Nathan Mifsud


The Birds, translated for birds

Gossiping Sparrows, 18th century, Zhang Ruoai

The explanation to follow will make more sense if you first take a look at the “translated” play — and ideally, try reading it out loud!

Fågelsång is Swedish for “birdsong”. I learned it from a peculiar record called Nära Naturen (1977) by Jan Lindblad. Lindblad had a talent for imitating birds by whistling, most impressively on “Morgonvandring med Fågelsång” (“Morning Walk with Birdsong”).

But the real seed of 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 the mind runs amok.

The other way to mimic birds with language is onomatopoeia. This is what you find in field guides to help with identification. Helpfully, in some places birds are named by 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. However, the hit rate was abysmal, and I realised that even if it was 100% “accurate” (i.e. the output warblish evoked a similar sound pattern to the input), the results would be utter nonsense.

Nonsense in generative texts is par for the course, but translating to warblish wouldn’t produce interesting nonsense. But a play composed entirely of onomatopoeia? That could be fun to read and say out loud. Aristophanes understood this!

I prepped a Gutenberg version of The Birds (an Ancient Greek play) by deleting metadata, footnotes and line breaks. Then, I created a program that split words into syllables (keeping vowels to preserve pitch) and randomly lengthened vowels and repeated syllables and lines (to introduce an avian cadence), while keeping leading letters and punctuation (to preserve some meaning).

Note that there’s no universal method of transcribing bird sounds. Capturing pitch and rhythm is what really matters, so I didn’t try to achieve a consistent orthography. That said, I (loosely!) based the sound substitutions on the lexicons of my Morcombe & Stewart field guide and Aaaaw to Zzzzzd by John Bevis.