Oct 042012

In June 2010, NC magazine challenged readers and writers in a homophonic translation competition contest to translate a passage into English, with explicit instructions to “Let go of your bourgeois yearning after sense and meaning. Forget certainty. (The judge is returning to his Sufi roots.) Think only of the sound of the words, their rhythms, and what you can invent from them.” You can read the winners of that competition here. In this issue of Numéro Cinq we feature a homophonic translation by Fredericton mathematician and poet Hugh Thomas. Following this is an essay by Sarah Bernstein,  “The Boundless Chaos of Living Speech, ” where she picks up on Numéro Cinq Magazine‘s infatuation with the play, uncertainty and absurdity and explores the possibilities of homophonic translation further.

—R W Gray


Det virker som om visse nivåer i tekstene er mer tilgjengelige

Debt worker some advise never in texture armour til angelic

for lesing og skriving i Canada enn i Norge. Og at det

for leasing of scrivening in Canada in a north.  Or at debt

å likestille, og spleise ulike formale og tematiske nivåer er

as lifestyle, or splays unlike for male or demotic never or

langt mer integrert i skrivingen, og dermed i den lesningen

long more interrupt in scrivening, or under meds Eden lessening

tekstene forventer. Som i Angela Rawlings wide slumber for

texture for events.  Some I angela rawlings wide slumber for

lepidopterists, en legering av de ulike søvnfasene og møll,

lepidopterists, a lingering of the unlike unfastened or null,

nattsvermere, sommerfuglers utvikling fra egg, via

not swarming, summer foolers our wrinkling from egg, via

larve og puppe, til ferdig utvokst, kjønnsmodent individ,

large or puppet, til further outfoxed, consumed undivided

«imago». Legeringen finner sted på en rekke nivåer:

on the go.  Lingering finer stayed pain wreck never:

i kvasi-vitenskapelige plansjer som parallellfører

in quasi-inviting shapely plans you’re some parallel farer

søvnfasene og sommerfuglers kroppsdeler; i tekstenes

unfastened or summer foolers’ crops’ delirium; in textures

plasseringer på siden (i det hele tatt hvordan Rawling

pleasuring besides (in that whole thought warden rawlings

har tatt i bruk boka, siden, oppslaget og typografiens

hair that in broken book, siding, slagged or typo graphing

muligheter); i sammenstillingen av et «normalt» engelsk

mull lighter); in same stilling of abnormal angels

og en rekke vitenskapelige, latinske termer, som jo

or in wreck escaping, letting tremor, some gone

i utgangspunktet er ment å spesifisere, gjøre

outing spanked torment of specificity, gore

distinksjoner, men som her befester det hypotetiske

distinct shone, men some her behest order hypo fetish

slektskapet mellom disse to vitenskapene – de tilhører

slake caped melodious to escape – death til hearer

det samme språket; i anagrammer og kvasi-anagrammer

that same sprocket: I, anagrammer of quasi-anagrams,

hvor fonemer glir ut og inn av ord fra søvnforskningen

for phone more girl out or in of word for own forsaking

og lepidopterologien (som om det ene ligger

or leaped opt enroll of logging (some am that in liquor

forpuppet i det andre). Og samtidig handler det om

for puppet in detained).  Of same tiding handler that I’m

å snakke, å skrive, å samle, organisere, puste, om å

a snake, a scriber, a small organizer, paste, I’m a

holde noe inne i noe annet, og om hulrom:

holder, no inner and no ante, or I’m hull room:

pins through epidermis
                   a wall, a tooth
Place specimen under lamp to increase drying time.
             tsniaga tsurht rotcelloc a#tilps#tips nehT
                   a moth with barbed spines
          vulva, uvulva

En tekst, eller rettere sagt en bok med en usedvanlig

Intact, all her attire sang in book made in used vinyl



A note on the text: this poem is a homophonic translation of Paal Bjelke Andersen’s review in Norwegian of the book “wide slumber for lepidopterists” by a.rawlings (from which the quoted passage is drawn).


Hugh Thomas is a poet and translator living in Fredericton, where he teaches mathematics at the Univerisity of New Brunswick. Franzlations, a collections of visual and textual riffs on images from the writings of Kafka, jointly created with Gary Barwin and Craig Conley, was recently published by New Star Books.  His poetry has also appeared in chapbooks published by BookThug, Paper Kite Press, and above/ground press.

‘The Boundless Chaos of Living Speech’: On Homophonic Translation

by Sarah Bernstein

In a 1986 interview with Werner Wögerbauer, Thomas Bernhard said of translations, “Translations? What do you mean?”

For Bernhard, all translation was impossible. “A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra,” he said. He even famously banned future productions of his play Der Weltverbesserer: it “was written for a specific actor because I knew he was the only one who could perform it,” he said.

Perhaps homophonic translation and the gymnastic leaps of imagination it requires would have earned Bernhard’s disdain, the same way Viennese coffeehouses, train stations, bureaucrats, actors and the Austrian state did. Probably he would have found it absurd. But concerned, as it is, precisely with sound (or “orchestration”) over semantic meaning, precise homophonic translation “plays” the same way across languages. Homophonic translation bridges the lingual lapses traditional translation creates, while at the same time making new (or original) the source text by recreating meaning.

As an erstwhile polyglot (I grew up speaking English, French, Hebrew and Yiddish) and always-Tolkien fan, I have always been interested in the confluence of languages – shared roots, the “boundless chaos of living speech,” the impossibility of fixing language, any language, of untangling it from others, and I read literature in translation – even and especially Bernhard – all the time.

But comparative literatures have fallen out of favour in academia, and for the very reasons that Bernhard himself was not interested in translations of his own work: “It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it.” And, indeed, when one reads the most recent Vintage translations of Bernhard’s work, masterpieces though they are, it occurs to one that there must be a kind of disconnect. It is not that the translations are not “faithful” to the original text; they are, I imagine, very much written in the same key. But, as Bernhard says, the notes are different, and there’s a flautist instead of a fiddler, as it were.

Faced with the always already note-imperfect “translation,” poets like Hugh Thomas explore and experiment with forms of “naïve translation.” Thomas, poet and professor of Mathematics at the University of New Brunswick, says that homophonic translation “fits into a spectrum of naïve translation… when you sit down with a text in a language you don’t really know, and try to produce a ‘translation’ of it.” In other words, the phonetic features of the original work are more or less preserved. There will inevitably be some words “whose translations might be clear,” says Thomas, “and then guesses guided by false cognates, parts of words, random thoughts, and also sounds.” Homophonic translation, or macaronic writing, is often associated with Oulipo writers like François le Lionnais, who wrapped up one of his manifestoes with a translation of Keats: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” became “Un singe de beauté est un jouet pour l’hiver.” It’s a useful writing exercise for students learning to navigate metre and meaning, and it yields clever results in contests, such as the ones created and published for contests in Numero Cinq Magazine’s early years.

More recently, writers like Thomas, Christian Bök, and Gary Barwin have been interested in this particular language game. Thomas’s second chapbook, heart badly buried by five shovels, published by Paper Kite Press, includes homophonic translations of poems from a variety of languages.

So what makes a homophonic translation “work”? If a “translation” lets go of its claim to and desire for symphonic fidelity, what tethers it to the source text? For Thomas, the level of rigour and precision establishes itself as he writes. He does, typically, like to have a kind of “line-to-line correspondence” between his work and the source text. “Though,” he adds, “what exactly ‘correspondence’ entails is not clear and depends on the original piece.”

Determining what kind of tie the target text has to the original depends, in part, upon the insistence of the source text’s language. If I consider the kind of precision that, say, Ron Silliman thinks makes a successful (or more honest) homophonic translation, I see that the “pull,” as it were, of Rilke’s German is so strong that it saturates the translation. The notes and orchestration that Bernhard talks about are there – I hear the German in Silliman’s lines “Angle niche, mention niche. / Undefined again, her American is shown — / toss furniture for lace lick: zoo house sin.” It’s an odd, delightful poem, and if I close my eyes and listen, there is Rilke’s notation, his orchestra.

But what does the reader make of the German running under the seams? What does it mean for the piece? Is there a reason, some kind of resonance with this particular Rilke? “For me,” Thomas says, “thinking about fairly precise homophonic translation, there has to be some kind of reason to do it.” Like in the writing of a classical sonnet, “more is needed for success than iambic pentameter and appropriate end-rhymes, but the constraints of metre and rhyme provide inspiration for the poem’s direction. Homophonic translation can be more constraining, but I tend to think of it in the same way.”

For Bernhard, a work requires one set of notes, one specific orchestra, and it seems to me that what he means is the integrity of a piece depends upon the confluence of voice (language, tone) and meaning. So perhaps the elusive “more” a homophonic translation requires merely means staking a claim to the piece – “make it new,” someone once said.

In using the same notes, the relationship between the translation and source text becomes transformed into a dialogue between – a moving back and forth, rather than a movement away from one language to another. To continue with the metaphor, homophonic translation functions much the same way as a musical variation: the sense of the original melody is there, but it has been altered, somehow. It makes one wonder, what else can be said with this orchestra, these notes?

–S. Bernstein

Sarah Bernstein is a writer from Montreal. She currently lives in Fredericton, NB, where she edits poetry for The Fiddlehead and shelves books at a French-language library. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in CV2 and Room magazines.

  2 Responses to “The Boundless Chaos of Living Speech: A Homophonic Translation by Hugh Thomas & an Essay by Sarah Bernstein”

  1. Oh this makes me think we need another contest.

  2. I think you do. It looks like so much fun.

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