On Homophonic Translation

The biggest problem facing the translator of poetry is separation. In the words of Susan Sontag, style and content within art are indissoluble. For the translator, the indissolubility of poetry lies within the symbiotic dichotomy between meaning and sound. The translator’s dilemma is that meaning and sound from the original language cannot be duplicated or transcribed exactly. One is always chosen over the other, and translation becomes the art of transformation. While combing through the words and sounds, the question then becomes: what and where and why?

I translated Catallus 27 purely homophonically: sound is the radically pursued thing. Because content represents the utilitarian, nothing seems less useful than the content-based translation of an old Latin poem. The poem is, if anything, more beautiful than useful.

I do not mean to insinuate that homophonic translation should be pursued in every case. That would be ridiculous. Imagine if Edith Grossman homophonically translated Don Quixote into English. The result would be an aesthetic mess more schizophrenic than the book’s quixotic anti-hero. What I am trying to say is that homophonic techniques create a dialogue and let audiences to question the unwritten codes of artistic modality. When one is reading a translation, one is always reminded of the daunting question: what is the function of art?

An art in itself, this kind of translation challenges the ideas of Walter Benjamin, who believed that the most basic unit of translation was the word. The homophonic translator prefers a Bakhtinian — although not purposefully Bakhtinian — notion of heteroglossia, of re-appropriating sound as a means of translating the fluidity of basic, human emotion. The result is not in the translation itself, but in the incited conversation, the pure language against the individual experience.

XXVII

Minister vetuli puer Falerni
inger mi calices amariores,
ut lex Postumiae iubet magistrae,
ebrioso acino ebriosioris
at vos quolubet hinc abite, lymphae,
vini pernicies, et ad severos
migrate: hic merus est Thyonianus.

27

Minister Vetuli poured Falernian
into my chalice: “uh! — more please! — 
But let’s postulate about masturbation,
eat brioche, buy the AS SEEN ON TV EMBRYOS — or is
it BROS WITH HOLES? You bet. Lick, bite, limp away.
Vinyl penises are a tad severe for us.
They tend to migrate. His merit is in Thy own anus.

–Joseph Cassara is a writing student at Columbia University. His short stories, humor and nonfiction have been featured in Eclectica Magazine, Quarto, The Eye, and The Faster Times. He lives in New York City.

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