Songs aren't meant for translation
Back in the Saddle
Wednesday, March 26, 2014 7:37 AM
Have you ever heard a bird say, “Widawayk”?
How about “Pit pit pit pidddrrredrr”?
What about “Tseeku tseeku tseekut tsee” or “Zheew zheew zheeeeeee” or “Zo zo zo zo zo zo zo zeeeee”?
I didn’t think so.
And though my wife and I have been inveterate backyard birdwatchers for decades now, both of us would have to answer, “Me neither,” despite the fact that those are all renditions of bird calls in some of the best birding guides available.
We’re the sort of bird geeks that would drive up to the Adams-Jay county line, as we did a few weeks back, looking for migrating sandhill cranes and delighting when we stumbled across hundreds of migrating seagulls.
But when it comes to bird songs, both of us are pretty much clueless.
I can do a pretty good imitation of a cardinal, good enough to get the female to answer back because she’s mistaken me for a potential mate. And I used to be able to do a decent imitation of a hoot owl, thanks to a summer when we had a bunch of them in the neighborhood.
But when it comes to hearing a bird and figuring out what it is, we’re out of our league.
And all of the books in the world don’t help.
I can’t blame the bird experts or authors of the guide books for that.
It’s tough enough to translate between one human language and another. Trying to convey in human speech the sounds produced by birds is just short of impossible.
When I hear a bird, I hear its song. I don’t hear, “Pit or pit-brik and a rasping rolling jrrrt.”
I’m not even sure how to pronounce “jrrrt.”
Let’s try a short quiz.
I’ll give you the bird song as it shows up in the best guide available. You identify the bird.
All set? Here goes.
“A series of short whistled phrases with some high scratchy notes, sometimes likened to ‘cheer-up cheerily, cheer-up cheerily.”
Okay. That’s an easy one. It’s a robin.
But you never really hear a robin urging you to cheer up. You hear a song that’s untranslatable instead.
Let’s try another.
How about: “Song starts with several well-spaced phrases or notes followed by some trills and other notes, like ‘maids maids put on your tea kettle kettle.’ Calls include a soft tspi, a high seeet, and a louder deeper tchup.”
There’s nothing quite like a high seeet or a louder, deeper tchup.
How high is a seeet supposed to be, anyway? And how deep should a tchup be before it’s too deep?
All of this has baffled me, but I began to understand the challenge of translating bird song into human language a couple of weeks ago.
It was one of those teasing mornings when spring seemed ready to arrive. I was out in my bathrobe, picking up the morning paper, which had been conveniently left in the snow 30 feet from our front door.
And then I heard a delightful song, a bird that seemed not only intent on heralding spring but interested in lifting my spirits, making me feel young again, and putting a smile on my face.
What’s it saying? I asked myself.
The best I could come up with: “Trudy, Trudy, Trudy.”
Who the heck is Trudy? I asked myself.
And before I could ponder the answer to that question, the bird’s song changed again.
Suddenly, from a dead branch on a redbud tree above my head, it started another song. This one was more “rat-a-tat-tat” than “Trudy.” But it was just as much a mystery.
There was absolutely no way I could begin to convey that song in words that you and I could understand.
And then it hit me.
Maybe that’s the point.
After all, the bird’s not talking to me. He’s a male looking for a mate.
I’m the wrong gender and the wrong species when it comes to his search.
So maybe the best thing to do is just listen to his music, accept it as music, and leave the translations to somebody else.