Homophonic translation

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Homophonic translation renders a text in one language into a near-homophonic text in another language, usually with no attempt to preserve the original meaning of the text. In one homophonic translation, for example, the English "sat on a wall" /ˈsætɒnəˈwɔːl/ is rendered as French "s'étonne aux Halles" [setɔnoɑl] (literally "is surprised at the Market"). More generally, homophonic transformation renders a text into a near-homophonic text in the same or another language: e.g., "recognize speech" could become "wreck a nice beach".

Homophonic translation may be used to render proper nouns in a foreign language. A more elegant solution, when possible, is phono-semantic matching, which attempts to have closer semantics as well as the proper sound.

Alternatively, homophonic translation may be used for humorous purpose, as bilingual punning (macaronic language). This requires the listener or reader to understand both the surface, nonsensical translated text, as well as the source text—the surface text then sounds like source text spoken in a foreign accent.


Frayer Jerker is a homophonic translation of the French Frère Jacques (1956).[1] Other examples of homophonic translation include some works by Oulipo (1960–), Frédéric Dard, Luis van Rooten's English-French Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames (1967), Louis Zukofsky's Latin-English Catullus Fragmenta (1969), Ormonde de Kay's English-French N'Heures Souris Rames (1980), John Hulme's German-English Morder Guss Reims: The Gustav Leberwurst Manuscript,[2] and David Melnick's Ancient Greek-English Men in Aida (1983).

Examples of homophonic transformation include Howard L. Chace's "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut", written in "Anguish Languish" (English Language) and published in book form in 1956.

A British schoolboy example of Dog Latin:[3]

Caesar adsum jam forte.
Brutus aderat.
Caesar sic in omnibus.
Brutus sic enat.
Caesar had some jam for tea.
Brutus 'ad a rat.
Caesar sick in omnibus.
Brutus sick in 'at.
I, Caesar, am already here, as it happens.
Brutus was here also.
Caesar is so in all things.
Brutus so escapes.

Other names proposed for this genre include "allographic translation",[4] "transphonation", or (in French) "traducson",[5] but none of these is widely used.

Here is van Rooten's version of Humpty Dumpty:[6]

Humpty Dumpty
Sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty
Had a great fall.
All the king's horses
And all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty
Together again.
Un petit d'un petit
S'étonne aux Halles
Un petit d'un petit
Ah! degrés te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mène
Qu'importe un petit
Tout gai de Reguennes.
A little one of a little one
Is surprised at the Market
A little one of a little one
Oh, degrees fail you!
Lazy is he who leaves stops
Lazy is he who is not led
Who cares about a little one
All happy with Reguennes

The individual words are almost all correct French (with the exceptions that fallent is a form of the non-existent verb *faller and Reguennes is a hapax legomenon), and some passages follow standard syntax and are interpretable (though nonsensical), but the result is in fact not meaningful French.

Ghil'ad Zuckermann's "Italo-Hebraic Homophonous Poem"[7] is meaningful in both Italian and Hebrew, "although it has a surreal, evocative flavour, and modernist style".[8]

Libido, Eva, ליבִּי דוֹאב,
esce da האש עֵדה.
Nicolet, אני קוֹלֵט
che tale dá: קטע לידה
Translation from Hebrew
My heart is languishing,
the fire is a witness.
I am absorbing
a stage of labour.
Translation from Italian
Libido, Eva,
comes out of Nicolette,
who gives the following:

Here is another example of a sentence which has two completely different meanings if read in Latin or in Italian:

Sentence Latin meaning Italian meaning
I, Vitelli, dei Romani sono belli. Go, Vitellius, at the Roman god's sound of war. The Romans' veals are beautiful.

Song lyrics[edit]

Homophonic translations of song lyrics, often combined with music videos, for comic effect—also known as soramimi in Japan and mondegreen in English speaking countries—have gained popularity on the internet.

See also[edit]

  • Holorime, a form of rhyme where the entire line or phrase is repeated by a homophonic variant
  • Mondegreen, the erroneous interpretation of language by homophony
  • Mots d'Heures
  • Soramimi, the reinterpretation of song lyrics by homophonic translation
  • Phono-semantic matching (PSM), a borrowing in which a foreign word is matched with a phonetically and semantically similar pre-existent native word/root.
  • Translation
  • Mairzy Doats


  1. ^ Chace, Howard L. (1956). "Frayer Jerker". Anguish Languish [English Language]. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. OCLC 2539398. 
  2. ^ 1981; ISBN 0517545594
  3. ^ the first line is quoted by Nigel Molesworth in Down With Skool 1953, by Geoffrey Willans, illustrated by Ronald Searle, p. 41.
  4. ^ Bernard Dupriez, A Dictionary of Literary Devices: Gradus, A-Z, Toronto 1991. ISBN 0-8020-6803-0. p. 462.
  5. ^ cf. Genette, Gérard; Newman, Channa; Doubinsky, Claude. Palimpsests. pp. 40–41. 
  6. ^ "Luis d'Antin van Rooten's Humpty Dumpty". The Guardian. 27 November 2009. Retrieved 27 November 2009. 
  7. ^ Word Ways 36 (2003)
  8. ^ http://www.zuckermann.org/bilingual.html