This is not a translation, or the homophonic fear

Remember, this is not a translation.

So reads the ‘disclaimer’ on a number of phonetically translated music videos, part of a meme explained pretty well here at These videos, which subtitle a non-English music video with English lyrics based on the sounds of the words, engage in the experimental literary practice homophonic translation, which translates a text based on sound relationships rather than meaning relationships, mapping a text by sound into a new language.

Zukofsky’s Catullus is the oft-cited example in any attempt to lend this practice literary credibility. And the Poetry Foundation’s biography of him says: “Zukofsky’s versions of Catullus are best described as transliterations rather than as translations, for they seek to reproduce the sound as well as the sense of Catullus’s Latin.” Even the poets are uncomfortable calling this translation.

Zukofsky, according to Ron Silliman’s blog entry on homophonic translation (an interesting seemingly authoritative look at it), was the first practitioner of this method of literary translation, though I’m willing to bet good research and a broader definition might turn up some earlier-than-2oth century instances. He certainly wasn’t the last – and technology (voice recognition, automated translation engines, etc.) have only added new ways of doing this. For example, Urayoán Noel read a Spanish poem into Dragon Dictation voice recognition software set to recognize English words to produce his performative homophonic translation of the Puerto Rican avant-garde poem Diepalic Orchestration.

The challenge, the choices, of literary translation – in fact, I might argue the very definition of literary translation – is that a literary text operates on many levels simultaneously. The two most obvious are sense and sound. When most people talk about translation, they mean translating the meaning of the words. This is, of course, fraught with difficulties in and of itself; cultural context weighs words with significances that move beyond a literal meaning. Dog in English brings up images of loyalty, friendship, companionship; the word that refers to the same animal in another language may carry connotations of disease, dirtiness and poverty. So translating “literally” or making the sense of a text primary, focusing only on meaning, is complex and full of problems. But it is still generally accepted that a ‘translation’ conveys the meaning of the source text in a new language.

Sound, for many literary texts, functions on a wholly different level. In songs, and in poems, sound is often primary. Sound is what strikes the reader/listener first, and is what engages the audience in the text. Poe writes in his “Philosophy of Composition” about choosing a sound to convey a desired meaning.

Having made up my mind to a refrain, the division of the poem into stanzas was of course a corollary, the refrain forming the close to each stanza. That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt, and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel in connection with r as the most producible consonant. The sound of the refrain being thus determined, it became necessary to select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest possible keeping with that melancholy which I had pre-determined as the tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely impossible to overlook the word “Nevermore.”

So in this case, which came first, the sound or the meaning? They’re inextricably linked. He determined the mood, and the sounds that conveyed the desired mood, and through those came to his word, his refrain, a word that has been so altered in context by his use of it that any contemporary use of it must acknowledge the allusion.

In any case, it’s clear that sound is as important, if not in some cases morseso, than sense. And that’s the premise from which these memes derive. By manipulating the sense of the sounds, and mostly attempting for humor and parody, these videos play with the same things that literary translators do. There are two basic categories for these videos: phonetic translations into English of songs that are originally sung in another language, and phonetic itra-English translations of songs that are originally sung in English. They push interesting boundaries differently.

The intra-English ones seem to work best when the words in English are not easily understood, or easily mis-understood. “Hold me closer, Tony Danza” is a standard mishearing of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”; “Rolled up like a douche” in Manfred Mann’s “Blinded By The Light” as interpreted here. The intent is comedy. The most successful versions of these not only translate the song homophonically from English to English, but illustrate the translated lyrics (which are often somewhat nonsensical, but grammatically cohesive sentences) with images. These ones aren’t even referred to as translations, but rather as ‘misheard lyrics,’ but translation is happening here, both linguistic and multi-media. The song is translated from English to English, and from word to image.

The ‘phonetic translation’ videos are almost mostly prefaced with a disclaimer:

The assumption is, I think, that we know Pearl Jam isn’t singing about a little gnome, whereas that crazy foreign Japanese pop song might actually be about Mongolian cheese. And that wacky Indian guy might be singing about gay nuns. Right? I mean, if the disclaimer is meant to prevent some unsuspecting viewer from thinking that the homophonic translation expresses the meaning of the original, then the assumption is that it’s plausible that these songs are as absurd as the homophonic translation makes them seem. And that’s distressingly ethno-centric to begin with.

Ok, so maybe the disclaimers are meant to do something else then. Emphasize the absurdity of the homophonic translation? Subordinate sound to sense, while still exclusively treating the sound of it? But if the English version is not a translation, then is it original composition?

Or is it, as this daring one claims, actually translation?

Anyone with a modicum of awareness knows that this woman is not singing about eating nipples. It is, as Silliman says about a literary work of homophonic translation, an “imaginative rendering of the original.” And though parody is the effect, humor the intent, isn’t it the same practice as what Zukofsky was doing? And the actual work of this is not just mapping the sound from one system to another, as Silliman describes, but creating an imaginative (or performative) rendering of the original.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not so, most of these phonetic translations develop an inner logic of their own. Because sound patterns are repeated in the song, the translations develop themes and motifs. In the most sophisticated imaginative renderings they even seem to engage with the images of the accompanying music video. This is true of the poetic homophonic translations also.

The creative act is not just in translating the sound, but making from those new sounds a new sense also, one that interacts with the original in an imaginative way. Urayoán’s translation emphasizes the performative – you can hear the pacing shift, the volume fluctuate, while reading it on the page. Silliman’s “Do We Know Ella Cheese?” emphasizes the humor. Silliman’s use of the wink-wink “(sic)” for example, rather than heavy “sick” in this stanza:

Is her hailed (sic) their held?
Selves stir,
undergone for him.

Like all acts of translation these phonetic or homophonic translations require imaginative engagement with the original texts. But not restricted to meaning-as-primary, and all other elements of the text an afterthought.

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