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Homophonic Poetry and Phony Translations

Veronica has poetry and short stories published in several literary journals. She holds an MA in Literature from American University.

"Keep Them In the Dark" by Veronica McDonald (2018)

"Keep Them In the Dark" by Veronica McDonald (2018)

Here's an obvious statement: Writing poetry can be challenging. Successful poets put a lot of thought, time, and effort behind their seemingly effortless poems.

That being said, anyone can write poetry! And writing poetry is a lot of fun. Whether you're a seasoned poet, or someone just getting their feet wet, practicing different forms of poetry and experiencing different ways to create poems make writing a fun journey of discovery.

The following exercise is part of a series of prompts made to help you get your creative juices flowing and hopefully push you into trying new things with your writing.

Poetry Exercise #1: Homophonic and Phony Translations

For this exercise, your goal is to write either a homophonic translation or a phony translation of an existing poem written in another language. It's a fun way to get writing again if you're a bit rusty because you'll be working with material that already exists. You won't have to stare at the dreaded blank page. Inspiration will be right in front of you, ready to be molded.

But first, let's define the terms.

A homophonic translation is something "translated" into another language according to sound rather than meaning.

Wikipedia gives this example:

Here is the original writing in Latin:

Caesar adsum jam forte.
Brutus aderat.
Caesar sic in omnibus.
Brutus sic enat.

Here is the homophonic translation based on the sound of the Latin words:

Caesar had some jam for tea.
Brutus 'ad a rat.
Caesar sick in omnibus.
Brutus sick in 'at.

The two writings do not mean the same things, but they sound very similar. Homophonic is based primarily on sound.

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To create your own homophonic translation poem, choose a poem or excerpt written in a language that

  1. you don't know well, but
  2. you are familiar enough with that you can attempt to read it out loud.

The results can be funny, absurd, and even beautiful.

If you find a homophonic translation too difficult or restricting, a phony translation may be more fun for you. To start a phony translation,

  1. pick a poem or excerpt written in a language you don't know, and then
  2. pretend to translate it.

I personally prefer the phony translation over a strictly homophonic translation because I'm able to choose whether to translate based on the sound or look (or both) of the words to create a poem, and I'm able to create some meaning and structure—though entirely different from the original work.

"Dunkel and Drinnen:" A Phony Translation of a German Nonsense Poem

Here is my example of a phony translation. I wrote this after "reading" a German nonsense poem I found online. I don't speak a word of German, so I used what I thought the words meant/looked like to shape a poem of my own. As I read, I pictured two men named Dunkel and Drinnen wooing and fighting over the same woman, who was leading them down a dark and dangerous path. I'll include the original German text afterward.

"Dunkel and Drinnen"
by Veronica McDonald

Dunkel wars against man depicting Hell.
Why must the gray flower die?
While in the wagon there is bliss
Langoring on a bed of dead fur.

Drinnen knows how to play the lute,
And he plays “Gespräch” with a deft hand,
While floating on the ocean bride.
She tosses her hair in waves
Her breasts like a sandbank of relief.

And while the men juggle between cold and warm
Her lying mouth grunts for kisses
whispering, “Die. Rot. Angst. In war.”

Here is the original German poem (author unknown):

Dunkel war’s, der Mond schien helle, schneebedeckt die grüne Flur, als ein Wagen blitzeschnelle, langsam um die Ecke fuhr.

Drinnen saßen stehend Leute, schweigend ins Gespräch vertieft, Als ein totgeschoss’ner Hase Auf der Sandbank Schlittschuh lief.

Und ein blondgelockter Jüngling mit kohlrabenschwarzem Haar saß auf einer grünen Kiste, die rot angestrichen war.

Post Your Poem

If you followed this exercise to create a poem, post your poem or an excerpt in the comments. I would love to see what you come up with.

© 2020 Veronica McDonald


BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on January 14, 2020:

Interesting idea. I will need to think this over.

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