Sheli Poetry

This section is devoted to an interactive idea I had suggested to me by good friend Will McPherson via Eliot Weinberger. Awhile back, Will brought to my attention a book by Eliot Weinberger entitled Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem Is Translated. In this book, Weinberger examines nineteen different translations of a single four line poem by the Chinese poet Wang Wei. By looking at all the different translations, it's easy to see how the same words can be interpreted in many, many different ways.

Fast forward to now, I thought it might be a neat idea (on prompting from Will) to write a poem in one of my languages and put it up on my site with the intention of allowing anyone to translate it that wants to translate it. Though I'm no Wang Wei, hopefully we can replicate what Weinberger saw.

Before I explain some pertinent information, let me show you the poem. I'll give it first in Sheli's script, and then in my transcription system. Here it is:

The poem in Sheli script.

Suf3 čü6 dyas6 ye6 dàm3
An2 šen3 dwos6 čav3 dol3
Khùm2 dat3 šé53 zin1
Pa4 ğeš1 ta4 bul3 xey6
Án6 kwe6 thil3 pa4 des3.

That's the poem. Before I give my translations, let me explain a little bit about the form. This type of poem, in Sheli, is called 5 on1 jim3, which translates to "box poetry". Box poems can be of any length, as long as they conform to the following standard: The number of syllables in a line must be equivalent to the number of lines in the poem. So, if you take a look at the first line, you'll see that there are five syllables (which happen, in this case, to correspond to five words), and if you take a look at the poem, you'll see there are five lines. In each of the five lines, you should also notice that there are five syllables. The third line contains a compound word, so there are only four words in the line, but the syllable count is maintained. (And, yes, that word is equivalent to the name of the language, which means "ocean", or thereabouts.) That's how this particular poem works. Because of the box style, a poem can consist of a single word, or two lines of two words each, etc.

Focusing on the poem itself, it could be broken up into three stanzas, the first being the first two lines, the second being the second two lines, and the third being the last line. The stanzas here would be divided by theme, since this is an unrhymed poem.

Finally, just a point about the image. The very first symbol in the first line is equivalent to a period in roman typeface. There are no capital letters or phrase-/sentence-final punctuation marks in Sheli. Where possible, words connect to each other, via the dividing line, and where that's not possible, a dot precedes the character. Also note that the dividing itself can be lengthened or shortened, depending on what you want. In this case, I tried to completely justify the text so that it would look like a box by lengthening the lines in places. The lengthening is equivalent to spacing in a justified text in, for example, this paragraph, and shouldn't be paid attention to.

That said, I'll now move on to the translation section.


In order to translate this poem, you're going to need to know a few things, summarized (and internally linked) below:

  1. How Classifiers Work
  2. How Sentences Are Put Together
  3. What the Words Mean

Hopefully, after going over these sections, you'll have all you need to be able to understand and translate the poem.

How Classifiers Work

I figured this would be good to go over first, since it's important in understand how noun phrases are put together (and knowing how noun phrases are put together is important in understanding how sentences are put together). First, if you want a thorough run down, go to the page dedicated to classifiers in Sheli. That will tell you everything. This section will simply tell you what you need to know here.

First, an obvious question: Are there classifiers in this poem? The answer: Yes. There are two, and they're different. So knowing how they work will be moderately important.

The second question might be "what are they". For the thorough answer, go to the page on classifiers. For a simple answer, they're little words that are associated with particular nouns, and which need to be used along with those nouns in certain circumstances?

Next question: What are those certain circumstances? For a complete answer, again, go to the page on classifiers. For the task at hand, all you need to know is that when a noun is modified by an adjective, a classifier comes in between the noun and the adjective. Again, the type of classifier used is determined by the noun. The resulting construction is an NP where a noun is modified by an adjective. In this construction, the noun is put into the genitive case. To simplify matters, I will list the genitive of every word I include in the lexicon.

Final question: Why have classifiers? The best answer is on the page on classifiers. Here, I'll say that classifiers can give the listener a better sense of how the speaker thinks about the noun in question. They can also serve a derivational function. There are 73 different classifiers, and a given word can take different classifiers depending on what meaning is intended. In that way, they kind of work like the noun classes of Zhyler, but their use isn't as rampant.

Okay, I think that's all you'll need to know about classifiers. On to sentence structure.

How Sentences Are Put Together

Sheli is a language that's sensitive to animacy. So, if you have two nouns in a sentence, one an object and one the subject, the noun phrase that's more animate will come first, followed by the verb, followed by the less animate noun phrase. It will be assumed that the first noun (the more animate) is the subject. If it isn't, the noun phrase will need to be preceded by the particle lo4.

In the poem above, there are no pronouns or proper names, so you need not worry about these. All you need to worry about are nouns. As far as nouns go, humans are more animate than parts of humans, which are more animate than animals, which are more animate than parts of animals, which are more animate than plants, which are more animate than naturally occurring phenomena (storms, mountains, lakes, etc.), which are more animate than manmade objects. So, if a noun is higher on the animacy scale, it will come before the verb, and it will be assumed to be the subject, unless preceded by the particle lo4.

As far as internal sentence structure, you've already learned how noun phrases are put together. As I just said, the basic order is SVO, unless the lo4 particle is used, in which case it's OVS. It can be simply described as AVA: argument verb argument order. In this way, it's like English, where, active or passive, you get, "The cat saw the dog" and "The dog was seen by the cat", where the verb is sandwiched by its arguments. You need not worry about relative clauses, since this poem contains none (well, kind of. The prepositional phrase "on the roof" in "the man on the roof" is kind of like a relative clause, both in English and in Sheli. In this case, though, Sheli works just like English).

Just to mention, prepositional phrases are rather free in their placement. If a prepositional phrase is to modify an NP, as in the example I just sighted, it must follow the noun. Otherwise, most prepositional phrases can occur after the verb or at the beginning of the sentence.

Adverbs come in two types. Simple manner adverbs look just like adjectives and come either directly after the verb or sentence-finally. The other kind of adverbs are actually classifiers, as described above. However, these classifiers are special verbal classifiers. In order to modify a verb, the adverbial classifier must precede the verb (which is put into the genitive), and a special "pro-form", like English "do", is inserted as a carrier phrase.

What the Words Mean

Of course, you can't understand something in a different language if you don't know what the words you hear or read mean. This section will give you a definition of each word in the poem. First the citation form of the word will be listed, followed by the genitive form in parentheses (in case it's needed). Then, in case it's of interest, I'll list the old form of the word in /slashes/. Next the part of speech of the word (noun, verb, etc.) will be listed, plus any additional information (e.g., a noun will be followed by a number, specifying which classifier is to be used with that noun). Finally, I'll give the full definition of each word. Some definitions will be useful; some won't. It's up to you to decide how exactly you want to define a word and then translate it.

Okay, here's the list (in English alphabetical order, for ease):

  • an2 (an1) /*an/ (v.) to do, to perform; (adj.) active, able-bodied; (n.1) (an/the) action; (n.63) performance (such as an oration, a concert, etc.), recital
  • án6 (án6) /*axan/ (v.) to be red, to be rusty; (adj.) red, rusty; (n.65) rust
  • bul3 (bul3) /*bulun/ (v.) to steal by force (as opposed to by stealth); (n.7) mosquito; (n.11) pirate, corsair, privateer(sman)
  • čav3 (čav3) /*čavas/ (v.) to breathe; (n.2) breath, air (within one's lungs, not without); (n.45) breathable, fresh air
  • čü6 (čüs6) /*čiu/ (cl.) noun classifier 8, used for things that come naturally in fours; (n.1) quartet
  • dat3 (dat3) /*daton/ (v., int.) to stay, to remain; (v., tr.) to keep (something); (n.1) stasis; (n.11) remaining, leftover people (change classifier to change "people" to "animals", "sticks", "furniture", etc.); (adj.) leftover, remaining; (prep.) general locative preposition
  • dàm3 (dàm3) /*dambon/ (v.) to be solid; (adj.) solid; (n.30) tree
  • des3 (des3) /*dethus/ (n.59) market, marketplace, store
  • dol3 (dol3) /*dolus/ (cl.) noun classifier 71 (verbal classifier 5), used to describe slow, deliberate actions; (v.) to be slow; (adj.) slow
  • dwos6 (dwos6) /*doxus/ (v.) to cut, to slice; (adj.) cut, sliced; (n.64) salary, wage
  • dya6 (dyas6) /*dea/ (cl.) noun classifier 27, used for slaughtered animals; (n.1) leg (of an animal)
  • ğeš1 (ğeš3) /*ğečho/ (n.28) pebble; (n.46) rock, stone (handheld); (n.47) large rock, boulder
  • khùm2 (khùm2) /*khumpan/ (v.) to transport goods by means of a cargo ship or barge; (n.60) barge, cargo ship
  • kwe6 (kwes6) /*kue/ (cl.) noun classifier 6, used for things that naturally come in pairs; (n.1) pair; (n.11) (a pair of) identical twins (adult); (n.13) (a pair of) identical twins (child)
  • 6 (lís6) /*lii/ (v.) to be dark blue, green, blue-green; (adj.) dark blue, green, blue-green; (n.1) bruise
  • pa4 (pas3) /*pa/ (prep.) to, on, in (this preposition can be translated in many ways, depending on the object. It focuses on the completion of a movement relative to a destination. Thus, if the destination is a room, the best translation is "in"; if the destination is a city, the best translation is "to"; if the destination is the roof of a house, the best translation is "on", etc.)
  • suf3 (suf3) /*suphun/ (v.) to be thick; (adj.) thick; (n.1) thickness
  • šen3 (šen3) /*šenus/ (cl.) noun classifier 72 (verbal classifier 6), used to describe smooth, fluid actions; (v.) to flow (of water); (n.39) flow, flowing (of water)
  • šé5 (šés6) /*šexe/ (v.) to be vast, to be expansive, to be great; (adj.) large, expansive, far-reaching, vast, great; (n.58) vastness, expansiveness, greatness
  • šé53 (šé53) /*šexe + *lii/ (n.40) the ocean (the whole thing); (n.63) short name for the Sheli language (the full name is šé53 gàm1)
  • ta4 (tas3) /*ta/ (conj.) and, and then, next (connects actions [VP's] only, not NP's or AP's)
  • thil1 (thil3) /*thili/ (n.1) ivory; (n.4) tusk (of an animal)
  • xey6 (xeys6) /*xei/ (v.) to take, to get, to receive; (v.) to become; (adj.) becoming; (n.1) acquisition, find (e.g., "That's quite a find!")
  • ye6 (yes6) /*ie/ (v.) to be similar to, to approximate, to be the same as (something); (adj.) same, similar, like; (adv.) too, also, as well; (prep.) as, like; (n.66) similarity
  • zin1 (zin3) /*zina/ (v.) to glide, to move effortlessly across, on or through; (adj.) breezy; (n.43) breeze

That, then, should be all you need to translate the poem. If you think there's something vital that's noticeably lacking, let me know, and I'll add it. Now, though, on to my two sample translations.


This section will be devoted to all the translations of the poem above. To start off, I will give two of my own translations. After that, I'll list the translations which I receive in chronological order. After each translation I'll add some notes, and, of course, for each translation, I'll list the translator, their website (if applicable), and the date of translation.

Translation 1: David Peterson, March 3, 2005


Thick legs like trees
Slice slowly through the air,
A barge glides across the ocean
Into a rock, and the pirates take
The red tusks to the marketplace.

So this is my first shot at a translation, and it doesn't appear to be very good. At least, it doesn't seem very good. Here are some observations to consider:

  • While the classifiers in the second line provide a very imagistic impression of how something can slowly, smoothly and powerfully move through the air, the verb "slice" doesn't seem to work as well. Specifically, it suggests a quick, deliberate motion. "Slice slowly" almost seems like a contradiction.

  • It seems like there should be a better word for "rock" than "rock". Ditto for "pirate".

  • In English, all you have is "leg", so the specific connotation of "animal leg" is lost. Also, the Sheli classifier implies that there are four legs (or one leg of four), and that will be lost in any English translation (this one included), unless one decides to deliberately include the number four (which is a possibility).

  • I kept the five line form, though the five syllable/five word requirement has dropped out. One wonders if keeping the lines adds to, or detracts from the content in its English form.

  • English requires that articles (e.g., "the" and "and") be used in particular contexts, which can make translation clumsy (e.g, the last line). In Sheli, there are no articles. There are ways to indicate whether or not something is new to the discourse, but they're not necessary, and, in some cases (such as this one), aren't even desirable. This is a problem when translating to English.

All in all, this translation is probably good at giving you the meanings of the words, but it pulls it off rather clumsily.

Translation 2: David Peterson, March 4, 2005


Thick tree-legs pass gracefully through the air
A barge glides through the ocean into a rock, the pirates taking
The red tusks to market.

This is a second attempt at a translation. It's better in some ways than the first; in some ways it's not better. It's definitely different, though. Here are some notes:

  • I gave up on the five line requirement. Instead, I broke it up into three lines based on content. This helps the flow of the first two lines, but you lose the enjambment between the third and fourth.

  • In a couple places, I compacted longer phrases. So the first line is now a noun with an adjective. In the second to last line, I got rid of the word "and" and made the whole phrase a...what do you call it... Converbial phrase? Something like that. The "and" is rather distracting in English, but necessary in Sheli.

  • Though "through" isn't the best definition of pa4 in this instance, I translated it that way to mirror the first line. I think it works better.

  • Though the phrase "to market" is a bit antiquated, I think it matches up better with the Sheli phrase. It seems like there should be a better way to say this in English, and for some reason I think there is, I just can't come up with it...

There are problems with the second line, but I think this translation is a marked improvement on the first.

Translation 3: Will McPherson, March 12, 2005


The beast's legs, tree-trunks,
cut through the air like water
A ship gliding across the sea lands upon
a rock, corsairs carrying
the red tusks to the marketplace

This is the first translation of the poem not by me. Huzzah! The author's comment: "A wordy, incompetent translation." I beg to differ. Some thoughts:

  • The use of the word "beast" reclaims the specifity ordinarily lost in a standard English translation.

  • I like the addition of "like" water to the second line. It allows one to move right into the ship lines that follow.

  • I asked for a better word for "pirate", and Will delivered: corsair! I'm ashamed to say that I knew this word only from Star Craft, and didn't know that it could refer to a person. But, indeed, it can. I've added it and a couple other possibilities to the lexicon.

  • Now here's something interesting. Again, tense is irrelevant to Sheli grammar, so one is free to translate the tense however one wants (anyone want to venture a future tense version...?). In this translation, the whole poem is in the presense tense, but the two verbs with tense are "cut" and "land"—the latter a verb introduced by the translator. Everything else is tenseless, in a manner of speaking. The action, then, is simply that of a movement coming to an end.

I'm actually rather fond of this translation. I think that there will be problems with any translation, largely because of the word "pirate". It seems like once that element is introduced, the poem changes dramatically. But, of course, that could be how I meant it... I'll stick with that story.

Translation 4: Will McPherson, March 12, 2005


thick legs like trees
smoothly slicing air slowly
barge gliding across ocean
onto large stone, and pirates take
red tusks to the marketplace

This is the second translation of the poem not by me. Huzzah! This is the second by Will. His comment: "Vaguely David Hinton style." Give me a moment to look that name up... Ah. Go here to visit David's webpage and see some of his sample translations of ancient Chinese poetry. Wow. Reading through those reminds me that some poems are, indeed, better than others. (And, yes, by that I mean that the ancient Chinese poetry is better than mine. Better than lots.) Some thoughts:

  • I'm still not comfortable with the word "slice". The English word doesn't fit, but it's still appropriate. Like watching a big ocean liner going through the sea when it's just leaving port. It slices through the water, but it's slow and powerful. The word "slice" seems to entail quick, rapid motion, which doesn't seem appropriate, even though the manner does. Can a word be separated from its entailments?

  • I like the placement of the word "slowly". Depending on how you want to read this aloud, "slowly" can actually modify the third line. The line break forces one reading, but I like the possibility of being able to read it either way.

  • There is, in fact, a definite article in this poem—the second to last word. I don't know if it was intentional, but it certainly does ground the poem in reality right at the end. Up until that point, the lack of articles kind of gives the reader a feel of nonstandard, and therefore freer [a strange word], English. The phrase "to the marketplace", however, is as perfunctory and rigid as English gets, and kind of reinforces the point of the poem, I think.

An interesting translation that probably sounds more like the original rhythmically. Not that I've ever managed to successfully speak the poem in Sheli. I can't even do the first line!

Translation 5: Taliesin the Storyteller, March 13, 2005


thick wooden beast-legs
smoothly slowly slit the air
ocean-crossing barge gliding
landing on the large rock,
for the souk red tusks, the pirates

This is the first translation of the poem not by me or by Will. Huzzah! The translator sent the following message with his translation: "I've sent in a 30 second impromptu translation to English, but as if a speaker with Taruven as L1 had made it." Taruven is a language created by the translator, and is quite fascinating (in particular, look at the script, and what Taliesin calls "axis words". Cool stuff!). Some comments on the translation:

  • The first line is very interesting. First, the fact that the legs are from an animal is preserved nicely. Second, the translator really has gotten the intention of using the phrase ye6 dàm3 by translating it as "wooden", i.e., stiff and unmoving. Excellent choice.

  • The use of the word "slit" is a good choice. "Slit" entails neither quickness nor repetitive action the way "slice" does. It does seem to suggest a slight action, but the description of the subject of the verb downplays the diminutive nature of the verb.

  • The last three lines of the poem don't contain a conjugated verb. This is something that's perfectly possible, since tense isn't grammatically important in Sheli, and I think the effect is a good one. Very nicely done.

  • The last line sent me to the dictionary. If you're unfamiliar with the word "souk", I'll save you a trip: It's a word that refers to a marketplace or a stand in a marketplace in northern Arabia. It comes from the Arabic word suuq. So what the translator's done with the last line is mix up the word order, so that it reads "to the market place the red tusks the pirates", and the verb "take" was left off. Thus, the reader has to fill in the blanks, so to speak. And, with the way the subject has gotten dragged to the very end, the phrase can almost be seen as a comment on the poem. Also, since that word "pirate" was really a break in the feel of the poem, I thought, it seems fitting that it should come at the end.

I like this translation. Once you figure out what the word "souk" means, the poem flows well (something that's very important in Taruven, according to the translator). Further to the translator's credit, the sacrifices the translator had to make to give the poem a nice flow don't detract from the meaning of the poem at all.

Translation 6: Matt Trinsic, March 14, 2005

ryces ehakap xyd
dohoke efatep donoz ropyb
atnaparap hapehu napacod cepatu
dobed pekyt ropeko
pewas ebowaz fejez

This is the first translation of the poem into another created language. Huzzah! The language is Neryv, and the creator is Matt Trinsic. He sent the following message with his translation: "[A]s Sheli doesn't have verb tenses but Neryv does, I took the liberty of manipulating the tenses a bit to see how it would look." That, of course, is perfectly appropriate. Here are some comments on the translation based on the interlinear notes with which Matt supplied me:

  • Just something interesting to notice about Neryv: There's an adjectival marker, which is an e- prefix. This prefix, though, has command over any number of words that follow—not just the word to which it's affixed. So, for example, there are three words in the first line which mean, respectively, "leg", "thickness" and "tree". The word "thickness", hakap, has an e- prefix, though, which makes both it, and the word "tree" an adjective. Thus, the whole thing is one big compound adjective, meaning "thick like a tree", or something. See below for Matt's retranslation of this line into English.

  • This is kind of the same as the last point, but just as with adjectives, prepositions also are prefixed to a noun but take scope over several words, it seems. So, if I'm parsing it right, atnaparap is atna-, a general word for a preposition, plus parap, "barge" (Matt can tell me if I've parsed this incorrectly). The nature of the preposition, though, is undefined. To define the preposition, the next two words, hapehu napacod, something like "was being on the ocean", are used. Thus, the whole thing is, "the barge on the ocean". Very cool.

  • The word Matt uses to translate xey6, "take", is glossed as "place", or maybe "put". So, literally, the pirates aren't taking the tusks to the marketplace, they're placing the tusks in the marketplace, I believe. Interesting.

As I mentioned above, Matt also retranslated his Neryv text into English. Here's what that version looks like:

Thick tree-legs
forcefully, slowly carved air.
Barge on ocean swims
to rock. Pirates will take
red tusks to marketplace.

About the retranslation, the retranslator says: "The translation into English went pretty well, except the very first line. The 'tree-legs' should be read as 'legs that are trees' rather than 'legs of trees'. In Neryv, this is quite explicit and would most likely be taken metaphorically." Oh yeah... I guess "tree-legs" is ambiguous in English. Silly English... Here are some notes on this English version:

  • In this version, the poem has been broken up into three sentences which, literally, travel through time (or at least tense). The first sentence is the past tense; the second in the present tense; and the third in the future tense. Very interesting.

  • I really like the translator's choice in translating dwos6 as "carve"! I think it may be the perfect translation in this situation. Carving is something that requires care, and is therefore done slowly, but powerfully. Excellent. I may yet attempt another English translation using the word "carve"...

  • The English version lacks articles, but this may be because the Neryv version lacks articles. I think the latter two sentences might benefit from the introduction of a few articles.

Special thanks to Matt for being the first to translate the poem into a conlang (even if the second followed only a few hours afterward). Plus, excellent work on the first two lines.

Translation 7: Roger Mills, March 14, 2005


she-li tu1

ngu1 gaq1 day1 ti:-de3
wa:ng1 wawng3 shiq3 tr4 ming3
br1-poyh5 laq3 liwng4 tru:5
xwè3 caq5, tru:5-tuyng1 dliq3
treng3 trong-de3 shòng3 pr3

This is the first translation of the poem that includes a title. Huzzah! The translator sent the following message with his translation: "Very easy (too easy??), almost word for word, even preserving the 5-syl/5-line form. Perhaps the author was She-li Pr-si :-)))))" You know what this means, right? If you like Sheli, you'll love Gwr! Though, of course, even if you don't like Sheli, you'll still love Gwr. Roger does good work. A note on the above: The tone markings that Roger uses for Gwr differ from those I use for Sheli. Here's a key:

Gwr tones: 5 = high; 4 = high-falling; 3 = mid; 2 = low-rising; 1 = low.

Additionally, Roger provided me with an interlinear translation. This isn't a retranslation to English, note, just a word-for-word account of what the Gwr translation means. Here's the interlinear:

She-li poem

with/using thick tree leg-pl
beast plod smooth(ly) through air/atmosphere
pull-boat float calm sea
collide rock, sea-thief steal
red tusk-pl sell market

Now some comments on the translation:

  • This is more of a comment to would-be translators: You can give the poem a title. Roger's the first to do it. I actually had a title in mind from the beginning, but decided against it using it; thought it would bias future translations too much.

  • Hey, kudos to Roger for preserving the form exactly! Yes, Gwr is an isolating language, and that, no doubt, made it easier, but still, it's no small feat. Great work!

  • Roger decided to dispense with the whole "cutting" idea and instead described the action as it is. I think that might be the best way to go about, unless you have a word like "carve" in your conlang that works exactly like English "carve".

  • Note that Roger did away with the preposition, and instead used another verb, conveying explicitly what the original conveys implicity: That the ship crashes into some rocks.

  • The word "sea-thief" is a compound intended to mean "pirate", but I actually like the way it sounds in English. "Pirate" already carries a host of associations with it; "sea-thief" doesn't. And it sounds neat. But that could just be me.

This is an excellent translation. Probably one of my favorites. I'd love to hear someone pronounce this one—and the original Sheli, too. Someday...

Translation 8: Elliott Lash, March 14, 2005


pennë assunya pólëa
iesna i sëan renma
krima nárnëa isunta
no kiranna, krimalë lanyamma:
piva kuia narroalásëa, lunkanu.

This is the first translation of the poem for which I have no reason to say "huzzah". Huzzah! This is Elliott Lash's Silindion, an elvish language. Some comments on the translation:

  • Elliot used the verb iesna, "dividing", which conveys the separation without necessarily the cutting. I think that was a good choice.

  • If I understand the third line correctly, I think it's a very neat construction. In his interlinear, Elliott gives the glosses "ship ocean-going floating". Thus, "ocean-going" becomes a verb, and the word "floating" describes how the ocean-going is done. Cool construction!

  • I like what Elliott did with the last line. I've never much liked the word "market", so rather than use a word for "market" or "store", Elliott uses the form lunkanu, which means "for selling". A good substitution.

In addition to giving a translation into Silindion, Elliott also retranslated the poem into English. Here's that retranslation:

Four tough animal legs
separating air slowly
ocean ship floating

towards rock, corsairs with goods:
reddish forms made of ivory
for the marketing.

About the retranslation, the retranslator says: "I made it into 6 lines, with 'stanzas' corresponding to similar syllable counts. The first three lines have 6 - 7 - 5 syllables respectively, [and] the last three also have 6 - 7 - 5 , in English." Cool! I think this is the first English version that was given a strict form. Right on! Here are some notes on this English version:

  • I think "separating air slowly" is both a good translation of the Silindion line and of the Sheli line.

  • Now this is interesting. Thematically, the five line Sheli poem separates easily into 2 lines, 2 lines and 1 line. Elliott has made the poem into six lines, and has put a break after the third. However, the break is still natural. Rather than being separated into stanzas thematically about the animal and thematically about the ship, the first of the two stanzas in this version is thematically peaceful, and the second is thematically violent. Very interesting.

  • If this were a conlang relay, I think the second half of the fourth line and the entire fifth line would be where the text would venture off into the merky depths.

  • Interesting side note: If I pronounce every word the way I usually do, I get eight syllables for the fifth line. And I'm sure there are some who still pronounce "towards" disyllabically. Hee, hee...

This is an interesting translation. The retranslation especially made me think of the poem differently, which is neat, since I wrote it. Good job!

Translation 9: Jeffrey Henning, March 15, 2005


Teng limnh mwu
a breengh lo somnh nlienm vreemh e
ku bluunh shen zlumnh lo skingh byom lo vo dyem e
a ke spoem stum dzheen ronh lo sthingh kweemnh e.

This is the first translation of the poem into a non-human language. Huzzah! And in this case, "non-human" is to be taken quite literally. Jeffrey Henning's language Fith is a language that cannot be spoken by humans, because of the unique LIFO grammar it employs. That makes the translation of a human poem into Fith immediately interesting. Additionally, though, Fith is spoken by a race of alien herbivores, and, says Jeffrey: "[T]his is a sad, sad poem for a race of alien herbivores to recite." Not that it's all that uplifting for humans (well, unless you're a poacher, I guess). This is an interlinear of the translation (note: a word preceded by an asterisk * is what's known as a stack conjunction in Fith grammar):

limb-stump mast tree-stump
plural shank of midair andante cut .
singular container *swap without of rock ocean of it absorb .
plural the predator horn brown *rotate of marketplace remove .

Some interesting notes on the Fith translation:

  • Jeffrey notes the following: "This poem begins ominously, 'stump, mast, stump', where teng is the stump of a limb or tooth and mwu is the stump of a tree. These three stark images of truncated objects color the rest of the poem." Indeed. The grammar of Fith allows you the freedom to put which words you want where, pretty much, and this was a good way to make use of the freedom of the word order.

  • Jeffrey also notes the following: "Er, speaking of color, I had to translate 'red' as 'brown', because in my interpretation of David's poem the red is the red of blood, but in that context Fiths refer instead to brown, the color of dried blood." Very interesting. It would also be interesting to see this translated into a natural (or non-natural) language that didn't have as many color terms. Given the universal tendency for color terms to appear in a language in a particular order, though, it would probably be a language that only had "bright" vs. "dark" color distinctions.

  • Jeffrey also notes the following: "Of course, Fith, as the language of aliens, divides its lexicon in odd ways. For instance, there's no general word for 'leg' or 'limb', but there is one for 'shank' (the part of the leg from the knee to the ankle); there's no general word analogous to 'glide', as in 'glide through the ocean' so I reached for 'absorb' as an ironic alternative; there's no general word for 'boat' either, let alone 'barge', which led to the need to translate 'barge' as 'container without a mast', which was a fortunate circumlocution, since it provided me the initial image of the poem." Also note that "pirate" was translated as "predator", to fit in with the Fithian world.

Jeffrey also translated the poem back into English. Here's that version:

Tree stumps of shanks cut midair andante. A container without a mast
absorbs a rock of the ocean. Predators take the brown horns from the stumps
to the marketplaces.

If you're having trouble with the Fith translation and interlinear, this smooth English version might help. Some notes:

  • It should be clearer to one not versed in Fith how "absorb" works here. Indeed, very clever.

  • Barges don't have masts? But then again, most boats nowadays don't have masts, do they?

  • It's interesting how you almost lose the fact that these are animals (or an animal) that this is happening to in this translation. The closest thing to something animate you get is "shanks", and they're immediately compared to tree stumps—cut down before they even appear, as it were. Fits in with the mentality of a poacher, that animals are simply resources, rather than beings.

A great translation, and a nice snapshot of what Fith is like. Thanks!

Translation 10: Seo Sanghyeon, March 15, 2005

象 牙

四 肢 厚 如 木
柔 通 徐 步 世
航 大 洋 到 岩
寇 賣 赤 牙 市

Wow! Sanghyeon translated this poem into Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese), Korean and English, made it fit a particular Chinese style, and supplied me with all the necessary unicode information. Impressive!

The particular style this poem is written in is called "Wuyan Gushi (????, Old-style poem with five syllables)" (quoting the translator). The rules for Gushi are that each line must contain five or seven syllables, and every even line must rhyme (so, in this poem, the second and the fourth). For more information, go here. Further, it should be noted here that the above translation is a translation into Wenyan, which is Clasical Chinese. For a Western analog, imagine that the above is Latin, and below are versions in Spanish, French and Italian. That's a close approximation of how to take the above translation and the various versions below. [Thanks to Sanghyeon for the info!] Now here's the Pinyin version for the Mandarin reading:

xiang4 ya2

si4 zhi1 hou4 ru2 mu4
rou2 tong1 xu2 bu4 shi4
hang2 da4 yang2 dao4 yan2
kou4 mai4 chi4 ya2 shi4

Now this is the Pinyin version for the Cantonese reading:

jeung6 nga4

sei3 ji1 hau5 yu4 muk6
yau4 tung1 cheui4 bou6 sai3
hong4 daai6 yeung4 dou3 ngaam4
kau3 maai6 chek3 nga4 si5

Now this is a romanized version for Korean:

sang a

sa ci hwu ye mok
yu thong se po sey
hang tay yang to am
kwu may cek a si

Finally, this is a word-for-word translation into English:

elephant tooth

four limb thick as tree
soft pass-through slowly walk world
sail great ocean arrive rock
bandit sell red tooth market

Now for some notes:

  • First, let me say again that it's very impressive that the translator was able to make the translation fit into an actual Chinese poetic form.

  • The transition from line one to line two (note: the title isn't line one) is interesting. You get a comparison of the legs being as "thick as tree[s]", then the first word of the next line is "soft", a stark contrast.

  • I'd really like to learn Chinese so I can understand this translation better. Does "arrive rock" entail crashing? Also, what does "walk world" mean, exactly?

  • I like the translation "bandit" for "pirate".

A fantastic set of translations. My only regret is that I don't know Classical Chinese, so that I could understand the translation better. Thanks so much!

Translation 11: Remi Villatel, March 16, 2005

Quatre pattes comme des arbres,
Un pas pesant fendant l'air.
Une barge sillonne l'océan
Jusqu'au rocher où les pirates volent
Les défenses rougies pour le marché.

This is a translation into French done by Remi Villatel. It's good to see that the Romance languages have entered the fray. Some notes on the French version:

  • Hee, hee... If you define fendant as "cleaving", it introduces that infamous ambiguity linguists are always muttering about.

  • I like the choice of the verb sillonne, meaning "furrow". That's much the way a boat passes through the ocean, imagistically.

  • The original Sheli word xey6 means "take", but here it's translated as "steal" (volent), which is much stronger, and more accurate. I was constrained by the fact that the verb was going to be used with the preposition pa4. The verb "steal" couldn't be used with that preposition. That pitfall was avoided here, though, since "pour le marché" translates as "for the marketplace", and works perfectly. Very nice!

  • Hey, who knew défense, which means "defense", also meant "tusk", when referring to an elephant? I certainly didn't! A neat idea for translating the word "tusk", though.

In addition to translating the poem into French, Remi has also retranslated the poem into English. Here's that translation:

Four animal legs like trees,
A heavy stepping slicing the air.
A barge furrows the ocean
To the rock where the pirates steal
The reddened tusks for the market.

Just a few notes:

  • Oh, I didn't notice that French patte means "animal leg". Right on!

  • I really like the second line. Even though the word "slice" is used, the phrase "a heavy step" delimits the motion and works just perfectly. [Note: Excuse me: The intent was "heavy stepping".]

  • A subtle distinction, but I prefer "reddened" to "red".

I'm glad to see a French translation, and this is a good one.

Translation 12: Barry Garcia, April 3, 2005


Kiwasatra ay tepan ura nga garu kucaku songa
majenyora bilat maacaku lawan ku saal
tal sora inumyara nga sepotyal ngaruan ura nga puka ku matambiryay

This is a translation into Ayhan. The author says of his translation: "This translation is into Ayhan, the language of the Saalangal. I've deliberately created them to be very much like an insular South East Asian people in terms of culture, although they are not exactly the same. The grammar is not at all Austronesian, although it gives off an appearance of looking like it." Here are some of my comments, based on the author's notes:

  • The author notes: "The root 'kiwa' in 'Kiwasatra' means essentially "to cut slowly" as in skinning a carcass for cutting into food, or examining the entrails. It has a general feeling of cutting through something carefully, rather than taking a quick swipe at something with a blade, as in cutting grasses, vegetation, or an enemy." Though I'm sure the choice of lexeme was more for the manner, the thought is kind of creepy (thinking of the "examining the entrails" definition), and kind of sets the tone for the rest of the poem. Excellent choice—especially since it also neatly solves the "slice" problem.

  • An interesting cultural note about one of the lexemes used: "'Saal' - 'island' is used instead of 'rock', because to the Saalangal, anything that anyone can land on, and moor a ship at is an island, not a rock."

  • Notice how the poem was broken up into thematic sections. (Oh, this might be easier to see in the English version below, if you're not familiar with Ayhan.)

For more information on the grammar and culture associated with Ayhan, check out Barry's website here. The author also provided a smooth retranslation into English:

Four thick legs cut slowly through the air.
A ship glides slowly across the ocean to an island
And then the pirates bring the bloody teeth to the marketplace.

Some notes on the English retranslation:

  • As I mentioned above, the poem is broken up into thematic sections. In other words, even in the original Sheli, there are essentially three parts to the poem. Here, rather than keeping them distinct, the author has merged them, so that it matches up closer with English stanzas, kind of like in translation 2.

  • I think this translation can give you a different sense of what actually happens in the poem. So, for example, one reading of this translation would suggest that the pirates are riding on the boat. I think that's interesting. It introduces two distinct readings of the poem.

  • Notice how the ship doesn't necessarily crash into the island. This leaves a lot of room open for interpretation, and I think aids the reading I just mentioned above.

  • There's a lot of semantic space between the first and last line now, which is interesting because it forces the reader to think a lot more about how the two lines are connected, and what the poem is about. It certainly makes it more mysterious, which I think is really cool.

This is a really interesting translation, because the lexical choices that the author made (based on the language and culture of Ayhan) change the poem in a very interesting way that becomes opaque when the poem is retranslated into English. In other words, it's easier to get a sense of the original poem when reading the Ayhan version than it is reading the retranslation into English. And, of course, that's part of the fun of translation. Nice job!

Translation 13: Sefiru, April 4, 2005

susebat pir shasali
adi amerun hoshizi
pautavi thalara theran
koshuh hoshei
erizi hare
oto dore
pemoi raukas kaura

This is a translation by Sefiru into his conlang Draknen, which is spoken by sea predators. There's a lot of interesting stuff going on in this translation which I'll comment on now:

  • According to the translator, the translation fits into a particular Draknen poetic form, whereby the lines would be grouped 2, 2, 2, 1.

  • The first line translates to something like, "The four thick legs of the prey". So immediately you react to the animal as something that's about to die. An interesting choice.

  • For the "slice" verb, the translator chose the Draknen word hoshi (conjugated above as hoshizi), which he defines as "to move steadily through a medium leaving a wake". So the manner is taken care of, but in addition, I think possibly the reason for using a verb like "slice" in English is to evoke a visual image of a wake. In other words, if you slice through paper, you can actually see the effect of the motion in the void in the paper. So this was a good word choice, and I wish English had a similar word. [Note: The verb is an intransitive verb, so amerun is "air", in the ablative, indicating that that's the medium through which the legs of the prey move.]

  • The third and fourth lines have been changed, to fit with Draknen. As one might imagine, a language spoken by sea predators probably wouldn't need a word for "boat". So instead of a boat, there's a "tree-like" object (pautavi) floating on the ocean toward an island cove (koshu [the h is a suffix]). As the translator describes it, "the boat has become the animal carcass floating with its legs sticking up, eerily still". Eek!

  • Hee, hee... Rather than "pirate", the translator chose an insulting word, which he defines as a "person with the morals of a seagull". I'll leave it to your imagination as to what kind of a person that is.

  • Finally, an interesting note by the translator on the poem as a whole: "So what we have here is some sleazeballs who have killed an animal for its tusks and left the rest of it floating in the seaa reprehensible thing to do to the near-sacred prey." So, as the translator points out, "[t]he poor sea dragons are about as shocked as the Fith, but for different reasons". If you'll look back up at translation 9, you'll see that the Fith are land-dwelling herbivores—almost the polar opposite of sea-going predators. Nevertheless, there's a similar reaction to the content of the poem from both groups.

A lot of interesting semantic choices were made in translating the poem into Draknen, and I think it gives the poem a distinct flavor. Nice translation!

Translation 14: Gremrat, July 29, 2007


Four tree-solid legs
Slice through air slowly
A barge sails ocean
Hits stone, its thieves seize
Red ivory t' sell.

It's been more than two years, but we're one step closer to 19 translations! This is a translation into English by "language and writing nerd" Gremrat, or Ozark, author of the comic Mind Flayed. Some comments:

  • According to the translator, this translation attemps to mirror the box style as closely as possible: 5 lines, and 5 syllables each line. I think this is why the "t'" is in the last line, but that all depends on how you pronounce "ivory". I honestly can't even figure out how I pronounce it. Two syllables? Three? Probably not one or four...

  • I like the translation of the first line. With "tree-solid", you get the idea of "thick", and so the word "thick" is omitted, in favor of "four", which is lost in a lot of the English translations above.

  • I asked, but the translator insists that "sails ocean" is, indeed, grammatical. I remain skeptical. It seems to me like a construction similar to "drive truck", in "I drive truck for a living". I guess the way one has to look at it is that the noun is treated as a mass noun, whether it usually is a mass noun or not. Thus, if you can eat cake, you can drive truck, or sail ocean. The upshot of this, though, is rather interesting: all direct objects in the translation are mass nouns ("air", "ocean", "stone" and "red ivory"). Cool!

Hey, it's nice to see that after two years, and without advertising, someone found their way to this page, and decided to do a translation! Many thanks to Gremrat/Ozark, and if you get a chance, go check out Mind Flayed. At the moment (August 16, 2007), there's a comic up about World of Warcraft, and it features an undead female character that looks an awful lot like my warlock. Huzzah!

Translation 15: Yahya Abdal-Aziz, November 20, 2008

Sale on, Seize

Thick legs, trunks of trees,
Lumber, cleaving air.
Swift sail, parting seas,
Lights on shore: Corsair!
Seize red tusks for sale.

We're getting closer to 19! This translation, by long-time conlanger and fellow SpecGram editor Yahya Abdal-Aziz, is rather interesting. First and foremost, it's the only translation thus far that rhymes: ABABC. Nice job! In addition, the author gave me his own notes, which I'll post here:

  • Some extra deliberate ambiguity here, to encourage different connotations and interpretations.

  • Didn't feel that hitting the rock was particularly significant in terms of the poem's principal contrast: that between the placid beasts and the ship of death; so I took the liberty of replacing that image with the ambivalent "lights on shore".

  • Kept strictly to the "box poem" (or square of syllables) form.

  • Focused rather more on using sound, especially homophones and alliteration (even managed some rhymes!) to convey connections and muddy connotations; e.g. do "seas" help one "seize"?

  • In one reading, "lights on shore" suggests the marauding "corsair" may have local henchmen. Are the game park wardens really on the side of the great beasts? Or, as they said: Quis custodiet custodes?

  • Does "Corsair!" belong with the third and fourth lines, as an unwelcome surprise conclusion, or with the fifth line, as a direct address prior to a command?

Hey, I didn't even notice that the author kept to the form on the first reading. Awesome! One thing I also like about this is the way the format sets up the last line. First, there's a rhyme scheme (ABAB) that's broken in the last line. Second, each of the first four lines is divided into two parts, separated either by a comma or a colon, and the last is unseparated. Further, the first four lines are kind of fragmented; choppy. The last is a pretty straight-forward clause. Very well done! Now I'll have to wait and see if the author goes on to translate a version into his conlang Uiama as he mentioned he might in his e-mail to me...!

Translation 16: Mechthild Czapp, September 24, 2010


Jvenu'het'ny min'nadit 'nevaju vinik
ulyka'het'ny'mi hilid.
Xatrem'het mi'ritmu veran'het. Korona'tan'han isrel'het'ny'mi
tysa'het'tes jasam
usku nijka.

This is a translation into Rejistanian, the language of the nation-state Rejistania. It brings us within three translations of 19! (I really should just sit down and translate it into Spanish some day.) The author has provided some notes on her translation below:

  • Rejistanian poems work based on alliteration of the stressed syllable.

  • The words for "rust-colored" were interleaved into the term for tusk (literally: impressive tooth).

  • Using the term korona'tan makes it appear that the pirates are poor sods who just want a bit financial security for themselves and their family. The fact that the ship is of unspecified size helps this.

  • The death of the animal is not really described but only hinted at via using 'nadit (to do in vain) because the Rejistanis prefer not to mention it. It too makes this appear as if from the corsairs' perspective.

One of the coolest things about this translation (and this wasn't mentioned above) is that there is a unique alliteration pattern in the text. Specifically, all the stressed syllables in the text alliterate! Here's the text again with the stressed syllables underlined:

Jvenu'het'ny min'nadit 'nevaju vinik
ulyka'het'ny'mi hilid.
Xatrem'het mi'ritmu veran'het. Korona'tan'han isrel'het'ny'mi
tysa'het'tes jasam
usku nijka.

Very, very cool, and a great translation! In case you're curious about the meaning, the interlinear is provided below:

Leg-PL (INF)drift
stem-PL-GEN3S tree.
Ship 3S-cross large.rock-ALL. Prosperity-ALL pirate-PL-GEN3S
tooth-PL-ABL color
rust impressive.

Submit Your Own Translation

You've seen the translations that've been done so far, so how about trying one of your own? If you'd like to try your hand at translating this poem, simply type your translation into the form below and hit "submit". When doing so, please include the following:

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Other than that, here are some general notes to think about:

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  • I won't post all translations I get, just those that I think are worth posting.

  • I will certainly post translations into languages other than English—including created languages. However, if it's a language I don't know, I'll be relying heavily on you to explain how it works. For a further wrinkle, you might translate it into a language other than English, then translate that translation into English. That'd be a kick!

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