Monday, October 31, 2011

Homophonic Telephone

In elementary school, we played a game called telephone - you whisper a phrase in someone's ear; they whisper it in someone else's ear and on and on. The original phrase inevitably gets garbled. There is a bit of propaganda in the game: the lesson that rumors get exaggerated and the truth gets distorted in oral communication. True as this may be, I prefer to not let the literal get in the way of a good story or good literature.

A friend suggested telephone as model for an experiment with homophonic translation, translation that reproduces sound rather than meaning (see previous blog contest posts here and here). The idea is to take a poem, homophonically translate it into another language then have the new text homophonically translated into another language and on and on until it ends back in English, changed by its trans-lingual travel.

I'm looking for translators for the experiment - preferably ones whose native language is not English. Email me at if you are interested. I'll post the results on my blog to show the progression of the text.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Burial Verse

This verse, translated by Richmond Lattimore, is from a gold burial tablet found in a Grecian grave.

You will find to the left of the House of Hades a spring,
And by the side thereof standing a white cypress.
To this spring approach not near.
But you shall find another, from the lake of Memory
Cold water flowing forth, and there are guardians before it.
Say, "I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven;
But my race is of Heaven alone. This you know yourselves.
But I am parched with thirst and I perish. Give me quickly
the cold water flowing forth from the lake of Memory."
And of themselves they will give you to drink of the holy spring:
And thereafter you will have lordship among the other heroes.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Midway through this life of ours...

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Tant’ è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.

Memory and Forgetting

Passports last ten years. Mine never fails to get odd looks at TSA (I was in a shaggy hair contest when the photo was taken). 7 years have gone since then... I think of growing out my hair sometimes, forgetting how it didn't suit me, thinking I liked it. So easy to forget the past in favor of the invented country of memory, the place where we construct what never was...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

from the Greek Anthology

Unhappy men, why do we travel so,
emptily optimistic before death?
Here was Seleukos, perfect of his kind
in talk and manners, briefly at his prime:
on the far edge of Spain, a world from Lesbos,
he lies a stranger on the unmeasured coast.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


A friend recently introduced me to a lovely pair of German antonyms - Heimweh (homesickness) and Fernweh (faraway sickness). The latter word doesn't have an exact parallel in English. The closest word is probably wanderlust. In traditional American music, one afflicted with fernweh would be called a rambler. 

A man gives an injunction to his lover in the blues song Leavin': "Don't let my leavin' grieve you. When it comes to rambling, lord, I'm natural born." This other side of leaving, of wandering - the pain of loved ones left behind - is portrayed nicely in the Odyssey. Euryclia bemoans Telamachus' decision to travel to Pylos and Sparta, crying "Why, dear child, what craziness got into your head? / Why bent on rambling over the earth? / ...Don't go roaming over the barren salt sea / no need to suffer so (2.401-409)!" 

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh's mother offers similar sentiments in her prayer to the godess Shamash: "Why have you imposed--nay, inflicted!--a restless heart on / my son, Gilgamesh! / Now you have touched him so that he wants to travel (3.45-48)..." 

Fernweh is portrayed in both epics as a curse, a cause of suffering . Perhaps it is, but no use telling that to the traveler. And perhaps fermweh isn't so antonyminous to heimweh. Perhaps fernweh/wanderlust is a type of home sickness - a longing for a yet undiscovered home.

Horace asks his friend Grosphus "Why do we aim at so much in our short years? / Why trade our home for lands warmed /  by other suns? No one can expatriate himself from himself (Odes, 2.16)." We may know better. But we long. And we try.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Fragment

My friend sent me these lines she found on a notecard stuck in a book I'd borrowed ages ago. I barely remember writing them but they seem important now. Something about St. Christopher...

    Imagine that impossible weight, the muck
    of the river's bed sucking at my feet,
    every step grudged. Infant in arm.
    What was he doing so far from home?
    Grace was lighter.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Homophonic Translation Contest - Winners

I've received some excellent entries to my homophonic translation contest. Entrants translated, sound for sound rather than sense for sense, a Latin poem by Horace. It was interesting to see how translators worked in different ways with the same material. I was torn between two entries so am calling the contest a tie between Laura Vorgias and Katharina Müller. Both winners will receive a copy of Willis Barnstone's "The Poetics of Translation."

Horaces original text:

  Persicos odi, puer, apparatus;
  displicent nexae philyra coronae;
  mitte sectari rosa quo locorum
  sera moretur.

  Simplici myrto nihil adlabores
  sedulus curo; neque te ministrum
  dedecet myrtus neque me sub arta
  vite bibentem.

Laura Vorgias' flapper/jazz translation. The narrative voice of a despondent libertine searching for identity is nicely maintained as is the telegraph style of language:

  Percy, couz oh dear, a pair of twos;
  This place ain’t nice and full of Corona;
  Might have sent for eras ago local or
  By motor.

  Simply I mirror tonight hell, and labors
  Are dully cured; next to my mystery
  The descent to minor next, myself, and to
  Vie to give in to them.

Katharina Müller's German homophonic translation captures the sounds of Horace in a more surreal way (see literal version below):

  Per se kost' des - puh äh - ein Apparat unn
  des bitzelt! Nix viel üwwerkoche, ne?
  Mit de Sekretärin unn rosa Kohl, locker rum
  sehr am Ohr nur.

  Sie blitze! Unn mer tobe nie hier, alla Boris?
  Seh du - koch ne Ente mindestens um
  de Dienstzeit. Mer tuns net, gell, mer suche aach do
  wie de Bieberturm.

  (Per se it costs - phew, er - a machine and
  it tickles! Don't let it boil over too much
  With the secretary and pink cabbage, loosely hanging
  but close to the ear.

  They're flashing! And we are never romping here, so Boris?
  Look - cook a duck at least for
  working hours. We don't do it, you know, we are looking for it there
  like the beaver tower).

Friday, October 14, 2011

Odysseus in the Underworld

I've been reading the Fagles translation of the Odyssey in preparation for teaching. The preface has an interesting note on Odysseus as portrayed in Dante's Inferno. Dante places Odysseus in the lower rings of Hell where he burns eternally for deceiving the Trojans. Most of Canto XXVI is dedicated to a monologue by Odysseus on how his restless heart compelled him to once again leave his family and set sail into the Atlantic where he drowned, just in sight of land:


mi diparti' da Circe, che sottrasse
  me piu` d'un anno la` presso a Gaeta,
  prima che si` Enea la nomasse,

ne' dolcezza di figlio, ne' la pieta
  del vecchio padre, ne' 'l debito amore
  lo qual dovea Penelope' far lieta,

vincer potero dentro a me l'ardore
  ch'i' ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto,
  e de li vizi umani e del valore;

ma misi me per l'alto mare aperto
  sol con un legno e con quella compagna
  picciola da la qual non fui diserto.

L'un lito e l'altro vidi infin la Spagna,
  fin nel Morrocco, e l'isola d'i Sardi,
  e l'altre che quel mare intorno bagna.

Io e ' compagni eravam vecchi e tardi
  quando venimmo a quella foce stretta
  dov'Ercule segno` li suoi riguardi,

accio` che l'uom piu` oltre non si metta:
  da la man destra mi lasciai Sibilia,
  da l'altra gia` m'avea lasciata Setta.

"O frati", dissi "che per cento milia
  perigli siete giunti a l'occidente,
  a questa tanto picciola vigilia

d'i nostri sensi ch'e` del rimanente,
  non vogliate negar l'esperienza,
  di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente.

Considerate la vostra semenza:
  fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
  ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza".

Li miei compagni fec'io si` aguti,
  con questa orazion picciola, al cammino,
  che a pena poscia li avrei ritenuti;

e volta nostra poppa nel mattino,
  de' remi facemmo ali al folle volo,
  sempre acquistando dal lato mancino.

Tutte le stelle gia` de l'altro polo
  vedea la notte e 'l nostro tanto basso,
  che non surgea fuor del marin suolo.

Cinque volte racceso e tante casso
  lo lume era di sotto da la luna,
  poi che 'ntrati eravam ne l'alto passo,

quando n'apparve una montagna, bruna
  per la distanza, e parvemi alta tanto
  quanto veduta non avea alcuna.

Noi ci allegrammo, e tosto torno` in pianto,
  che' de la nova terra un turbo nacque,
  e percosse del legno il primo canto.

Tre volte il fe' girar con tutte l'acque;
  a la quarta levar la poppa in suso
  e la prora ire in giu`, com'altrui piacque,

infin che 'l mar fu sovra noi richiuso."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Housman - Shropshire Lad, IV.

Two months ago, I walked up and down Argir sand reciting this poem to the wind and rain.

A.E Housman- Shropshire Lad, IV. 

It is no gift I tender,
  A loan is all I can;
But do not scorn the lender;
  Man gets no more from man.

Oh, mortal man may borrow
  What mortal man can lend;
And 'twill not end to-morrow,
  Though sure enough 'twill end.

If death and time are stronger,
  A love may yet be strong;
The world will last for longer,
  But this will last for long.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Translation Contest Update

It's fall in Michigan. It feels like Faroe but with trees. I opened my email this morning to find the first foreign language entry to my homophonic translation contest in my inbox. This entry, in German, came with a literal translation version in English. I'll share my favorite line, a piece of practical culinary advice - "Look - cook a duck at least for / working hours." 

Six more days left. Keep the submissions coming.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Housman in Translation

Here is a translation of Housman's Latin elegy for Moses Jackson. I laboriously pieced it together from snippet views of Google books - all worth it for more Housman. The verse is from Housman's critical Latin edition of Manilius' Astronomica, a 1st century text on astrology. I've been reading Housman's four slim volumes for seven years and had thought I'd read every bit of him. Finding this was like Christmas.

Those starry signs that freak with light
The frosty caverns of the night,
Sea-born and bright when daylight dies—
Together we have watched them rise,

Late wandering, where fields lay wide,
The lone and silent countryside.
So once, while still our place was blank,
The poet watched them where they sank,

Setting below the Latian sea;
And, mindful of mortality,
Earth-sprung nor spared from earth for long,
He looked aloft and launched his song

Against the everlasting stars—
Alas! to leave, with many scars,
A warning, all too plain, of odds
Which mock the man who trusts the gods.

For, though to Heaven dedicate,
With all the universe for freight,
His verses found misfortune fast,
And, washed upon our strand at last,

Shipwrecked and battered, blurred and lame,
They scarce can tell their maker's name.
 I have not plied, importunate,
The stars that harass human fate

Nor, begging guidance from above,
Besieged the gods, but, touched with love
Of mortal glory swift to fade,
Have sought a name through human aid

And, man, have chosen among men,
To stead no heaven-assailing pen,
A comrade, mortal-lived but stout,
Whose name shall bring my volume out –

'O comrade', let me say, 'whose name
May perish with my pages' fame,
Yet worthy through thine own to live:
From human hand to hand, I give —

To thee who followest away
Those rising signs, to seek the day —
This present from a western shore:
Take it: to-morrow runs before,

With those whom life no longer owns
To lay our flesh and loose our bones –
To dull with all-benumbing thrust
Our wits that wake not from the dust

Nor spare, with learning's lettered leaf,
The bonds of fellowship as brief.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Translation Contest Update

So far, I have received two entries for my homophone translation contest, one flapper/jazz version about a party and another about purses. Both entries are well done and very different from one another. It seems homophonic translation is a sort of literary Rorschach test reflecting interests, concerns, personality. I'm interested to see what comes in over the wires in the next two weeks.

Sidenote: entries need not be in English as long as they are accompanied by a literal translation of the homophonic translation.

Sigh No More