Weekly Prompt: Homophonic Translation


Charles Bernstein | Courtesy of The Poetry Foundation

This week’s prompt is taken from leading Language poetry practitioner and theorist Charles Bernstein‘s “Experiments” (handily compiled by the University of Pennsylvania’s Electronic Poetry Center).  It asks you to venture into uncertain linguistic territory where meaning ceases to guide your composition (or in this case, translation) process and, instead, turns the reins over to sound.

We all know what homophones are, words that mean differently despite their (usually identical) sonic qualities (see/sea, their/there), and this exercise is one that relies almost exclusively on the odd transmutations of meaning that can happen when two words sound the same but signify different things… in different languages.

Though you will be working to translate a piece of poetry from another language into English, because the translation method is based on homophones and sound patterns rather than denotative/connotative meanings, your process will undoubtedly yield some wacky — but wonderful! — results.

If you enjoy the prompt and want to try other OuLiPo-type exercises inspired by Bernstein and others, do check out the EPC’s list of Language-poetry exercises.  Other ideas include taking two pages from a newspaper, magazine or book, and tearing them in half before pasting them together… voila, source material for a poem.  Also, famously, there’s the “n+7” substitution exercise, where you:

Take a poem or other, possibly well‑known, text and substitute another word for every noun, adjective, adverb, and verb; determine the substitute word by looking up the index word in the dictionary and going 7 up or down, or one more, until you get a syntactically suitable replacement.

These exercises encourage play and experimentation and can also be really generative, something I’ve found hugely beneficial when my work grows dull and predictable.

Careful though: the poet’s disclosure at very bottom of the page reads, “Any profits accrued as a direct or indirect result of the use of these formulas shall be redistributed to the language at large” and “Management assumes no responsibility for damages that may result consequent to the use of this material”!

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Find a poem in a different language (Vietnamese, Urdu or Portugese, for example) and, without considering its literal translation (ie. amour = love, chéri = beloved/darling), translate the sound of the poem into English (ie. amour = a moor, chéri = share heat).  Be sure that you pick a language whose pronunciations you can approximate, but not necessarily understand.  Revise as necessary, but try not to become overly directive of your translation’s meaning, punctuation or narrative; focus instead on the sounds and strangeness of its emergent linguistic texture.

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