November 11, 2007


Mark Liberman has pulled up an item from his to-blog list which coincides with an item on MY to-blog list, about "translations" of music videos in one language into another language, adhering fairly closely to the sound of the original, while sacrificing the sense entirely.  As Ben Ostrowsky noted in mail to Mark, these videos represent a resurgence of an old form of language play; he cited the 1967 book Mot D'Heures: Gousses, Rames, which provides a number of Mother Goose rhymes in English "translated" into French.

A little while ago, Laura Kalin wrote me about what's presented as a "phonetic transliteration of a Dutch kiddies song" entitled "Fart in the duck" (already you know it's a joke), which Mark also mentioned in his posting.  She and I wondered what such things should be called.  Ben Ostrowsky suggested "autour du mondegreens", and Mark used "cross-linguistic mondegreens" in his posting.  The connection to mondegreens strikes me as not quite right, and it turns out that there two phenomena other than mondegreens that are very similar to these cross-language re-workings of texts.

What's going on in these re-workings is the deliberate substitution of words in one language for phonetically similar words in some text in another language.  It's a kind of word-by-word TRANSLATION (based on sound rather than meaning), not transliteration.  There are large-scale translations, like the English-to-French wonders in Mot D'Heures: Gousses, Rames, and small-scale ones, like the German-to-English "donkey fieldmouse" for "danke vielmals".  They differ from mondegreens in that the classic mondegreens ("Excuse me while I kiss this guy") are accidental mishearings, and these translations are deliberate plays on words.  (They also differ from mondegreens in that they cross languages, but that difference is recognized in the labels "autour du mondegreens" and "cross-linguistic mondegreens".)

Not surprisingly, people have wondered about such things before.  There was a Linguist List discussion back in 1999 (summary 10/13/99 by Anatol Stefanowitsch) on "bilingual puns", taken to extend to phenomena like these.  But they're not much as puns; good puns evoke two different interpretations, and there are bilingual puns that do this.  From the Wikipedia page:

Q: Did Herr Beethoven write ten symphonies?
A: Nein.

The duck-fart type, in contrast, is fine in the original language, but just nonsense (though often suggestive nonsense) in the recipient language.

Then there's literature on "homophonic translation" WITHIN a language; see Heidi Harley's Language Log posting "O grammar, water bag noise!" on things like "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut" (for "Little Red Riding Hood", in case you missed Heidi's posting).  (You could quibble about "homophonic" in this label, since almost all the substituted words are not identical in sound to the originals, but merely similar.  But of course, substituting true homophones wouldn't work, since the translation would then be identical to the original; there would be no joke at all.)

What we have in the duck-fart examples is a combo of real bilingual puns with (monolingual) homophonic translations: bilingual homophonic translations.  Ok, that's a really good label in some ways, but it's long and clunky and hard to love.  BHTs?  Or a label like "mondegreens" and "eggcorns": duck farts, donkey fieldmice, donkey fieldmouses, ...?

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 11, 2007 11:35 AM