Camille Bloomfield
Homographic Translations: A Brief History of the Constraint

One of the first writers ever to attempt bilingual texts was Georges Perec with his Poèmes Trompe-l’Œil. These six poems, the form of which, for once, is not fixed, are perfectly bilingual. They are composed, according to Perec himself, from a lexicon established by Harry Mathews, presented at the Oulipo meeting of November 21, 1975, and called L Egal Franglais.  The text was published for the first time in 1976 in Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics. The basic rules are recalled in the Oulipo Compendium:

“1. Each word must be spelled in exactly the same way in both French and English, aside from accents and capitals.

2. No meaning should be shared by the French and English word. This includes secondary meanings (court, for example, is excluded, since the French word means not only “short” and “(someone) runs” but “(tennis) court”1.

Initially, the lexicon included 425 words, which Perec certainly discovered during that meeting, but it has been expanded since. Poèmes Trompe-l’Œil was published in 1978 in a limited edition by Patrick Guérard, with photographs by Cuchi White, and republished in La Clôture et autres poèmes (Hachette, 1992). Perec, as usual, applies the constraint very rigorously, i.e. he barely rearranges the syllables for the text to make sense in both languages. For instance, the fifth poem alters only accents and apostrophes:


But as Harry Mathews observes, “Perec used the vocabulary simply as a restricted French vocabulary, abandoning any notion of grammatical English”. So later on, Mathews himself tried to write a few sentences in Legal Franglais, which respect grammatical English, sentences that he presented at the Oulipo meeting of February 1987: “If rogue ignore genes, bride pays” is one of those.

This collaboration between the American and French writers was neither the first nor the last. After Perec introduced his friend to Oulipo in 1973, he also translated some of his novels such as Tlooth in 1974 and The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium in 19812. Similarly, Mathews showed Perec Joe Brainard’s I remember which gave him the idea for Je me souviens3, and translated some of his texts in English4. Perec’s interest to the English language was probably born out of this relationship, yet he went further in his experimentation than just homographic translations. In 1974, he produced another text, which this time exploited the possibilities of homophones, on the occasion of the literary New Year’s greeting cards he sent every year to his friends. The title, Les Adventures de Dixion Harry5, is not only a reference to his friend, but also part of the technique (“Dixion Harry” being a very French pronunciation of “dictionary”). In fact, each of the twenty-one English sentences is followed by a paragraph in French, justifying an invisible homophonic version of the English sentence, which the reader is invited to discover by himself. For instance, “To be or not to be” is followed by “Je t’aime beaucoup, Renaud, mais vraiment tu n’as aucune mémoire, tu n’as vraiment aucune mémoire”6. On the last page, the French sentence is revealed and the homophonic equivalent of the famous Shakespearian verse is the funny “T’oublies, ô, Renaud, t’oublies”7. The idea was inspired by a book published in 1967 by the American journalist Luis d’Antin van Rooten called Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames, from “Mother Goose Rhymes” or in French “Rimes de la mère l'Oye”. After Georges Perec’s, it has inspired other books, such as N'Heures Souris Rames, published in 1980 by Ormonde de Kay (one can easily recognize the expression “nursery rhymes”), in which sixty well-known nursery rhymes are transposed into French.

In the same vein, various homographic translations have been attempted after Perec, and with languages other than just English and French. In 1992, Harry Mathews suggested to the German poet Oskar Pastior to extend the idea to German, and together they invented Deunglitsch. The rules are very close to those of Legal Franglais:

“1. Aside from capitals and diacritical marks, each word must be spelled identically in the two languages.

2. No meaning must be common to the German and English word. This excludes, for instance Rock (skirt, jacket) since in addition rock= rock music in both languages”8.

The amount of words being still very low, Pastior decided to accept that a word in one language could be divided into fragments that formed several words in the other: “abend” could then become “a bend” in the English text. By adding this rule, Pastior changed the way the texts were written: instead of having a lexicon for a base, the writers worked from a sequence of letters and cut them up more or less the way he wanted. However, the two writers admitted that they never managed to create a long text that made sense in both languages, though they believed it was possible.

Closer to this experiment than to Perec’s, Elena Addomine, a distinguished member of Oplepo (the Italian equivalent of Oulipo), made her own homographic translations between Italian and English, in the Biblioteca Oplepiana n°7 “Forme For Me – Traduzioni omografiche”. She writes : “Mi son chiesta (…) cosa sarebbe successo se avessi preso una sola sequenza di lettere (…) e avessi provato a spezzare simultaneamente in due differenti modi tale sequenza, al fine di pervenire a parole diverse che, con aggiustamenti di punteggiatura, formassero due differenti testi, per du più bilingui”9. Thus, the poem n°6:

meno talenti ma geni
che offron tal passione a rare amanti e sacri dei.
Inganni, celate com’eran, note…”

becomes, after the adjustments:

“Music is time, not a lent image:
niche of frontal passion,
ear area.
Man ties acrid ey’ing an’nice;
latecomer, an’note.”

Her process reminds us of Raymond Roussel’s homophonic games more than Perec’s homographic constraint, because even though (like Mathews and Pastior with Deunglitsch) she respects the letters very strictly, she still works on a sequence basis and not with predefined words.

Eventually, one of the youngest Oulipians, Ian Monk, has found a way to use these awkward bilingual sentences to create narrative. Each bilingual sentence is supposedly the result of two fictitious episodes, one being said in English and the other in French. The example given in the Oulipo Compendium is the following:

« - Il ne faut pas rôtir les oies mais plutôt les males de l’espèce, et en grande quantité.

- When it was Fred’s round, he told the landlord to grab their pint glasses and serve him and his three companions forthwith.


Now a proper trilingual homographic translation is still to be written, using for example Italian, French, and English. This is what I tried to do, but I invite readers to try and do better.

Camille Bloomfield



Attempts at Trilingual Sentences

1 - The famous trial involving a window pane salesman and one of his customers (an extravagant cook) has been called « the pane sale case ». The cook had refused to buy any more panes arguing that with the new ones, he could not coat his food with bread crumbs or add salt to the bread as he used to, let alone selling his products with no coating or salt. He swore that if ever one day the pane salesman would want to buy some bread from him, he would refuse arguing that he knew all the houses of the area and particularly his, which he would avoid with care.

« pane sale case »
pané, salé : casé !
Pane ? Sa le case.

2 - The wedding was sad and the groom tearful because he was not in love with the bride. He wanted to talk, to express his mind, but he knew that if he did, his family-in-law would never allow him to be happy again and would trouble him forever. So, very angry, he took his knife, cut the bridles of his horse and ran away.

Dire, lame bride
Dire l’âme bride
D’ire, lame bride


N.B.: The first meaning is in English, the second in French, and the third in Italian.

1 Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, Oulipo Compendium, Atlas Press, London, 1998,  p. 148

2 Tlooth (Doubleday: Paris Review Editions, 1966; reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press, 1998)is translated by Perec into Les verts champs de moutarde de l'Afghanistan (Denoël, Les Lettres Nouvelles, 1975 ; P.O.L 1998)
The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (Harper & Row, 1975; reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press, 1999) is also translated by him into Le Naufrage du stade Odradek (Hachette-P.O.L, 1981; P.O.L, 1990).

3 Georges Perec, Je me souviens, Hachette, 1978.

4 Georges Perec, Ellis Island (The New Press, 1996) ; Paris Review 56 (New York, 1973) translation (“Between Sleeping and Waking”) from Georges Perec’s Un homme qui dort ; Yale French Studies 61 (New Haven, 1981), translation of Georges Perec’s “Still Life / Style Leaf”; Grand Street 3.1 (New York, 1983), “Space” and “Underground,” translations from Georges Perec’s Espèces d’espaces and La Vie mode d’emploi ; Atlas Anthology 2 (London, 1984), “Rorschash, 3,” translation of chapter 27 of Georges Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi; Paris Review 112, Winter 1989 (New York), translations of "Trois Epithalames" of Georges Perec.

5 Voeux, Seuil, « La librairie du XXe siècle », 1989, p. 51-65.

6 “I love you very much, Renaud, but really you haven’t got any memory, you really don’t have no memory at all.” in Voeux, ibid., p. 54.

7 literally “You forget, Renaud, you forget”.

8 Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, op.cit., p. 136

9 “I asked myself what would happen if I took only one sequence of letters (so only one text) and I tried to cut this sequence simultaneously in two different ways, in order to have different words which, with a few punctuation adjustments, would form two different texts, moreover bilingual.” Elena Addomine, Forme For me, Biblioteca Oplepiana n°7, 1994, p.2

10 Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, op.cit., p. 149