Most translations have as one of their central goals an attempt to render the sense of a source text into a target language. But there is more to a text than what we mean by its “literal meaning”. One could even go much further, and say that phonic or graphic properties of a text, more than merely adding something the sense of the text, are co-constitutive of its sense, and that if they are changed, then the sense is changed. The concept of “translation loss” registers the fact that no translation can keep all the elements of a source text the same as they are: every translation must concentrate on some at the expense of others.

Aside from the interesting philosophical issues that this raises, it can pave the way to a broader conception of the possibilities of translation. I was first alerted to “phonic imitation” by Hervey, Higgins and Loughridge (Thinking German Translation, 44):

An entertaining illustration of the way phonic imitation in a [target text] renders the sense of the unrecognizeable is John Hulme’s Mörder Guss Reims, which consists in a playful imitation of English nursery rhymes. Here, for example, the text of ‘Humpty-Dumpty’ is reproduced as

Um die Dumm' die Saturn Aval;
Um die Dumm' die Ader Grät' fahl.
Alter ging's Ohr sä¨ss und Alter ging's mähen.
Kuh denn 'putt' um Dieter Gitter er gähn.

Here is Gustav Mahler’s Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht in phonic imitation. Mahler’s original text is available here, together with a translation that attempts to convey more literal meaning.

Venn mine shuts, hocked sight mucked


Venn mine shuts, hocked sight mucked,
Fur licker hocked sight mucked,
Hub BIC mine ant row, rig an' tug!
Gay hick in mine gamma line,
Do inkless gamma line,
Vine, an' vine, ooo! Mine an' shuts,
Ooo! Mine, an lea, ban shuts!
Bloom line blow! Bloom line blow!
Fair Dorevitch! Fair Dorevitch!
Berg-line Zeus, berg-line Zeus,
Dosings Alf crooner hide 'er.
Yuck! VSD felt's ocean!
T's a cute! T's a cute!
Zing! it nicked! Blue! it nicked!
Lenses char for buy!
Alice' singin', listnin' 'ouse.
Tess' are Ben's, Venn Nick's laughin' gay.
Then kick un-mine lied 'er.
Un-mine lied 'er.

Notes and Difficulties

Venn (ll. 1, 17), John: English logician 1834-1923.

Row (l. 3) must be pronounced as the word for ‘altercation’, not as the word
for ‘scull’.

VSD (l. 12): an abbreviation for I know not what.

In many places one could have chosen between an “an'” and a present participle verb
ending “-in'”.

Further reading

Charles Bernstein cites a few examples of phonic imitation, or, as he terms it, homophonic translation:

Louis and Celia Zukofsky’s Catullus., David Melnick’s Homer
at Eclipse: Men in Aida part one and part two; Ron Silliman on homophonic translation (his own, Melnick’s, and Chris Tysh’s), and two examples by Charles Bernstein — from Basque and from Portuguese.