Nathan Mifsud


Translating an ancient play into birdsong

Gossiping Sparrows, 18th century, Zhang Ruoai

First, take a look at the “translated” play—and try reading it aloud!

OK, now I can explain.

Fågelsång is Swedish for “birdsong”. I learned it when I discovered the record Nära Naturen (1977) by Jan Lindblad, who had a talent for imitating birds by whistling. He is most impressive on the track “Morgon­vandring med Fågelsång” (“Morning Walk with Bird­song”), a track where he imitates 17 bird species, from woodpeckers to cuckoos.

But the impetus for this project was learning about “warblish”—the imitation of bird sounds using existing language. A classic is the barred owl’s who cooks for you? who cooks for you-all? Some birders know dozens of these mnemonics. Spend enough time alone in the woods and your mind would run amok too.

Along with nonsense sentences, another way to mimic birds with language is onomatopoeia. This appears in some field guides to help with identification. Even better, in some places the birds are named based on their calls. For instance, the Anangu of central Australia know the little crow as Kaanka and the galah as Piyar-piyarpa.

My first attempt to create a birdsong-inspired work used GPT-3. I crafted prompts to translate random onomatopoeic strings into warblish. But the hit rate was abysmal—that is, the computer-generated warblish sentences sounded nothing like the input onomatopoeia. In the process, I realised that even if it was 100% “accurate”, the results would be nonsense. Without knowing the input that produced the output, it would have no meaning.

Nonsense in generative texts is par for the course, but at the least, I try to generate interesting nonsense. Warblish was out. However, a play composed entirely of onomatopoeia? That could be fun to read and say out loud. Aristophanes understood this!

I prepared a Project Gutenberg version of the Ancient Greek play The Birds by removing metadata, footnotes and line breaks. Then, I created a program that splits words into syllable, randomly lengthens vowels, repeats syllables and lines, and appends new, bird-like sound endings. (There’s no universal method of transcribing bird sounds, so I loosely mapped sound endings based on the lexicons in Morcombe & Stewart’s guide and Aaaaw to Zzzzzd by John Bevis.)

So, this line—

From whom? Why, from themselves. Don't you know the cawing crow lives five times as long as a man?

—becomes something like:

Frooi whoooo whooooo? Whaaark, froee thenk seek vee. Doee nt-nt yoooowk-uhii uhi-knoooop knop thet cak wiah-crok lioo vee-fiee veeeee tit tiiiit tiit mee as-looo aasas-a maai mai?

It’s a far cry from real birdsong, but worth a laugh. Whaaak whak-doee yooowk-yoowk uri thioo?