poem-a-thon 23: serenading the madam

Gah, managed to get my four poems for today done before the end of work, thanks to a brief lull in things. This is for the NaPoWriMo post of doing a homophonic translation, which is to say, taking a poem in a foreign language and shifting it into English. This requires some clever use of orthography and/or some familiarity with the language’s phonology, plus a certain willingness to skim carelessly and just roll with the punches. My go-to language for such exercises is usually an Eastern European one (Hungarian and Serbian are favorites), but this time I went to Finnish, and the poem “Won’t You Close Your Eyes” by Olli Heikkonen. Here’s the original text:

Sulkisit jo silmäsi.
Heidän valonsa on muita valoja kirkkaampaa.
Se pakottaa silmiä ja korventaa niskaa.
Se tulee puiden takaa, ihmisten valo,
ja saa minut säntäämään
pensaisiin ja pitkään heinään
metsän hyiseen ytimeen.

Että millaista on pudota suohon
suorin jaloin, sorkat kuin lyijypunnukset.

Ihokarvat työntyvät turpeeseen,
jokainen huokonen
rävähtää auki. Rävähtää auki

sillä mudan ja liejun syvyyksiin
on juurtunut pehmeä valo,
sinne on juurtunut
yksinkertainen valo.

Which translates (according to Maria Lyytinen at this page) as:

Won’t you close your eyes.
Their light is brighter than other lights.
It aches in the eyes and scorches the neck.
It comes from beyond the trees, human light,
and makes me race
to the shrubs and tall grass
to the icy core of the forest.

And what it is like to sink into the swamp
with straight legs, hooves like lead weights.

Hairs push into the turf,
every pore
bursts open. Bursts open

for in the depths of mud and sludge
a soft light has taken root,
a simple light
has taken root.

But which I rendered — with my knowledge of Finnish phonology, ignorance of Finnish vocabulary, and a good deal of alphabet soup transmogrification — as some kind of frustrated love song to a bordello ex-baby-mama or something. Not at all in keeping with the rest of my stuff this month, but language and ignorance make strange bedfellows:

Serenading the Madam

Sulkily, I sit on your sill, massing
hate and valors on my values. Quick computations
see packets of similar conventions in the scar
you set me, putting talk into my stain. Value?
You say “minutes”, and tall men
penning sighs in a pinch can have no one
medicine. Who’s seen what I mean?

Add a million stars. Open dots of sun:
sun, or yellowing sores. Caught queen, looped and naked.

I, who carved out twins too vast to represent,
joke that I’m an awoken
raven, the owl key. Raven. The owl key.

Silly mother, you lie on your cervix in
one of your turned-out pay-me-off wallows.
Sins are on your tongue,
whose skin — certainly — is valued.

The Artist’s Dream

Ten minutes to spare, and I am beasting out a poem before bed. This is actually not an original: Poets and Writers asked for translations, though I think they were half-serious. Maybe tomorrow I’ll do a looser, more goofy one, but since I just wanted to exercise some part of my brain creatively before calling it quits tonight*, I grabbed the book of Émile Nelligan poems I picked up in Montréal last time I was there, and chose one at random. He’s a very formal poet from the last century, so his style is quite unlike mine, but I don’t mind it so much. Viv can probably do a much better one; this was rushed, and pretty free with the perfect alexandrine sonnet form of the original. Anyway, it’s something, which (this month) is almost always better than nothing.

(* My caveat is that I did have workshop tonight, and I was very proud of what I wrote for it; I think they liked it better than the one I actually revised/prepared for discussion. But as I don’t make a habit of posting workshop poems on here… another was needed.)

The original French:

Rêve d’artiste

Parfois j’ai le désir d’une sœur bonne et tendre,
D’une sœur angélique au sourire discret :
Sœur qui m’enseignera doucement le secret
De prier comme il faut, d’ésperer et d’attendre.

J’ai ce désir très pur d’une sœur éternelle,
D’une sœur d’amitié dans le règne de l’Art,
Qui me saura veillant à ma lampe très tard
Et qui me couvrira des cieux de sa prunelle ;

Qui me prendra les mains quelquefois dans les siennes
Et me chuchotera d’immaculés conseils,
Avec le charme alié des voix musiciennes ;

Et pour qui je ferai, si j’aborde à la gloire,
Fleurir tout un jardin de lys et de soleils
Dans l’azur d’un poème offert à sa mémoire.

…and, my translation:

The Artist’s Dream

Sometimes I wish for a sister, gentle and kind,
angelic, and with a Mona Lisa smile:
a sister who will softly teach me the way
to pray as one must, to hope for a while.

I have this pure wish for a sister, eternal,
who keeps company with the essence of Art,
who’ll know me by the lamp that burns late
and come cover me with the sky in her heart.

Sometimes she’ll take my hands in her own
and whisper in my ear some sisterly advice
in a strange melody that charms with its tone.

And if I can follow her out of the world,
I’ll grow a garden sown with lilies and stars
to her honor, in a sky-blue poem I’ve unfurled.

Three Tanka for July

Been a little while since I’ve tackled some tanka, so thanks to Hannah Gosselin for this prompt through We Write Poems. This one took a little bit longer than I intended because, having more time on my hands today than I knew what to do with, I ended up translating the first one into some mangled kind of Japanese. As always, if you are a Japanese speaker/professional waka-writer, please forgive my ineptitude.

Here’s the English:

The first blackberries
collected in a jade bowl
have a beetle sheen:
who would’ve known this darkness
hid emeralds underneath?

And then I did the kanji version, with the English transliteration, with a more-literal gloss:


hatsu tencha
gyokuhai-ni haku
kurasa no shita-ni
moke-na rokugyoku

the first blackberries
gather in a cup of jade
like scarab beetles
underneath its darkness are
unexpected emeralds

And then there’s two more, just in English, because there’s only so much linguistic masochism I’m up for in one day:

A squall in the west
builds its low grey parapets
on the Palisades.
The dimming light reminds us
no city is grander than rain.

One thin firecracker
snaps its own grey body back
into a star-necklace
chained with a thundered moment
and thrilling the night-baked heart.

All right, enough of that. Now I’m off to enjoy the rest of this beautiful day!

mini-Reverie Fifteen-and-a-Half: transliteral

While we’re on the subject of NaPoWriMo, I discovered that they had a prompt on Day 12 that was an option I meant to include in Reverie Fifteen, but forgot about. So, I’m borrowing the idea (and if you did this already on Day 12, perhaps you’ll consider doing it again?) and having a mid-week Reverie treat of transliteration. I mean this in the sense of not-quite-translating poetry (and I guess is more properly called homophonic translation): it’s more of a twisting of the sounds of a language you don’t understand into words you do. My favorite languages for this are usually Central/Eastern European, since I don’t know them well enough to have their actual meanings corrupt my transliteration, they’re legible, and the sounds can usually come pretty close to English. (Check Wikipedia if you’re not sure.) So, if you take this copyright-infringement-not-intended poem in Hungarian by István Kemény:

A Méhész

Hatezer évig voltam méhész,
száz éve vagyok villanyszerelö.
Ha nyugdíjba megyek, majd újra méhészkedem.
Valami zümmögjön nekem, zümögjön nekem,
zümögjön nekem, zümögjön nekem,
zümögjön nekem.

…and know at least vaguely something about the sounds of Hungarian, you might muddle and warp those sounds into something like:

A May Haze

Hottest air, envying vaulted May haze:
sashay, have a joke. Villainous air, hello;
unhook the bomb; eject, my dear; a May haze, condemn.
Follow me. To imagination, to imagination;
to imagination– to imagination?
To imagination.

The ending is kind of a cop-out, but that’s the best I can think of right now. You get the idea, though: how much sense it makes is secondary to how well you can fit the sounds of the original language into whatever words you can find in English (or whichever). If you look at the link I posted, you’ll see that the Hungarian actually means nothing at all that’s similar to what I wrote. So it’s a double challenge of both sound and meaning.

If you’re feeling this, try out one or two short poems; it’s mad good fun. And as always, please do share the fruits of your labor! (If you’re feeling particularly adept, you can try doing it from English into another language; many a French student, myself included, has had to cackle their way through “Mots d’Heures“.)

Reverie Fifteen: translation ruling the nation

On top of my current list of “things I suck at”, I have “keeping up with the poetry blogosphere”. I’ve still been writing every day – just turned in my one for Poetic Asides’ prompt today – but feeling seriously neglectful of my blog and the other blogs out there in my ecliptic. Right now, I’m sitting with friends in Brooklyn trying to get some of this stuff done, and I have fifty minutes before heading to another engagement. So… here we go; let’s see if I can get this Reverie done in time. (Title is shamelessly pilfered from the band Massive Attack; give “Radiation Ruling the Nation” a listen.)

This week: “translation ruling the nation

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I daylight as a translator/linguist type, and I have something of an unhealthy obsession with language. (This month, I’m trying to brush up on the Thai alphabet, but it’s rather difficult.) Didn’t really have time to think of a decently wiggly Reverie for this week, so this one is kind of a cop-out. We’re going to examine three (really four) possible options for the prompt.

First: straight-up other languages. I know some of y’all are speakers of languages other than English (whether native or not), and poetry can be a great way to develop some of your skills in those. Each language has its own set of aesthetics: sounds and words that are lovely, euphonic, or interesting in English may be totally warped and disgusting in French or German. There tend to be certain universals when it comes to phonology (the “l” sound tends to be regarded as beautiful), but those are usually stumbled upon by accident. If you are a linguistic dabbler, try just writing a short poem. You can suspend grammar a little bit, and stick to particularly useful words; you don’t have to do anything epic. Do some research and try to find world poetry in the language you choose.

The sub-option to this is to try and translate one poem into English, or (if you’re feeling daring) translate one into another language. I recommend using your own, but you can do a famous poem if you want (bearing in mind that it’s probably already been done). You can use mine if you wish, though I will turn my linguistic critic eyes on. Or, you could do something really goofy, like this lolcat version of The Wasteland which I hold dear. And check out different translations of Jabberwocky to see how variegated the process can get (especially for languages that are common, like French). I’ll give you one other sub-sub-option as well: if you don’t feel like doing a whole poem, take a language you’re familiar with and add an epigraph, untranslated, in that language (like T.S. Eliot was fond of doing), or use an untranslated word/phrase/proverb wholesale in your poem. It’s especially notable if it’s in Chinese or another language with different writing.

Second: this is the fun one. You can make up your own language on the spot. This is called idioglossia, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a pastime of mine. It comes up a lot more often in music: think Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance, Azam Ali from Vas/Niyaz, Jonsi from Sigur Ros, or Liz Fraser from the Cocteau Twins. (Seriously, look them up on YouTube for an idea of how it sounds.) This invented language can vary from a fully developed system – at least, as developed as it needs to be to fit inside one poem – to something as simple as just a tumble of sounds that you think sound pretty together. But the difference between this and speaking in tongues (glossolalia) is that you need to think at least a little bit structurally. Divide the sounds into discrete words that seem to have a grammar; make particles, prepositions, and verb conjugation endings to surround the lyrical stems of nouns and verbs you create.

As an example, this is from one I wrote a couple years ago that I called “Cantando”:

Fal tayyara sim khepularrana, o sim faena
  ja mayyaratba tiswe ga enna.
El tarheykba nim tesoldoriya, o nim gayyina
Mayyaratba sim ekhul fa udra,
Geyyasavra nim tamar ga enna
Ur tarheykba mar masulnavarra, o sim tiswea
  ja fal signara turafte mesa.

Did I have a particular meaning for any of this in mind? Not really. But I had particular ideas about phonology (how syllables could begin or end, what sounds would or wouldn’t be present), morphology (how words would be put together, what could be a verb ending or noun declension), prosody (where stress would fall on syllables), and most importantly, the poetics (use of sound repetition and rhyme). I tried to give it a vaguely Persian/Middle Eastern sound, and tried to sing it as I wrote. Got three stanzas out of it, at least; it’s not as tough as it sounds.

If you want to get really into it, Mark Rosenfelder has an excellent “Language Construction Kit” of which you might avail yourself. I’ve been geeking out with it for years.

And third, an equally noble challenge I’m recycling from a prompt I wrote before one time: don’t think of inventing a language from a linguistic standpoint, but rather from a symbolic one. Think of sign language, the language of flowers, music as language, etc., nonverbal forms of communication that can be just as important as the spoken kind. But make it into a system of symbols, rather than just “a meaningful glance” or “a significant daisy” or whatever. Replace dialogue in your poem with actions and objects. It’s up to you how much you want to let us in on the secret of your system, or whether you want it to relate to just one other subject (versus the entire world or whatever). Try to make it truly unique: the way that corn husks are arranged in hexagrams on the counter sending a warning to the reader, or the playing of minor chords on the piano to ask someone to buy milk. Imagine that your capacity for actual words has been completely excised: what specific rituals and symbols would you come up with to replace it?

Run with any or all of these ideas, and let us know what you come up with. But do try to leave your comments in English; there’s only so much the rest of us will have the time and ability to figure out. :)


There’s an explanation for this one, okay? Admittedly, the title is shamelessly adapted from Dead Can Dance’s “Cantara”… literally, cantando is Latin for “(ought) to be sung”, and similar to the DCD song, I just let the language (which isn’t, as far as I’m aware, one that actually exists) flow. Nothing too significant from any one language, but a mix of a few. Hidden in the text there might be a couple different things. In fact, there might be a few hidden outside the poem too… and why? The prompt for Big Tent, of course: to make a poem that is stenographic, hiding things in plain sight. Poem-codebreakers and curious folk take note: I won’t be offering any solutions unless it’s stumbled upon. But I’m curious to see what people draw from this, and what the guesses are…

This was rather fun, and might have to be done again!

(Fine, two hints: pay attention to first words, and only the vowels are in order.)


Fal tayyara sim khepularrana, o sim faena
  ja mayyaratba tiswe ga enna.
El tarheykba nim tesoldoriya, o nim gayyina
Mayyaratba sim ekhul fa udra,
Geyyasavra nim tamar ga enna
Ur tarheykba mar masulnavarra, o sim tiswea
  ja fal signara turafte mesa.

Fal tayyara sim testul khiparra, o sim faena
  ja zairukba ne medbila fossa.
Nem sayyetba di resun yorgana, o nim gayyina
Mayyaratba sim testul fa udra,
So varruna kis tawal ga enna
Menaateykba ja galwesikkara, o sim tiswea
  ja temik te sig narreta.

Ja fal sisweganna mayya ro sig, o sim faena,
  nim tiswea fayuzdom koriyal bi ran.

Searching for the Nephilim

Okay, so the Read Write Poem challenge was pretty mindboggling this time around… you had to take a poem in another language and transliterate it (in the sense of, convert the foreign words into what you thought would be English equivalents of the sounds). Being a linguistics student means knowing more about more languages than I really ought to, but I managed to find some Hungarian poetry with parallel English text; I was hoping for Lithuanian, since I really know nothing about it, but oh well. So first, here is the Hungarian original, which is of course (c), 1986 by Desző Tandori (from his collection “Birds and Other Relations”), side-by-side with my interpretation:


Én a halálos ágyamon
nem mondanám: ezem-azom…
Medvéimet szólítanám,
mert hiányoznának nagyon.

Én is hiányoznék nekik?
Vagy ezt csak most képzeltetik?
S ha nem vágyunk egymás után,
mindőnk megkönnyebbedhetik?

Ha egyike, ha másika:
kár erre választ várni ma.
Ami igazán egyszerű,
csak le kell bonyolódnia.

Oda se biccentjük fülünk,
hogy épp mit álmodnark velünk;
ott aztán tényleg fűre-fű,
elalszunk vagy felébredünk.

Searching for the Nephilim

In a hallow-less argument
name my dark name: as I am, as I am…
My vehement soul is an anonym,
made the anonymous negated.

And is his envious neck next?
Vague its talk, most captivating?
Is his name vague and edgeless in tone,
minding my cunning by hate?

His edges, his music:
carry error and valor as it varnished me.
And my eyes gaze at edge-shadows,
take the kill beyond the unknown.

O to see bisection follow
hedging up with all my naked villainy;
taut as ten tiny-legged fire-flies,
all sunk vaguely in fell-bred dark.

…there are some really good, long words in there that I had to split up a bit. My take is a little bit weird. I suppose it’s kind of Faust-ish in nature, though I don’t know if it’s a person doing the searching, or the nephil in question doing the searching for their next generation. I guess it turned out interestingly. I’m not keen on how many times “vague” popped up, but apparently “vagy” (pronounced much differently) means “only”, hence its commonality. And finally, here is the actual innocuous English translation by Bruce Berlind:


On my deathbed I would not
say: I leave this or that…
I’d summon my bears, however,
because I’d miss them a lot.

Would they also miss me?
Or do they pretend only?
And if we don’t love each other,
can any of us breathe freely?

This way or that, it’s vain
to expect an answer today.
Whatever is truly plain
will find its own way.

We don’t even nod our ears
to what is dreamt about us;
we fall asleep or awaken
there, then, grass on grass.

…whew. Quite an exercise for the brain!