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Translating the Poetry of Birdsong - The Exeter Languages and Cultures Blog

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Translating the Poetry of Birdsong

Poets across time and space have tuned into birdsong. Take the 9th-century Chinese Zen hermit poet, Han Shan (Cold Mountain):












Where Cold Mountain dwells in peace

isn’t on a travelled trail

when he meets forest birds

each sings their mountain song

sacred plants line the streams

old pines cling to crags

there he is without a care

resting on a perilous ledge


Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, trans. by Red Pine (Copper Canyon Press, 2000), pp. 218-19



At the 2022 Translation Festival, Sally Flint in tandem with Hugh Roberts, Martin Sorrell and Yue Zhuang ran a session to ‘translate’ a favourite bird into a poem in a short burst of creative writing.

To celebrate National Poetry Day, here are the quick-fire poems produced at that session:


No sound, but a joyous song

A cold January morning in the garden alone.

Dad had died the day before.

A robin perched on a wheelbarrow.

Soundless – one eye watching.

The dark brown eye winked.

Like Dad’s pale blue eye,

It was a joyous song.


Bruce Currey


Photo of a robin

morning coffee

this birdsong is the first sign of spring

it sounds like an “ouh-ouh” to my ear

when I hear it I can feel the sun on my cheek

I can smell my dad’s morning coffee

I can even see the leaves resurfacing

and everything turning into shades of green

I didn’t know where it came from when I was six

but I knew it would be back next spring


Laurine Collardeau


black and white portrait

Fly. Perch. Now!

Down. Up. Check.

Velociraptor walk.

Inspect. Check. Look.

Eat. Pause. Check. Eat.

Eat. Pause. Check. Eat.

Cleverer than clockwork.

Cleverer than you.

Monochrome rainbow.


Hugh Roberts



And Martin Sorrell shared his beautiful translation of the ‘Chanson de l’oiseleur’ of the much-loved French poet, Jacques Prévert:




The bird that flies on silent wings

The bird that flies straight into things

The bird as red and warm as blood

The mocking bird the bird of love

The bird that’s eager to take flight

The bird that suddenly takes fright

The bird that has a panic fit

The bird that so much wants to live

The bird that so much wants to cheep

The bird that so much needs to weep

The bird as red and warm as blood

The bird that flies on silent wings

That bird’s your heart you poor wee thing

Your heart that’s fluttering its wings

Inside its cage of firm young ribs.


Translated by Martin Sorrell

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