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.

I came across the word fågelsång (Swedish for “birdsong”) while reading the sleeve of Nära Naturen (1977), a record by whistler extraordinaire Jan Lindblad. Check out “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 actually “warblish”—the imitation of bird sounds not by whistling, but by using existing language, such as 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 in human language is onomatopoeia. This often appears in field guides to help with distinguishing species. Even better, in some places the birds are named based on their calls. The Anangu of central Australia, for instance, know the little crow as Kaanka and the galah as Piyar-piyarpa.

At first I used GPT-3 to try creating a birdsong-inspired work. I crafted prompts to translate random onomatopoeic strings into warblish. But the hit rate was abysmal—that is, the model-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 in the worst sense. Without knowing the input that produced the output, it would have no meaning.

Nonsense in generative texts is commonplace, but interesting nonsense is the aim. Warblish was out. However, a play composed entirely of onomatopoeia? That could be fun to speak. Aristophanes understood this!

I prepared a Project Gutenberg version of the Ancient Greek play The Birds by removing footnotes and line breaks. Then, I created a program that split words into syllables, randomly lengthened vowels, repeated syllables and lines, and appended 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?