Saturday, August 30, 2003

My second example of what I might characterize as a noble shipwreck in poetry is Chris Tysh’s homophonic translations from the French, “Acoustic Room,” the brief third section of her book, Continuity Girl. Here is an example:


Second Chant


All on, Sultan, evoke two languages, debar us, my dizzy song key, sail

it o’er the parquet. The bandage is fine: man, front attention, hate

to lovey away; deal o Sally, edgy crossy, this bandolier, a travesty

of my visage. The result at nest pass infinite. Quart shimmies, places

of sand and dixie moochers. Any quarrel passes, a première aboard,

K Maldoror contains a tent design with dense arteries; car chassis figure,

numbril Kelly’s reflexes due cadaver. Mess infant, set Tecumseh.

Pewter quay set up pray tool and song, kaput, continue sans corpse and

illest, probably kill neon rest passbook. Assay, assay, Cheyenne avid;

lest the parquet tell kill it; to us Levant ramp lit. Any faux pas

contains deboarding; cartoon tar dress pays off me. To us convent meant

refuge, vatic cushy, dance in a channel; esteemed nature, densely boner;

car tune pants wrap us, alley fame, pending trust jury’s immense

grace aglow, bulky t’is, send dues, den, sir, a vicuña

satisfaction sullent meant visible. Toy Leman, prance ballet; I would

ray ocean rin her on; may Johnny pass the force.




Come on, Sultan, with your tongue, get rid of this blood that stains the floor. The dressing is done: my forehead dried and washed with saltwater, and I have crossed my face with bandages. The result is not infinite: four shirts full of blood and two handkerchiefs.


The first portion of this work, one of five in “Acoustic Room” is a homophonic translation – roughly syllable for syllable – of a passage of Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror; the second portion, the first few lines translated more literally. This is Isadore Ducasse’s original text:


Allons,Sultan, avec ta langue, débarrasse-moi de ce sang qui salit le parquet. Le bandage est fini: mon front étanché a été lavé avec de l'eau salée, et j'ai croisé des bandelettes à travers mon visage. Le résultat n'est pas infini: quatre chemises, pleines de sang et deux mouchoirs. On ne croirait pas, au premier abord, que Maldoror contînt tant de sang dans ses artères; car, sur sa figure, ne brillent que les reflets du cadavre. Mais, enfin, c'est comme ça. Peut-être que c'est à peu près tout le sang que pût contenir son corps, et il est assez probable qu'il n'en reste pas beaucoup. Assez, assez, chien avide; laisse le parquet tel qu'il est; tu as le ventre rempli. Il ne faut pas continuer de boire; car, tu ne tarderais pas à vomir. Tu es convenablement repu, va te coucher dans le chenil; estime-toi nager dans le bonheur; car, tu ne penseras pas à la faim, pendant trois jours immenses, grâce aux globules que tu as descendus dans ton gosier avec une satisfaction solennellement visible. Toi, Léman, prends un balai; je voudrais aussi en prendre un, mais je n'en ai pas la force.


The problem of this piece lies not at all in Tysh’s imaginative rendering of the original, nor in the original, but rather in the mapping of sound patterns from French to English. Homophonic translation goes back to Louis Zukofsky’s Catullus and has been practiced now by American poets for over 40 years. At one point the late Dick Higgins was hunting down examples for an anthology of such works, but I don’t believe that it ever got done. [Consumer alert: I’ve published one homophonic translation, “Do We Know Ella Cheese?” a rendering of Rilke – did I need to say that? – which can be found in Roof V.]


For my money, far & away the grandest example of the form is David Melnick’s Men in Aïda. Here is the first page of Book One, one of three completed by Melnick.


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.

     The stars' foe at eon are radix unique make his thigh

Leto's and Zeus's son. 0 garb a silly coal 0' they is

Noose on a nast rat-honor's sake, a can, a lick, on toe delay.

A neck, a ton, crews in a time, & ceteretera.

Atreides oh girl tit, oh aspen-y as Achaians.

Loosen' em us, tea, toga, trap her on tap (heresy a boy now).

Stem Attic on anchors, in neck cable. Oh Apollo on us.

Crews say oh Anna skip trochee, less set to pant as Achaians.

A tray id, a them, a list, a duo, 'cause met to rely on.

"A tray id I take. I alloy a uke, nay me day's Achaians.

Human men theoi doyen Olympia dome attic on teas.

Ech! Pursey Priam's pollen, eh? You'd eke a Dick his thigh.

Pay Dad, am I loose! Ate a pill. Lent Ada a pen to deck his thigh

As oh men idiots who unneck a bowl on Apollo on her."

      Nth alloy men panties up you fame as an Achaian.

Aida is thigh the aerie a gay eagle a deck thigh a boy now.

Alec Atreides Agamemnon and Danny the mo'


Melnick, who counts Greek among his several languages, gives a reading of this text that literally stuns its audience, for underneath its ribald surface he has managed to capture a remarkable presentation of the actual music of the original. You can close your eyes & almost hear it in either language. The Greek-to-English is simply possible, as is Zukfosky’s Latin-to-English. In contrast, there is just no way to bring across the sound of Allons,Sultan, avec ta langue with All on, Sultan, evoke two languages. More importantly, I don’t think there’s any way to improve what Tysh has very ably done. The disjunct, the absolute gap, between each language as a system of sound organization is too great.


This suggests that homophonic translation is not a neutral form – it favors those source languages (and their poets) whose sound patterns most closely approximate the target language of the transformed piece. This may explain why I cannot recall ever reading a homophonic translation, say, from an Asian language.


I simply don’t know if there is a tradition of homophonia in Oulipo or other languages, or if the form is specifically American (one might argue that its dynamics replicate the treasure collecting instincts of centuries of exploration by Westciv hegemons, that a homophonic translation isn’t necessarily that different from seeing an Egyptian tomb on the edge of Central Park). From my perspective, a more telling question is whether or not it’s possible, if there should not be a fortuitous correspondence of tones between source & targe languages, to assert other values in the homophonic translation, to make it anything other than a statement about this ghost dance of tongues.