Elizabeth Bodien

Translation in a broad definition can include code switching between different versions of the same basic language. Standard American English has various dialects or registers based on different geographical regions and class. Occupations also have their own lexicons such that it is often hard for an outsider to understand, hence the popular terms “medicalese,” “legalese,” and “computerese.” Age even comes into play as a variation on the standard form.

Recently I heard a 1961 recording of Sylvia Plath reading her poem “Tulips.” I was moved by what I heard and wrote the poem below:

After Hearing Sylvia Plath Read “Tulips”

“I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted / To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.”                                              Sylvia Plath, “Tulips” from Ariel

This day is loathe to start, it’s gray,
a dreary sky, blunt pencil stub.
But start it does, as if by will,
a will that warns of laziness.

The light augments, not broad or bright.
It merely grows, so duty-bound.
We guess at motive of surroundings,
assign a gloss to what we see.

Suppose we move, step into action,
right foot, left foot, gaining distance,
maintain illusion that there’s purpose,
hide from eternal emptiness.

Could we change our tone of voice,
put such words next to each other,
look from someone else’s eyes,
and so transform these lives we live?

No way to know until we start,
push our boat from shore to sea,
trust wave enough to throw our net,
if lucky later, finding harbor.


How would these twenty lines read in a cowboy or country register? This is not my own usual speech so the following takes liberties and risks being dated. Nevertheless here is the same poem converted to that register. There are changes of vocabulary, phrasing, and idiom but the result keeps the blank verse and sense of the first iteration.

Dreckly After Hearin’ Sylvia Plath Read “Tulips”

This here day don’t wanna start,
that yonder sky, plumb gray and peakid.
Well bust mah britches, it do start,
as if afeared of lazin’.

Th’ light gits big, ain’t broad o’ bright,
a-fixin’ to grow, so duty-boun’.
We hanker for th’ why of all,
fetch sum meanin’ of these parts.

Jes’ suppose we step to ackshun,
right foot, lef’ foot, fer a spell,
kepp mighty thoughts thet thar’s a reason.
We skeered to see th’ nekidness.

C’d we change our wallerin’,
put one good wo’d next to t’other,
take a gander from other eyes,
fer onest change up our lives?

No way t’knows ‘til we git goin’,
push our boat fum sho’ t’sea,
trest th’ waves and throw our net,
if lucky, by ‘n by, git back home.


For yet another shift of register, I translated the lines into text messaging, an increasingly frequent form of communication which challenges geography because of its ubiquity in cyberspace—that region where so many of us live nowadays. The primary principle of text messaging is to make the writing brief and easy to thumb in so only a few capital letters (except acronyms) are used, vowels are dropped where not needed, and numerals replace letters where possible. The key features of texting are not so much a matter of lexicon, syntax, or idiom but rather a matter of orthography. However, I have tried to include some vocabulary choices that might be those of frequent text messagers. Here are the same twenty lines as a text message.

Fter Hering Sylvia Plath Read “2lips”

dis dA sEmz nt 2 start, it’s meh,
cldy sky, like pencil stub.
4COL stRt it does,
sEmz 2 say, “Gt movin.”

d lite gts bg, NTB
It grws, thatz all, it shud.
We gueS @ why envirnmnt workz,
put som mEng 2 wot we c.

Spoz we move, step in2 action,
rght ft, L ft, gaining dstnce,
kEp  iLusion dat derz prpus,
hide frm da blank 4EAE.

c%d we chAng our tone of voice,
put such wrds NXT 2 ech other,
L%k frm other peeps POV
& so chAng up dEz livez we liv?

HSIK untl we stRt,
push our boat frm shOr 2 sea,
trst wAvz enuf 2 throw our net,
@TEOTD, finding harbor.


Texting Abbreviations

4COL = for crying out loud
NTB = not too bright
4EAE = for ever and ever
POV = point of view
HSIK = how should I know
@TEOTD = at the end of the day
peeps = people

The test of this translation experiment would be if the speakers or texters separately read the versions and then were able to agree, at least to some degree, on what the poem says. For now, the experiment is offered in a light and playful spirit of experimentation with the invitation for others to continue with similar experiments, including testing the results with real speakers or texters.

(The original poem “After Hearing Sylvia Plath Read ‘Tulips’” has just been published in Artemis Journal (April 2015) as “After Reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘Tulips.’”)