That’s What She Said: Thoughts on Homolinguistic Translation

Last week, as a result of a toddler potty crisis and traffic on I-270, I arrived late to a Bad Shadow Affair poetry reading and missed the first reader, my friend Aaron Angello. Afterwards, I was talking with Aaron and Noah Eli Gordon, who praised Aaron’s poem and told me it was not like Aaron’s previous work. Intrigued, I asked Aaron if he could give me the print copy, and he handed over a slightly beat-up piece of paper haphazardly folded into quarters. I took it home and read it. And it was good. But frustrating.

Aaron’s poem included an “I” and and a “she.” A very captivating “I” and “she,” characters with whom, if I met them in real life, I would be infatuated. Yet when I read the poem, I knew I wasn’t getting the whole story from the subject position, which is part of the magic of the poem, right? The idea that we only have access to one subject position, and so our access to the event/scenario/relationship/tension is limited. I imagined calling up the “she” on the phone and saying (because I would do this; I have very little discretion), “‘I’ just told me about your car ride to the amusement park and he said that you kept pestering him to take part in his survey.” And “she” would reply, “No, I never said that. God! He’s the one who wouldn’t shut up about the survey.” Then we would go back and forth with me telling her what “I” said and she translating what he said into what he actually meant or what actually happened.

And I realized that I wanted to write “she”‘s interpretation of the event, knowing that her translation of “I”‘s account is as subjective and as inaccurate as “I”‘s original telling. And I thought about how this was possible, and why I thought of this as a translation instead of a retelling or a revision. And I think it’s because language is only part of the poem. The subject position, the tone, the excluded details, the rhythm, are all part of the poem, but the most elastic element of the poem is the language. The language itself has enough give that we use these other elements to translate the language – to interpret the language – into meaning. Language isn’t fixed. It can support – it may even call for – homolinguistic translation. We do this all the time when we speak. “But I didn’t mean that.” “What I meant to say..” “When he said x, do you think he meant y?”

So I did it. I wrote a homolinguistic translation of Aaron’s poem – from English into English – by changing the subject position and capitalizing on (exploiting) the elasticity of language and its ability either to mean what we want it to mean or to mean what we didn’t want it to mean at all. I wasn’t sure what to call this (and a big shout out to Lori Emerson for giving me the term that I’m using now – homolinguistic translation)), so I solicited input from friends for suggestions. Some are writers, some wouldn’t identify as writers. Here are their responses to the question, “What would you call a translation of a poem from English to English?” I welcome everyone’s thoughts on this, as I think this is only the beginning of the conversation.

Michael Flatt: Homophonic?

Erika Sparby: Intertranslation?

Barbara Ungar: Unnecessary?

Ellen Orleans: Innovative.

Shawn Dudley: Hmm. I know you can use literary theory to translate a perfectly good poem from English into pages and pages of abstruse, impenetrable, academic English. Does that count?

Les Murphy: A travesty

Seth Landman: A poem.

Thibault Raoult: turning the page

Jen Klopp: Motmorphing? ?

Judy Costello Strathearn: Piers Plowman

Michele Speitz: textual Synaesthesia

Caryn Crotty Eldridge: Hm, depends. Very Useful, if it’s Brit-English to American-English

David Levine Writing. Was that too pithy? Now I have to remember what pithy means.

Alita Putnam: Revision? (Don’t get me started on medieval implications)

Richard K. Weems: No Fear Shakespeare

Angelo Verga: borrowing?

Lori Emerson: homolinguistic translation…but i can’t tell if i’m being a wet blanket by giving an answer. i’m like Horshack in Welcome Back Kotter

Chuck Denison: Understanding



  1. Tom Mazanec said

    I think the most widely accepted term is “intralingual translation” – Roman Jakobson used it in his book “Language in Literature” (Harvard U P, 1987, p. 429), and George Steiner talks about the topic in his book “After Babel” (third ed., Oxford U P, 1997, esp. in the first chapter).

    Sounds like a really cool project. I hope you keep exploring it.

    • mcbattiste said

      Hi Tom. Thanks so much for this. I’ll look these both up. Princeton better get ready to keep up with you!


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