Transcribing Birdsong

2013 Number 2 - Between Clay and Star

an ultra-real algebra of song, as powerful in effect as inaccessible, like models of contemporary theoretical physics which reveal the extent of the universe

Velimir Khlebnikov is Russia’s ‘other’ futurist poet. A pupil and ally of the beBer known poet Mayakovsky, his work has not received the same level of critical appreciation as Mayakovsky’s, particularly in the West. This may in part be due to the difficulties of translating Khlebnikov. He revelled in futurist experiment, in word creation, dialect and archaisms. But he has also written moving poems about the natural world with the depth of vision of the poet John Clare.

I have been running a translation workshop around the practiceof transcribing birdsong. At the beginning of the workshop participants are asked to transcribe recordings of thrushes and blackbirds – an impossible task! I then read a poem by Khlebnikov in Russian and invite the participants to translate from the sounds of the poem, before working from the literal meanings of the words. This is very far from any usual translation practice, but it is a useful and rather wonderful way to realize how much meaning in poetry is carried by sound alone. The Khlebnikov poem I use for this exercise is called ‘Waxwings’ and it contains a number of invented words, which is why is seemed such a perfect choice for this workshop. The two versions that begin this selection of Khlebnikov’s poetry were both written as a result of the workshop. They are very different, and it is particularly interesting to consider how each translator has dealt with the invented words: Peter Daniels invents his own words, timelings, songlings, whereas Edwin Kelly uses a combination of English and Irish words to create an effect which is lyrical but also shifting and unsettling. It came almost as no surprise to learn from the translator Tatiana Novoselova that Khlebnikov was himself an adept and experienced transcriber of birdsong. Here is an extract from Gush-Mulla (Vremya, 2008) – a book of essays by the contemporary writer Aleksander Ilichevsky:

There are 317 species of birds in the Astrakhan Nature Reserve and the first publication by Velimir Khlebnikov was a description of the calls within their song subsets. There is no harder task for the ear and voice than the transcription of birdsong. Khlebnikov was mathematically precise in his Zaumi* organising it not with such phrases as ‘syr-shchir-bal’ [a reference to typical futurist word-creation], as most people might have thought, but with an ultra-real algebra of song, as powerful in effect as inaccessible, like models of contemporary theoretical physics which reveal the extent of the universe. I was amazed when during a snowy winter I head the trill of a great tit in the woods: Pin’– pin’- pin’- it didn’t ring out, it drumrolled, making the air explode above my head.
The task of moulding birds’ voices from phonetic material is far beyond any comparison with the production of glossalalic cacophony, random sound from the Empyrean of vague meanings.
Khlebnikov’s sound-meanings should not be understood as this. They have no relation to whimsy, but are a highly precise transcript of bird-thought, bird-history and bird-drama. During this process there is a repeated attempt to reveal the main secret of language: the identification of a medium between the sense, which appears as one’s consciousness is expressed, and the sound-form of the words which develop this sense in the consciousness of the listener.

*zaum is a word coined by the Russian Futurists meaning literally ‘beyond the brain’; often translated as ‘transrational’. In poetic practice it sometimes refers to work we might describe as ‘nonsense verse’.

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