“Suliko” – Adventures with the Georgian Language

It is hard for me not to have a pet language–that is, one I am currently dabbling in just for fun. It’s an obsession that is hard for a lot of people to relate to, although it is certainly not unheard of. By and large, I don’t learn languages for practical reasons like travel, or business. That is certainly evidenced by my last two pet languages, Armenian and Georgian (the current favorite). Both are national languages of small countries in the Caucasus Mountains, and I am acquainted with exactly zero native speakers of either one. That’s okay (for now). It’s not that I don’t think traveling the world might be fun, but I’m also content if it never happens. My primary attraction to languages is the same as my attraction to, say, mathematics–meaning.

In my understanding, meaning occurs wherever there is an optimal, or near-optimal balance between complexity and simplicity, in other words, wherever there is rich structure. Too much complexity, and meaning fades into chaos. Too much simplicity, and you can still have a very beautiful structure, but there is not much to say about it, not much you can do with it. Soon, you have to move on. At the balance point, however, you find richly woven layers of structure, whether in math, in human language, or in molecular biology.

I worship the God of meaning. Whenever I contact meaning, I am filled with gratitude for the rich feast he has laid out for me. For me, “meaning” cannot be separated from its etymological sense of “what a person has in mind”. I’m not looking for, or attempting, a proof of God’s existence, but wherever I see meaning, I feel like I am being treated to a window, however obscure, on God’s thoughts. I live on meaning. It is the food of my soul. This is what it means for me to live on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

As a very amateur linguist, I delight in exploring the grammatical structure and vocabulary of a new language, whether or not I will ever have cause to speak it. But why Armenian and Georgian? I am a sucker for beautiful scripts, especially beautiful alphabets. What makes a writing system beautiful is, of course, different for different people, but for my money, Armenian and Georgian have two of the most beautiful alphabetic scripts in the world. Below is an image of the Mkhedruli alphabet currently used to write Georgian:


Upload: JaqeliVectorization: Carnby, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When I start on a new language, I normally start with the Gospel of John. This is probably partly because of the simple, repeated vocabulary of John, and partly due to childhood memories of a biography of Nathaniel Bowditch (author of American Practical Navigator in 1802, and hero to homeschoolers), which represented this as his method of learning new languages. This summer, I made it through John in Georgian, and am just starting on Luke. It wasn’t easy. Unlike Armenian, Georgian is not an Indo-European language, meaning that it has absolutely no genetic relationship to English, Latin, Greek, etc. It is famously challenging to pronounce, because of its daunting consonant clusters. For example, something as simple as “we feel” comes out as vgrdznobt–and that’s one syllable! An even bigger barrier for language learners is its fiendishly difficult verb system, which I can’t even begin to describe in this article.

Despite its consonant-rich structure, Georgian sounds quite sonorous in the mouth of a native speaker, and it has a long tradition of truly beautiful poetry. My thoughtful (enabling?) wife surprised me on Father’s Day with a bilingual anthology of Georgian poetry translated by the American poet Lyn Coffin. Thumbing through the book, I was immediately drawn to the poem “Suliko”, by Akaki Tsereteli (1840-1915), and began trying to translate it for myself, one word at a time, from the Georgian text provided. It’s a gorgeous, romantic, lyric poem that reminded me of the work of some of the best European poets of the Romantic era.

It is a poem that begs to be sung, and I discovered later that it was, in fact, turned into a folk song that is very famous and popular in Georgia to this day. There are many good renditions on YouTube–here is a link to one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPjf8E6tk78

Learning a Georgian song was satisfying in and of itself, but I was interested to see whether I could produce a relatively faithful translation of the poem that was singable in English. Lyn Coffin’s translation into English verse is beautiful, but although it follows the syllable count of the Georgian lines, it is not singable. A few days ago, my efforts were rewarded with a translation that I find very satisfying:

I searched for my love's resting place,
but it was lost--I saw no trace.
I cried and cried with heartfelt woe:
"Where are you, O my Suliko?"

Among the thorns, I spied a rose:
An orphaned bloom, alone it grows.
With pounding heart, I had to know:
"Could that be you, my Suliko?"

The blossom shook, and bowed its head
As if to seal the yes it said,
And pearls of precious, heavenly dew
Dropped down like tears to prove it true.

Next, from behind its leafy veil
Appeared a silent nightingale.
"Sweet little bird, please let me know:
could that be you, my Suliko?"

With care, the feathered poet pressed
Its beak against the flower's breast,
And, chirping cheerily, it flew,
As if to say, "Yes, yes, it's true!"

These are only the first five stanzas of a the twelve-stanza original poem, but they are the ones commonly sung in the Georgian folk song. Like the Georgian original, my version has eight-syllable lines, but the iambic meter of my version does not fit the Georgian tune, so I was inspired to compose my own tune, giving it an English or American folk tune flavor in keeping with the change of language. Here is a link to my very amateur recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4wTuxYw4nk

I also got some valuable experience with Noteflight, a free application for composing sheet music:

Yes, I fell in love with “Suliko”, and also with a number of the other poems in the anthology, especially “To the Mountains of Kvareli” by Ilia Chavchavadze, which speaks to my own sense of how the mountains around where you live can so thoroughly entwine themselves with your identity. Falling in love with the poetry of a language is part of falling in love with the language itself. For, while the very structure of a language carries meaning that is worth exploring and reveling in, language is primarily a vehicle of meaning. When an author is able to say beautiful things with a beautiful language, that language reaches its fulfillment.

Leave a comment