Prepared Language: On homophonic translation

A famous homophonic translation of the Indian-Tamil movie Pennin Manathai Thottu 


after Heine

that is to say a floating ray gun
a fat and daring trumpet
a chowmeinrental feeling
the auntwool of what’s Hertzcar true

that is to say a Klingon droning
a pocket of fat eyes
wishing and clucking like bookstore stones
I love you like English


I've been exploring homophonic translation lately, mainly of Heine, Rilke, and German translations of Dickinson, though I've done some Aase Berg and Rene Char. The change in language and the range of sounds and associations affects the sound, tone, and word choice of my English. Also, I am swayed by the words' resemblances to English words and also by my knowledge (real, imagined, or partial) of what a word actually means in its source language. Another significant influence is what I know about the original author -- what I know or imagine the original text is about, or what semantic or grammatical range it exists in. I know Rilke never wrote about lacrosse or was concerned with gritty street life and how it is framed by structure issues of poverty and marginalization.

In these translations, I have deliberately avoided editing out words that I would normally avoid in my writing. For example, I have used the word 'wang' in one poem, though I likely would never have chosen the word if not guided by the German.  I deliberately try to avoid making conscious decisions about the overall meaning of the poem that I am constructing when I am doing a first homophonic run-through. Then I go back and see what has evolved and revise accordingly. Of course, I know that I am aware on some level of what is occurring as I am doing it and this sways my choices. I am also trying to allow myself to opt for word choices that are surprising to me and present associational issues. For example, in the above poem, the proper nouns, Klingon and Hertz. After having read some of Aase Berg's Transfer Fat (in the great translation from the Swedish by Johannes Goransson), I'm also trying to incorporate neologisms or portmanteau words into my translation. Hence the above "chowmeinrental." I hope to capture something of the viscerality, the verbal tangibility or palpability,  as well as the polyvalent associationality of Berg's use of portmanteau.

I have used source texts that are longer (for example longer Rilke texts such as from the Duino Elegies) which are formally and thematically more expansive and varied. This is reflected in my translations. I also have been exploring short rhyming lyrics (Heine, Dickinson, Rilke) and can then play against  the very compressed and simple text. I should say though, that, when revising, I allow myself to fairly freely edit particularly the form of the longer forms. The short texts I try to keep consonant with the original verse form of the original lyric.

It's obvious to me what is translated in these texts. I am aware of the powerful influence of form, tone, rhythm, restricted lexicon, word order and length, pacing, as well as the less tangible things such as my association with the text, language, writer, and tradition and my notion of what kind of thing appears in a poem by the author. I'm surprised by what the originals and the process of homophonic translation enable in me, what it facilitates, encourages, and inspires.

I think of homophonic translation like a prepared piano. But, it's prepared language. Press a key and see what happens.