Homophonic Poetry

Julian Tuwim

Julian Tuwim

Julian Tuwim is perhaps most famous for his children’s poetry. His works, such as Lokomotywa and Murzynek Bambo, are the staple of every Polish child and most of his poems can be recited by thousands. He was born in Łódź in 1894 and is regarded by many as a literary genius who produced not only poetry but was also a writer of literature, songs and sketches. Tuwim was an accomplished translator translating Latin, German, Russian and French poetry into Polish. He is also known for his experimental work and involvement with the ‘Skamander’ poetry group. One of the most interesting pieces of poetry from this monumental creative talent is his attempt at homophonic translation, two poems which sound almost identical but are written in two different languages.

Polish Version French Version
Oko trę, że mam ból
Taki los komu żal ?
oko trę, pali sól
O madame, kulą wal
Ile trosk, ile burz,
a krew kipi, wre ,
O madame, oto nóż
O, madame, oto mrę
O, contrain je m’emboulle,
Taquilosse, comme ou jalle?
O, cotrain, polissoule
O madame, coulon valle!
Il est trosque, il est bouge,
A ma creve qui pis vrai
O, madame, o tonuche
O madame, o tome rain


World’s Most Difficult Reads

Square Peg, Round Hole?

Square Peg, Round Hole?

How better to begin the new year than with a challenge. As Randy Pausch wrote in the Last Lecture: “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” And so we will greet 2013 with an offering of some of the literary world’s most challenging reads. The list has been compiled using personal experience and by collating various similar internet lists (viz. Ranker; !ndigo;  Amazon; The Millions; Listserve). The top five most difficult (but also phenomenally interesting) books which we might use as a literary challenge for 2013 are:

5. The Waste Land – T.S. Eliot
T.S. Eliot often said that without his editor, Ezra Pound (a fine translator himself), The Waste Land would be a profoundly different work. Perhaps something to consider… The Waste Land references, to name a few, Homer, Sophocles, Petronius, Virgil, Ovid, Saint Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Chaucer, Thomas Middleton, Joseph Conrad, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Baudelaire, Richard Wagner, Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley and even Bram Stoker. Perfect for those long winter evenings…

4. Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco
By many critics regarded as Eco’s finest work, by others the most confounding and complicated of his books, Foucault’s Pendulum is a mystery wrapped in a riddle and clothed in obscure language and grandiose linguistic gymnastics. Foucault’s Pendulum also uses the trick oft-used in ‘difficult’ books by referring to and cross-referencing other works and languages. This really is Eco at his very esoteric best. A wonderful book for linguists and a monumental challenge for translators.

3. Moby-Dick – Herman Melville
“Call me Ishmael,” begins Melville in Moby Dick and so begins the world’s greatest (epic) cetacean adventure. Moby-Dick combines Biblical symbolism (Elijah, Ahab, Ishmael to name a few), Shakespearean literary devices and a wide gamut of metaphor. Depending on the edition, Moby-Dick oscillates between 500 and 600 pages long. What is more, it is one of those books that needs to be re-read. Brace yourselves! Moby-Dick is a real challenge for even the most patient readers but what a challenge!

2. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
Referred to as a “librarian with Alzheimer’s reading Tennessee Williams” (Xilebat). Layers and layers of confusion exacerbated by the fact that the book is written from the perspective of a variety of confused characters and utilising a variety of styles. Faulkner dips his fingers into stream of consciousness which the ‘master of confusion’, James Joyce, so adeptly put to use in his works before him (see no.1). The Sound and the Fury was an attempt by Faulkner to delve into the human mind. It helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, a year after T.S. Eliot.

1. Finnegans Wake – James Joyce
The pinnacle of linguistic aestheticism. Finnegans Wake nearly always finds its way on to lists of most ‘difficult’ or ‘confusing’ works. Joyce’s avant-garde comedic opus took him seventeen years to write and probably takes his readers just as long to labour through. Finnegans Wake cannot be ‘read’ in the normal sense, Finnegans Wake has to be felt, absorbed and… endured. This work is rife with neologisms and riddled with language that is sometimes intelligible to all but Joyce. It is the ultimate translator’s nightmare and probably the greatest literary challenge in English (if we can call it ‘English’)…

The Babel Fallout

Jewish and Christian mythology tells us that the need for translators was born after the construction of the legendary tower at Babylon and its subsequent destruction by Yahweh. It is interesting that both Judaism and Christianity take such a negative approach to the birth of human languages (the plural is extremely significant here) and see the proliferation of human languages to be the direct result of man’s arrogance. However, let us appreciate the myth as it is told in the Jewish and Christian stories. The King James Bible (Genesis 11:1-9):

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children built. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

If we look at Hebrew mythology, we find a similar reference to this heinous crime (of building a tower) mentioned in the Book of Jubilees:

And in the three and thirtieth jubilee, in the first year in the second week, Peleg took to himself a wife, whose name was Lomna the daughter of Sina’ar, and she bare him a son in the fourth year of this week, and he called his name Reu; for he said: ‘Behold the children of men have become evil through the wicked purpose of building for themselves a city and a tower in the land of Shinar.’ For they departed from the land of Ararat eastward to Shinar; for in his days they built the city and the tower, saying, ‘Go to, let us ascend thereby into heaven.’ And they began to build, and in the fourth week they made brick with fire, and the bricks served them for stone, and the clay with which they cemented them together was asphalt which comes out of the sea, and out of the fountains of water in the land of Shinar. And they built it: forty and three years were they building it; its breadth was 203 bricks, and the height (of a brick) was the third of one; its height amounted to 5433 cubits and 2 palms, and (the extent of one wall was) thirteen stades (and of the other thirty stades). And the Lord our God said unto us: Behold, they are one people, and (this) they begin to do, and now nothing will be withholden from them. Go to, let us go down and confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech, and they may be dispersed into cities and nations, and one purpose will no longer abide with them till the day of judgment.’ And the Lord descended, and we descended with him to see the city and the tower which the children of men had built. And he confounded their language, and they no longer understood one another’s speech, and they ceased then to build the city and the tower. For this reason the whole land of Shinar is called Babel, because the Lord did there confound all the language of the children of men, and from thence they were dispersed into their cities, each according to his language and his nation.

Many sources believe the grand perpetrator of this crime against God to be Nimrod who is wonderfully depicted in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy as a babbling giant. Nimrod shouts out five words which, aptly, make no sense at all:

“Raphèl maì amècche zabì almi,”
the savage mouth, for which no sweeter
psalms were fit, began to shout.

And, in response, my leader: ‘You muddled soul,
stick to your horn! Vent yourself with that
when rage or other passion takes you.

“Search at your neck, you creature of confusion,
and you will find the rope that holds the horn
aslant your mammoth chest.’

Then he to me: ‘He is his own accuser.
This is Nimrod, because of whose vile plan
the world no longer speaks a single tongue.

“Let us leave him and not waste our speech,
for every language is to him as his
to others, and his is understood by none.”

To this day, traces of the Tower of Babel myth are seen in the English word babble which, of course comes from the word Babel. This in turn comes from the Ancient Hebrew word balal which means ‘to confound’; ‘to confuse’; ‘to jumble’. The English word babble is similar in meaning: ‘to utter meaningless sounds, or utter in an incoherent way’; ‘to talk foolishly’. It is interesting how, over time, the meaning of the word has remained relatively consistent.

The Three Languages (by the Brothers Grimm)

An aged count once lived in Switzerland, who had an only son, but he was stupid, and could learn nothing. Then said the father: ’Hark you, my son, try as I will I can get nothing into your head. You must go from hence, I will give you into the care of a celebrated master, who shall see what he can do with you.’ The youth was sent into a strange town, and remained a whole year with the master. At the end of this time, he came home again, and his father asked: ’Now, my son, what have you learnt?’ ’Father, I have learnt what the dogs say when they bark.’ ’Lord have mercy on us!’ cried the father; ’is that all you have learnt? I will send you into another town, to another master.’ The youth was taken thither, and stayed a year with this master likewise. When he came back the father again asked: ’My son, what have you learnt?’ He answered: ’Father, I have learnt what the birds say.’ Then the father fell into a rage and said: ’Oh, you lost man, you have spent the precious time and learnt nothing; are you not ashamed to appear before my eyes? I will send you to a third master, but if you learn nothing this time also, I will no longer be your father.’ The youth remained a whole year with the third master also, and when he came home again, and his father inquired: ’My son, what have you learnt?’ he answered: ’Dear father, I have this year learnt what the frogs croak.’ Then the father fell into the most furious anger, sprang up, called his people thither, and said: ’This man is no longer my son, I drive him forth, and command you to take him out into the forest, and kill him.’ They took him forth, but when they should have killed him, they could not do it for pity, and let him go, and they cut the eyes and tongue out of a deer that they might carry them to the old man as a token.

The youth wandered on, and after some time came to a fortress where he begged for a night’s lodging. ’Yes,’ said the lord of the castle, ’if you will pass the night down there in the old tower, go thither; but I warn you, it is at the peril of your life, for it is full of wild dogs, which bark and howl without stopping, and at certain hours a man has to be given to them, whom they at once devour.’ The whole district was in sorrow and dismay because of them, and yet no one could do anything to stop this. The youth, however, was without fear, and said: ’Just let me go down to the barking dogs, and give me something that I can throw to them; they will do nothing to harm me.’ As he himself would have it so, they gave him some food for the wild animals, and led him down to the tower. When he went inside, the dogs did not bark at him, but wagged their tails quite amicably around him, ate what he set before them, and did not hurt one hair of his head. Next morning, to the astonishment of everyone, he came out again safe and unharmed, and said to the lord of the castle: ’The dogs have revealed to me, in their own language, why they dwell there, and bring evil on the land. They are bewitched, and are obliged to watch over a great treasure which is below in the tower, and they can have no rest until it is taken away, and I have likewise learnt, from their discourse, how that is to be done.’ Then all who heard this rejoiced, and the lord of the castle said he would adopt him as a son if he accomplished it successfully. He went down again, and as he knew what he had to do, he did it thoroughly, and brought a chest full of gold out with him. The howling of the wild dogs was henceforth heard no more; they had disappeared, and the country was freed from the trouble.

After some time he took it in his head that he would travel to Rome. On the way he passed by a marsh, in which a number of frogs were sitting croaking. He listened to them, and when he became aware of what they were saying, he grew very thoughtful and sad. At last he arrived in Rome, where the Pope had just died, and there was great doubt among the cardinals as to whom they should appoint as his successor. They at length agreed that the person should be chosen as pope who should be distinguished by some divine and miraculous token. And just as that was decided on, the young count entered into the church, and suddenly two snow-white doves flew on his shoulders and remained sitting there. The ecclesiastics recognized therein the token from above, and asked him on the spot if he would be pope. He was undecided, and knew not if he were worthy of this, but the doves counselled him to do it, and at length he said yes. Then was he anointed and consecrated, and thus was fulfilled what he had heard from the frogs on his way, which had so affected him, that he was to be his Holiness the Pope. Then he had to sing a mass, and did not know one word of it, but the two doves sat continually on his shoulders, and said it all in his ear.

Taking the Biscuit

Language professionals are often amazed by the similarities that can be found between languages. As we are all aware, groups of languages belong to language families and therefore invariably share the same characteristics and/or structures. It is arguably easier, for example, to translate French into Italian than French into Polish, or, to take it a step further, much easier to translate Polish into Russian than, let us say, Polish into Inuktitut or Xhosa.

However easy it is translating between languages within the same language family (for example, Slavonic to Slavonic, Germanic to Germanic or even Indo-European to Indo-European), there is one imp of a problem that is forever the bane of translators and editors. This is, of course, the infamous false friend, faux ami or fałszywy przyjaciel. Examples abound: preservative in English versus preserwatywa (condom) in Polish, or čerstvý (fresh) in Czech versus czerstwy (stale) in Polish.

A fascinating example of this is the English word biscuit which means different things to different people, depending on which side of the Atlantic one resides. The two most common definitions of biscuit are: (i) British: “small, flat sweet cake” (known as cookie in the US) and (ii) American: “small round bread leavened with soda”. We can also add to this two definitions were are less common: (iii) “pale brown colour” and (iv) “fired piece of unglazed ceramic ware” (usually bisque).

This interesting bifurcation of meaning (British versus American) can be traced to the ambiguous nature of the word’s etymology. Biscuit stems from the 16th century word bisket which in turn can be traced back to the Middle English word bysquyte. This stems from the Old French word bescuit which literally means “twice cooked”, which itself was altered under the influence of the Old Italian biscotto which meant “twice baked” (which is rooted in the Medieval Latin bis coctus. The word’s derivation is fascinating.

The Polish biskwit has a similar cognate line and stems from the French biscuit. Interestingly, the word is a synonym of biszkopt which can also be traced back to the Medieval Latin bis coctus and was originally adopted into Polish as biskokt and then later biszkokt. What is fascinating about this word is its meaning, which is slightly different from the English (British and American).

The Polish biskwit or biszkopt might well be translated into English as a sponge cake, ladyfinger or Génoise (cake) (not to be confused with pain de Gênes, which is an almond cake) and has little to do with the British biscuit and nothing in common with the American biscuit. False friends may well be confusing but are extremely interesting to the language professional.

Tasty Language

Not only is tongue a synonym for language and speech (the Latin is lingua) but the human tongue is also a fascinating organ important in the articulation of language, in the process of eating and responsible for our sense of taste. The human organ is said to have approximately 10,000 taste buds. The equivalent of the word ‘taste bud’ in other (Indo-European) languages is fascinating in itself. The Czech and Polish equivalents (respectively, chuťový pohárek and kubki smakowe) are wonderful phrases which literally mean ‘taste cups’ or ‘cups of taste’. Why buds and cups?

The answer can be found in the Latin for ‘taste bud’ – caliculus gustatorius and this seems to give us some insights into the word/phrase in other languages. Caliculus can be defined in English as a ‘small cup’, a ‘goblet’, a ‘polyp’ or a ‘small cup-shaped hollow’. This does not entirely explain the English use of ‘bud’, but it does help us understand why ‘cup’ is used in Czech and Polish.

Another interesting point is the word smak in Polish (cмак in Ukrainian) which was borrowed from German. It derives from the Old High German smac giving us Geschmack in German, Grundsmak in Swedish, Smaak in Dutch, and Smak in Norwegian. The word smack was actually used also in English (smæc in Old English) and the remnants of this expression (meaning taste) can be seen in the phrase, “This smacks of…”

Polish and Ukrainian use the borrowed smak (cмак) whereas other Slavonic languages use chuť (Czech and Slovakian), bкус (= vkus) (Russian and Belarusian) and okus (Croatian, Slovenian). To compare, the Lithuanian is the rather similar skonis. Language is simply a repository of culture, ideas and knowledge. Every language is in itself a vessel, a ‘cup’ that houses the history of that language and its people and shows us what the language and its people have experienced. Sometimes, looking into this ‘tasty cup’ can give us some surprising results.

Foreign Concepts

One of the greatest problems for translators is translating concepts that simply do not exist in the other language or culture. Examples in Polish include kombinować or lustracja, województwo or szlachta zaściankowa. English examples include elevenses or hoody. There are different ways to attempt to translate these terms, but no translation can be regarded as truly equivalent. Of course, some may argue that no translation is ever truly equivalent, but there are equivalents that might be regarded as more (or less) faithful than other ones. We might also argue that there is a continuum of correctness that allows us to speak of a better or worse translation.

All of the words mentioned above can be translated in some way or other but that does not necessarily make them good equivalents. Kombinować might be to wheel and deal; lustracja might be lustration or vetting; województwo could be province or district; szlachta zaściankowa might be petty nobility or disenfranchised noblemen. On the other hand, elevenses might be drugie śniadanie and a hoody could be a łobuz or zbir. We might argue that all of these suggestions are poor and inadequate but we may also argue that they perform a certain function and they kind of do the job. Is this enough? Is translation always about doing enough? Should we be aiming for perfection, satisfaction, or adequacy?

Another fine example of a word which does not have an altogether elegant translation into English is the Polish koleiny. These are ruts in the road caused by poor tarmac surfaces being over-used making driving difficult and often extremely dangerous. Due to the poor quality of roads in Poland (especially in communist times) and weather extremities (hot summers, cold winters), the tarmac surfaces had/have a tendency to become soft and give under the weight of traffic. Problems in translation begin when we see road signs in Poland warning of koleiny. Could this be rendered as simply ruts? Or perhaps road ruts? Perhaps even grooves? It is only when we see this kind of road sign do we realise how difficult this could be to translate. German seems to have Spurrille as a possible equivalent. English however does not offer such contextual equivalence.