Writers join creative writing classes at diverse levels of skill, confidence, and motivation, and one challenge of teaching creative writing is to welcome all writers as “writers,” helping them feel included, motivated, and inspired, from the crucial class-opening exercises through the full term. Whether one is working in poetry or prose, form gives emerging and established writers alike the building blocks of new work, sparking exploration and increasing confidence by helping writers relax into generating content within the parameters of a given form.
However, many poetic forms rely on preexisting knowledge of meter (e.g., sonnets), musicality (e.g., Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse), syllable counts (e.g., cinquains), and other genre- and craft-specific knowledge with which not every writer will enter a given classroom. Further, in most poetic forms, there can be a correct and an incorrect execution.
Sonic translation, however, is a form accessible to all writers across skill levels, knowledge bases, and genres—and is a flexible, responsive form with no wrong answer.
In sonic translation, each writer finds a brief text in a language they do not know, and they generate a writing—a “sonic translation”—in response to what this text sounds like to them. When a writer creates their sonic translation by sounding out a written text, particularly when creating a sonic translation poem, a writer can mirror the physical shape of the poem as well (e.g., line length, line breaks, stanza length, punctuation). However, writers can also generate their sonic translation by listening to a spoken text, to facilitate multiple accessibility options and engagement with unfamiliar alphabets.
This exercise works well with poems, songs, flash fiction pieces, prose, or excerpts from longer works of one page or less. Because some writers will be drawn to create a narrative or logical translation, while other writers will prefer more surreal or nonlinear translation, confining the source text and sonic translation to one page enables writers across the spectrum to sustain and yet play with the boundaries of their preferred mode of writing.
All writers gain equal footing in sonic translation, because each writer is working with a text in an unfamiliar language; and, as sound, emphasis, and music are remarkably personal and individual, anything goes! If class or group size and characteristics permit, it can be useful to dissolve tensions and show there are truly no wrong answers by first working through a short sonic translation in small groups.
This exercise loosens tensions, promotes participation, and builds community, making it ideal to begin or shift a creative writing class, as well as to serve as a grounding or icebreaker activity for an organizational retreat, staff meeting, or facilitated session in community development, diversity and equity, social justice, or other fields where deepened understanding of the diverse, individual ways we perceive and relate to the worlds around us would be useful. (And, now more than ever, generating such inclusive and open spaces within and beyond academia is vital.)
Initial Sonic Translation, as Small Groups
- As a full group or class, read or listen to a short stanza or one to two sentences in a language unfamiliar to all present writers. (Share this source text in a way writers can revisit in their small groups.)
- Help students organize into groups of two to four people.
- In these small groups, have writers work together to generate a single sonic translation for their group. Encourage them to reread or relisten to the source text during their process.
- Reconvene as a full class, and have each group share their sonic translation.
- Then, give space to discussing how writers within groups brought differing translations to the table and how groups’ translations differed from one another—as they surely will.
- Dialogue about what can be learned from these diverse interpretations and, throughout, reaffirm the open possibilities of this form as writers prepare to generate their own sonic translations.
Full Sonic Translation, as Individual Writers
- Outside of class, with the guidance of the following assignment prompt, have each writer find a poem, song, flash fiction, prose piece, or excerpt from a longer work of one page or less in a language they do not know. This source text may be a written work or an audio clip, but it must be able to be submitted and shared alongside the writer’s sonic translation.
- Ask each writer to generate a sonic translation—with a reminder that this is not what the source text literally means (in fact, literal meaning is likely irrelevant here), but rather what words the source text sounds like. Ask each writer to bring their completed, printed sonic translation, along with a copy, link, or file of their source text, by the assigned deadline.
- On the day of that assigned deadline, have each writer share their source text and their sonic translation.
- Open the class for dialogue about the process and products of making a sonic translation: What did writers find challenging? What surprised them? What was their favorite part?
- Give space, also, to discussing the experience of receiving sonic translations as an audience. How do these source texts and sonic translations converge and diverge? What about sound and music? What about shape and form?
- Discuss lessons and insights generated from this project as creative writers, but also as learners, thinkers, creators, responders, professionals, and more in our world. How is this exercise and process relevant within and, importantly, beyond the walls of the classroom?
Example of the Exercise
Original Poem: “L’Ennemi” by Charles Baudelaire
Ma jeunesse ne fut qu’un ténébreux orage,
Traversé çà et là par de brilliants soleils;
La tonnerre et la pluie ont fait un tel ravage,
Qu’il reste en mon jardin bien peu de fruits vermeils.
Voilà que j’ai touché l’automne des idées,
Et qu’il faut employer la pelle et les râteaux
Pour reassembler à neuf les terres inondées,
Où l’eau creuse des trous grandes comme des tombeaux.
Et qui sait si les fleurs nouvelles que je réve
Trouveront dans ce sol lavè comme une grève
Le mystique aliment qui ferait leur vigueur?
—O douleur! ô douleur! Le Temps mange la vie,
Et l’obscur Ennemi qui nous ronge le cœur
Du sang que nous perdons croît et se fortifie!
by Lucien Darjeun Meadows
Magic rests in my foot, a tendon, a rage,
Traversing calendars, parties, for the brilliant soul—yet,
She let down her hair for my praise. I am fated to tell: a savage
Quill rests in my garden, behind poorer fruits, my meals.
Volatile cages I touch in the autumn of my ideas.
Equal the fate for the employer who pulls out the rats
For reassembling them into nothing, tears in his knees—
Who but Leo croons to the trout, grinds commoners into trombones?
And questions silence the flowers. Novels cry the river,
Troubadours dancing on the lava covering her grave.
The mystical mountain carefully loving her.
O Dolores, O Dolores! Too late my magic loves you
And obscures the enemy questioning around our cure—
You sank to seek pardon, quell our secret fire.
Lucien Darjeun Meadows is a Cherokee/German+ writer born in Virginia and raised in the mountains of Monongalia County, West Virginia. An AWP Intro Journals Project winner, his poetry and prose have appeared in West Branch, Shenandoah, Pleiades, Narrative, and Beloit Poetry Journal. Lucien has received fellowships and awards from the Academy of American Poets, American Alliance of Museums, Bread Loaf Conferences, Colorado Creative Industries, National Association for Interpretation, and the University of Denver, where he is pursuing his PhD in English. Visit www.lucienmeadows.com.