Mary”).

  8. C. Bloggerfeller says

    Those mistranslations in “Sextus Propertius” at least are almost certainly deliberate and parodic. There is a whole list of them which I don’t have the time to go through right now. You’re right, they aren’t all based on rendering the sound of the Latin into English but I was just wondering whether it was here that Zukofsky (who was a passionate admirer of Pound the poet) got his idea for his more systematic reworking of Catullus.

  9. Yeah, I know some of them are; I just get so irritated at his carelessness (and refusal to bother proofing the text of the Cantos, leaving us with innumerable textual messes) that I tend to emphasize that aspect. I suppose it’s possible Zuk got the idea from Ez; I suppose the answer is out there somewhere. Has anyone done a Zukofsky bio?

  10. C. Bloggerfeller says

    There’s a Zukofsky bio online here:
    I only know him from his Catullus entries in Charles Tomlinson’s “Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation” (I remember he translated “Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire” as “Miss her, Catullus? Don’t be so inept to rail”).

  11. a final thot:
    the old novelty song “Mairzy Doats”
    & the once-famous book “Ladle Rad Rotten Hut”
    which is fairy tales turned into a blood-
    curdling pseudo-dialect…

  12. “Ladle Rad Rotten Hut” is part of ANGUISH
    LANGUISH by Chace, & i just found it on

  13. I like the name homophobic translation. that’s funny to make a homophonic but I can’t see the point, sorry… the power of poetry seems to be lost

  14. korny nyo

  15. Some very interesting examples happen also in music; where the lyrics in a foreing version of a song are made to phonetically approximate the original version.
    For example, “Dragostea din tei” by Haiducci has gained a very homophonic version in portuguese.
    Conversely, “Sina”, a brazilian song by Djavan, has been rendered “soul food to go” by the manhattan dancers, a very close homophonic approximation.

  16. And who can forget “Hat Hat Baby”?

  17. I’m guessing Anton S meant “Hatt-baby” (Hatten är din).

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