Teaching Homophonic Translation
While various methods of appropriative writing have become more popular with the rise of Conceptual Poetry, they have yet to make their presence felt to a large degree in undergraduate creative writing classrooms. When the use of found language does make its way into a creative writing course, it typically occurs at the graduate level in institutions that favor, or merely tolerate, avant-garde writing practices. At the graduate level, however, while students might be free to experiment, there is rarely outright instruction concerning appropriative writing. As a result, the teaching of appropriative writing has largely been under-theorized.
One notable exception is discussed in Kenneth Goldsmith’s pedagogical essay “Uncreative Writing in the Classroom: A Disorientation,” in which he describes an “Uncreative Writing” course he began teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004. While the majority of the essay follows the conventional model for a discussion of creative writing pedagogy, in that the primary focus is on outlining various writing exercises, the class itself is so unusual that the essay becomes anything but conventional. Goldsmith’s course is centered on the teaching of “strategies of appropriation, replication, plagiarism, piracy, sampling, plundering, as compositional methods,” and the essay is particularly notable for its justification for why such strategies provide useful skills for creative writing students who, he explains, are already highly trained in the more conventional modes of self-expression such as description and narration. This “uncreative writing” is meant to provide students with a more well-rounded set of skills, an additional mode to which they may turn at various points in their writing. Rather than deepening an already existing set of skills, Goldsmith’s course model focuses on broadening the variety of skill sets, of bringing the “multidimensionality” of language to the forefront.
In the following paper, I will discuss how another appropriative writing method, known as homophonic translation, might be taught in a creative writing course. Much like Goldsmith’s course, homophonic translation is able to broaden the scope of creative writing by introducing an additional set of possibilities to students in their work that encourages them to experience another dimension to language. As a compositional method, homophonic translation requires students to feel out and turn over the various phonetic possibilities of letters, words, and large pieces of text as they attempt to transform written language into something new, into their own poetry. The method is defined as a sound-based translation, most commonly bound by the rule of near-homophony, in which the sounds of a source text are semi-replicated. An example would be the transformation of “I live beneath the trees” into “olive bean eat cherries.”
Homophonic translation presents a special case of appropriative writing, as its rules have never been clearly defined in such a way that would allow students to grasp the concept and then use the method in any context other than odd but playful writing exercises that produce largely interesting but rather nonsensical results. After pointing out the problematically vague descriptions of homophonic translation, stemming from the lack of precision in the idea of “near-homophony,” I will explain my own series of rules that I argue will help students understand and implement the method to greater effect. Finally, I will end by offering an outline of a three-week unit on homophonic translation that I myself have used in an introductory level creative writing course.
Among the primary reasons why homophonic translation has so rarely been taught is that there exist very few poets who are active practitioners of the method. Few full-length books of homophonic translation have ever been published. Included among these major works are Howard L. Chace’s Anguish Languish (1956), Louis and Celia Zukofsky’s Catullus (1969), and most recently, William R. Howe’s translanations one (2009), and Clint Burnham’s The Benjamin Sonnets (2009). Each of these works was composed using a method of approximation rather than pure homophony. Charles Bernstein, in The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, describes homophonic translation thusly: “Take a poem, or part of a poem, in a foreign language and translate it word for word according to what it sounds like in English. …Don’t use a dictionary, just rely on what your ears here and go from there.” This is significant in several ways. For one, this is among the most widespread and most-quoted definitions of homophonic translation available. Second, it restricts homophonic translation to being across languages, rather than also potentially within one language. Finally, his only rule is approximation: there is neither a guiding linguistic principle nor an attention to the individual letter and/or phoneme. I find this definition to be incomplete because while near-homophony is the goal, it is never explained how “near” a translation must be to the source text. Could “May I have a nickel” translate to “Mauve anvil”, for example? How loose is too loose? A clearer set of rules or guidelines for homophonic translation could help to minimize these concerns while providing students with a more defined approach in the classroom.
While Howe succeeds in translating within a language, specifically from English to English, like Bernstein he ignores the phonemic level, having “reduced the compositional unit to the level of the word.” The problem of approximation is potentially derived from this lack of desire to move beyond the word level and into the level of the letter/phoneme. If a series of rules were drawn up based on translating word by word, then the number of rules would need to be either extremely complicated or else be as plentiful in number as there are words in a dictionary so as to account for the wide range of translatable material. In order to bypass this problem, attention must be brought to the level of the letter, which is the most indivisible unit of written language. In the English alphabet, there are only twenty-six letters, which represent a far more manageable quantity than the amount of words that exist in the language.
Thus, I seek to redefine homophonic translation as the process of re-sounding a source text based on each individual letter’s potential for sound, departing from the narrow field of homophony, and expanding into the space that exists between written and spoken language, which is the disconnect that makes homophonic translation possible. This becomes clear when we take into account, for example, the fact that the 5-letter word taken can be spelled 5,157,936 different ways while maintaining the same sound; of course, only one of these spellings is “correct,” but the point remains that letters and phonemes are far from representing a one-to-one correlation. Given my revised definition, homophonic translation is held to a specific rule governed by the reality of how written language is sounded. Following this rule of re-sounding, the word cat can be translated into sash, because a c can make an s sound (as in cede), and a t can make a sh sound (as in ratio). Similarly, most letters have the potential to be silent, including g (as in gnome), b (as in numb), and k (as in knife). Because the underlying form of the letter does not match the surface form of the phoneme, letters can be re-sounded to create new, homophonically translated text. As a result, cat can also be translated into cash or sat or shat or at or ash or sate or Kate or catch or sad or shade or add, etc. I have counted more than sixty-five different possible translations of cat alone, so it is easy to imagine the exponentially larger amount of ways to translate, for instance, the Wikipedia article on the domestic house cat. The number of different possible translations could fill a library, and surely at least a few could constitute fascinating poetry or even prose. This rule of re-sounding, then, allows for an open, repeatable, and more clearly teachable method of homophonic translation.
One may question whether the re-sounding method can be called “homophonic translation” at all, given that cat sounds nothing like sash, and if the source text were a sound clip then I would absolutely agree. But a written text maintains a great deal of variability regarding how it may produce sound. Take, for example, the word lead. Read one way, it rhymes with bed. Read another way, it rhymes with feed. Until one chooses to read the word one way or the other, it maintains the potential for both. The sounding of any written text represents a conscious choice to pronounce the sequence of letters a particular way. The text’s sound, as well as its meaning, is activated by a reader. Without the reader, it remains code, and we are reminded that ties between text and meaning are socially and actively constructed. This active construction is often taken for granted, however, and so we must defamiliarize the familiar meaning in order for new meanings to arise—meanings that are also actively constructed. The only difference is that the constructor is aware of the process and the variety of choices available as part of the process.
Part of the value of teaching homophonic translation in the creative writing classroom indeed comes from Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of defamiliarization, which he sees as an ultimate objective of art. Shklovsky writes, “If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic.” Art, then, is meant “to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” In the re-sounding method of homophonic translation, Shklovsky’s concept of defamiliarization plays a major role because in re-sounding a text, one must first defamiliarize the text. When translating within one language, the drive to make sense out of language can be restrictive; it is difficult to see cat and not read it as meaning “feline.” Once cat is made unfamiliar, as a sequence of three letters with a number of possible sounds for each letter, one is able to consciously re-enter the space of meaning-making, rather than merely accepting or receiving the standard meaning of cat as feline, and create a new text out of raw material based on the variety of choices at one’s disposal. The difference is similar to the difference between a restaurant telling you what your order will be versus you ordering for yourself from a large menu. Homophonic translation offers choices, but one must first defamiliarize the text in order to become aware of these choices.
One critic in particular, Pierre Joris, applies this idea of defamiliarization to translation through a call for poets to consider the concept of the nomad as a key metaphor for poetry in this new millennium. He writes that “Poetry is…a desire to feel everywhere estranged, in touch with or at least reaching for the other, out of house & home. …The basic desire of poetry is therefore nomadic.” Joris, as both poet and translator, brings into the long conversation of Russian Formalism and estrangement the sense of movement between two locations that translation inherently implies. The nomad metaphor is particularly notable in that there is never a fixed definition; rather, there are series of “mawâqif” or temporary resting places. I believe an English to English translation of a text through a method of re-sounding enacts the desire for estrangement Joris locates in poetry. Likewise, the restlessness of the nomad metaphor is important to consider in the context of how homophonic translation destabilizes written text and makes it fluid, providing text the potential to morph over and over again, ad infinitum.
While teaching homophonic translation in the creative writing classroom might certainly provide an opportunity for students to gain insight into the fields of poetics and literary theory, I believe that exposing students to this kind of work and having them work first-hand with the method of re-sounding can provide more practical knowledge and skills also. Instead of deepening students’ understanding of and skill with the genre conventions of fiction, poetry, or memoir, practice with homophonic translation works to re-focus students’ attention on language by deepening their understanding of its sounds and textures and by allowing them to experience the plasticity and complexity of the medium in which they work. Rather than using clichés and other types of well-worn, “automatic” language, homophonic translation encourages students to evaluate language based on their own aesthetic valuation while also providing moments of surprise when a word comes up through the process of translation that the writer may never have considered otherwise. Students are required to be more active in their composing, and this tends to eliminate the dull and the typical from their language. The resulting writing, I’ve found, is often well-populated with imaginative phrasings and compelling images that otherwise may never have appeared had the students simply composed in the standard fashion of head to hand to blank sheet of paper or word document.
In addition to encouraging surprising and imaginative language, homophonic translation also lends itself, similar to other appropriative methods such as erasure, to radical projects of re-writing. Just as groups like the Situationist Collective and Ad-Busters have re-purposed advertisements and slogans to serve as critique against capitalism, homophonic translation allows students to take a text, such as a page from Mein Kampf, and literally make it say something else by re-sounding the text into poetry or even into a critique of anti-Semitism or a message of advocacy for those persecuted as a result of their faith. In this way, the classroom becomes a forum in which students are allowed to realize their agency in transforming or effecting change in the world or, at the very least, are given the opportunity to consider the role of creative writing in political and ethical spheres. While not works of homophonic translation, recent books, such as Travis Macdonald’s The O Mission Repo (2008), an erasure of The 9/11 Commission Report, and M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), which appropriates language from legal documents dealing with the Zong Massacre court case, have demonstrated the potential for appropriation-based work to address social injustice and bring the reader’s attention to these often hidden concerns in the source texts themselves. Toward this end, homophonic translation presents a scenario unique from most other appropriation methods in that the resulting translation exists as a possible way for the source text to be read. Just as one could read c-a-t as sash, one could also read a page of Mein Kampf as an elegy for those who have died at Auschwitz, provided that the writer performing homophonic translation on the text steers the translation in that direction, which is completely feasible given the wide range of ways a text may be re-sounded. By showing how these methods can be used to do something in the world, students begin to understand that creative writing has value that extends beyond the aesthetic realm and into the social.
In my experience teaching homophonic translation, the majority of students at minimum succeed in composing pieces with interesting and compelling language; often, these pieces feature glimmers of brilliance, though the work as a whole often lacks cohesion. Each semester, however, there are inevitably a few students who turn in translations that are quite powerful. One student, for example, took a great deal of time with the re-sounding process in translating a speech given by Adolf Hitler, and this effort, I believe, is what led to the success he found with the piece. In particular, this student benefitted from the knowledge that nearly every letter in English appears in silent form in certain contexts, as with the g in sign, giving him more freedom to re-sound the source text in a new way. The student explains this process in his critical statement:
The first step I took while creating the piece was to highlight in my word document all of the “non-silent letters” that I couldn’t erase from the speech; f, q, v, and y. Each of the letters needed to be used in the work, so I began to form words around those letters. At first I began by forming abstract words that contradicted the original text. Some of these words were harm, war, hope, peace, etc. Once I had identified these words, I began to build in my mind the opinion that I would express throughout my work.
In this instance, the student successfully read something new, something outside of the text’s original intention, and transcribed that reading in the form of translation. Just as one could re-sound cat as sash, this student took an unethical text and transformed it into something else, perhaps something more ethical. Homophonic translation, through this re-sounding method, thus presents an opportunity for students to study intensely the most minute parts of language, to become aware of new linguistic possibilities, and to exercise a degree of ethical agency in re-sounding texts.
Because homophonic translation is so rarely taught, I will now present an outline for how I think it can be taught based on my own experiences with teaching the method in undergraduate courses. The specific context of this outline implies an Introduction to Creative Writing course that meets twice weekly for seventy-five minutes at a time. The unit spans three and a half weeks and culminates in a small-group workshop of students’ homophonic translations.
Week 1, Tuesday: Introduce homophonic translation as a composition method. I find that it helps to begin by discussing the history and background of homophonic translation. While he was not quite a poet, Jean-Pierre Brisset (1837-1919) presents a useful starting point, as he believed that homophony between different words indicated an underlying connection in meaning; and while his belief was inaccurate, Brisset made a practice of playing with homophonous word groupings, representative of a sort of proto-homophonic translation. Importantly, Brisset’s play with language occurred exclusively within his native French, as opposed to across languages. Howard L. Chace’s Anguish Languish (1956) serves as possibly the earliest example of a book-length work of homophonic translation, and it is also significant to note that Chace worked within a single language, specifically English. It was not until the Oulipo group took up homophonic translation in the 1960s that homophonic translation occurred more commonly across different languages, particularly as a form of mis-translation. The Oulipian style is the method that ultimately became more well-known among poets as the Zukofskys, David Melnick, and Charles Bernstein came to produce work in this vein. Only recently, with the publication of William Howe’s translanations one in 2010, has there been renewed interest in homophonic translation within a single language. Still, the intention toward near-homophony has remained prevalent. Have your students refer to this style of near-homophony as “the approximation method.” This will help them to understand the essential differences between this standard definition and the re-sounding method.
In explaining the re-sounding method to students, be sure to provide some brief, easy-to-follow examples on the board, such as cat into sash. Point to how the c can make an s sound and how the t can make a sh sound. Once it seems that students understand these examples, begin to talk more generally about the rules of this method of homophonic translation in terms of how text is re-sounded based on each letter’s potential for sound. Distribute a handout that provides a list of sounds (or phonemes) that each letter can make. This will serve as something of a cheat-sheet for students as they experiment with homophonic translation.
Announce an assignment, due on Tuesday of the fourth week, in which students are required to write a homophonic translation of at least 100 words of source text. Tell them that their choice of source text is up to them, but have them respond to the question: What do you wish that you could re-read, through this re-sounding method, into saying something else?
Week 1, Thursday: Have students read Chace’s Anguish Languish, the full text of which is conveniently available online and is easily found through a quick Google search. The book features Chace’s translations of various fairy tales (“Furry Tells”) and other famous tales (“Fey-Mouse Tells”), including Little Red Riding Hood (“Ladle Rat Rotten Hut”) and Cinderella (“Center Alley”), as well as a number of nursery rhymes (“Noisier Rams”) and well-known songs and ditties (“Lath Thing Thumb Thongs!”). Because students will likely be familiar with a few of the source texts, Anguish Languish provides a clear example of how the approximation method defamiliarizes the visual elements of the text while maintaining some auditory shadow of the original work. It also showcases how easily language can become defamiliarized. Perhaps it may be useful here to discuss whether one’s knowledge of the source text is necessary to understand or follow Chace’s translations. Or do the translations stand up well enough on their own? How do students receive the translations derived from stories versus those derived from verse? Does the form make a difference? What is it like reading Anguish Languish silently versus reading it aloud?
Week 2, Tuesday: Students will have read from William Howe’s translanations one, which features homophonic translations of Emily Dickinson poems, and, perhaps for the benefit of the reader, numbers each translation to correspond with the translated Dickinson poem. It may be a good idea to have students bring in the Dickinson poem that corresponds to their favorite of Howe’s translations. This way, students can read the original and the translation back to back aloud in class, so that everyone is able to hear what level of proximity Howe was able to accomplish through the approximation method. See if students can pick out places where the sound matches up well and places where it does not.
In referring to Howe’s “Afterword” at the end of the book, discuss Howe’s motivations for writing these translations, which deal in large part with his own experience with dyslexia. Of particular note is Howe’s idea of “lexical subjectivity,” which suggests that homophonic translation allows for the writer’s own language to surface in place of the source text’s language. This is similar to a Rorschach test, although instead of seeing a field of flowers in an ink blot, one might find, as Howe does, “Shaven mylar plan, elides aberrant” in Dickinson’s “Within my Garden, rides a bird.” Lexical subjectivity, in other words, takes note of how a writer’s subjectivity affects the words that appear in the translation. Have students try to re-build the subjectivity of the author of translanations one by examining the kinds of words that frequently appear throughout the book. What can these word choices tell us about the subject?
Week 2, Thursday: After having students read and discuss examples of homophonic translation that employ the approximation method, start bringing the conversation more directly to linguistics. The approximation method, for instance, represents an attempt to approximate a string of phonemes (sounds) while using a different set of graphemes (letters). The re-sounding method, meanwhile, can be demonstrated linguistically by writing the graphemes c-a-t on the board, with each grapheme’s corresponding phonemes running below. Below c would be the different sounds a c can make, and so forth. The order of graphemes, which represents the syntagmatic level, is set. The translator’s job is then to work along the paradigmatic level, which is commonly the level of diction, and to make choices regarding how to sound each letter. I have found this visual representation very useful in helping students to understand how they might work to create their own homophonic translations in this way. Likewise, the handout featuring a list of sounds each letter can make offers a valuable shortcut.
Week 3, Tuesday: It is important to reserve a day for students to practice as a group the method of re-sounding. Writing one phrase or sentence on the board at a time, have students shout out possible translations. It may be best to go word by word at first, as a group, before giving students the opportunity to work individually to translate a shared source text. Even having students translate a short sample sentence, like “Translate this sentence,” is bound to produce a wide variety of translations from the class. By practicing together, not only will students recognize the immense variety of translations available through re-sounding, but also, in reading the different translations aloud, the class is likely to have a good time laughing at some of the sillier results.
Week 3, Thursday: While students prepare to bring their assignments in for workshop the following class period, use this day to discuss homophonic translation as a potentially radical act of textual transformation. What is the significance or consequence of translating, for example, a message of hate? Of turning it into something else? Of making it say something else? What about the possibility of someone using homophonic translation to silence others? To re-sound the testimony of a victim of sexual assault, for example? Surely not every example of a writer translating a source text in this way will present such an extreme scenario, but where should we draw the line? In addition to having students think about the various theoretical and political concerns in play here, such a discussion should also encourage students to consider what role, if any, art has to play in the realms of politics and ethics.
Week 4, Tuesday: Finally, have students get together in small groups of three or four to share, discuss, and critique each other’s homophonic translations. Suggest that they talk about the aesthetics of each piece, the various meanings conveyed, the process itself, as well as their choice of source text, including why they chose it and how it relates to or informs their translation.
The unit plan described above has the ultimate objective of initial exposure to homophonic translation. It is not meant to create a class of homophonic translators, and one should not have such an expectation. Homophonic translation represents an opportunity for students to add a new dimension to their understanding of language and how they might use language in new and original ways, while also encouraging students to consider the potential of creative writing to effect change in the world through an intentional use of appropriative writing methods.
 Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 201.
 Ibid., 217.
 Charles Bernstein, “Homophonic Translation,” The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, ed. By Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), 126.
 William Howe, translanations one, (Buffalo, NY: BlazeVOX Books, 2009), 118.
 Godfrey Dewey, English Spelling: Roadblock to Reading, (New York: Teachers College Press, 1971), 9.
 Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” Russian Formalist Criticism, ed. By Paul A. Olson, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), 11.
 Ibid., 12.
 Pierre Joris, A Nomad Poetics: Essays, (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003), 46.
Bernstein, Charles. “Homophonic Translation.” The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach. Eds. Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. New York: Harper Collins, 1992. 126-128.
Dewey, Godfrey. English Spelling: Roadblock to Reading. New York: Teachers College Press, 1971.
Goldsmith, Kenneth. Uncreative Writing. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
Howe, William R. translanations one. Buffalo: BlazeVOX Books, 2009.
Joris, Pierre. A Nomad Poetics: Essays. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003.
Shklovsky, Victor. “Art as Technique.” Russian Formalist Criticism. Ed. Paul A. Olson. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.