Tuesday, April 19, 2005


In transliteration, you take a poem written in a language that is foreign to you, translate the sounds of the words into your language, and shape it into a poem. In the example below, Josh Corey has taken an excerpt from Dante’s Fifth Canto of Inferno, written in Italian, and done a transliteration of the sounds of the words (not the meanings), into English. His transliterated poem is at times funny and at times incomprehensible, but always fun. It can be very surprising what you can come up with:

Here are a few of the lines in the Italian:

Si tosto come il vento a noi li piega,
Mossi la voce: “O anime affannate,
Venite a noi parlar, s’altri nol niega!”

Which in English means:

No sooner had the wind bent them toward us
That I urged on my voice: “Oh battered souls,
If One does not forbid it, speak with us.”

And here are the corresponding lines of Corey’s poem (which originally appeared in the Boston Review):

The Kitchen of Francesca and Paolo
Inferno, Canto V

See the toast? I come vending a vile pirogie
in mossy lavatory to overhear: "O animate fiancée,
a benison on your parlor. Alter no nearer!"

Alternatively, you can chose a text that is not from literature, as the basis of your transliteration. In the example below, I have taken “The Quadratic Equation:"

x = (-b +/- √(b2 - 4ac))/2a

(which, in English, reads: "x equals a negative b plus or minus the square root of b squared minus 4 a c all over 2 a") and transliterated it into a poem called “The New Math:”

The New Math

Thunk ward rat: “techy-crazed young!”
Sexy squalls, an agate if be. Pleasure, mine,
awes this choir, rude, of bisque wared,
mynahs far racing — a lover to egg.

Admittedly, it is pretty non-sensical. But it was so fun to do. And who knows, maybe "mynahs far racing" or "a lover to egg" may make it into a new poem?

Exercise: choose a poem or story in a foreign language, and transliterate the sounds of the words into English. Alternatively, take a mathematical equation, or a technical paragraph, or a phrase from elsewhere in the Arts & Sciences, and transliterate it into a poem.


Charles said...

We did an exercise in one of my classes here where we took one of our own poems and rewrote it, replacing the entire text with a "sound copy," just like what Josh did with the Italian, except it's your own work. It was pretty wild.

The Sublibrarian said...

Not well known, but the longest work of this sort (that I know of) is David Melnick's transliteration of the Illiad, Men in Aida, Books One, and Two.

In addition to being a great deal of fun, it is also a marvelous way to exact vengeance on various texts to which one has been subjected.

Peter said...

Ah, Ron S: thank you for this!

barbara jane said...

peter, so i love this 'transliteration,' and have done some in my forthcoming collection - a couple of italian sonnets by cavalcanti. at least one of my teachers at SFSU, chet wiener, has (i believe) an entire book of transliteration, and as well, he's introduced me to ernst jandl's reft and light. which i love!

Peter said...

Thx bjpr: As Is is a really cool site. I like the poems that appear phrase-by-phrase and disappear phrase-by-phrase. How do you do that?
I am going have to link to you.

C. Dale said...

William Logan used to give an assignment where he gave out a copy of one of John Clare's poems but in German. He then had us transliterate it. Some good things came out of it. I didn't get a poem out of that assignment, but I did get the following lines:

"the day is underneath the day-- / there is too much freewheeling, // too much banter for the sake of posture, / for the sake of tiger lilies / drooping their speckled orange heads."

Yes, that assignment provided me with the title of my first book.

David Koehn said...

C. Dale

Funny how we never shake the lessons of our past.

I too immediately thought of that Logan exercise. I've long ago lost the resulting transliteration but remember how much fun it was. Freeing in fact...

Thanks for this Peter.

Emily Lloyd said...

I, too, have lost an assigned transliteration of Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays". This inspires me to try one anew.

And, funny, I was utterly digging Corey's "Psalm", the first poem from Selah, before it dawned on my fat head that it was a transliteration (which didn't stop the digging, of course). "Psalm" is here, if you haven't seen it:


Peter said...

Great story, C Dale.
Em: I hope you try one! Please send it to me if you do.