Yingelishi: Sinophonic English Poetry and Poetics
If poets are, as P. B. Shelley wrote, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” then translation must be one of the unacknowledged legislators of poetry. Certainly translation of Chinese poetry has been essential to modern American writing: Ezra Pound’s Cathay didn’t just invent, as T. S. Eliot put it, “Chinese poetry for our time,” it invented the possibility within English for modes of writing recognizable as somehow Chinese. Poets as dissimilar as Charles Reznikoff and Stanley Kunitz, or Charles Wright and J. H. Prynne, have built careers inhabiting these modes; from Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End to John Ashbery’s Mountains and Rivers, we know Chinese whispers when we hear them in American poetry because we have read Chinese poetry in an English first invented by Pound.
Never mind the inaccuracies that have often come with translating poetry from Chinese to English; inaccuracies have been one of poetic translation’s more fruitful possibilities: Aramaic gamla may mean both “camel” and “rope,” but would we cite the Bible’s suspicion of the rich entering heaven if not for the striking surrealism of camels passing through needle-eyes? Or, in that case, mind the inaccuracies, because through them a kind of poetry is born. And this is the kind of poetry that Jonathan Stalling brings us with Yingelishi: Sinophonic English Poetry and Poetics.
Translational inaccuracies and the poetic possibilities they create are topics Stalling has been contemplating for some time now. He began studying Chinese in middle school, throwing himself into it with the zeal that only idealistic early teenagers seem to possess. His pursuit of Chinese took him from Arkansas first to Hawaii, then to Beijing, before he graduated with a BA in Chinese Studies from Berkeley. Along the way, however, he had read Edward Said and become convinced that, all modes of academic study serving to perpetuate the ideologically projected containment of that which they held as their object, the “Orient” he had been chasing had been of his own devising, in the aim of creating something he could master (though, it must be said: !?). Turning his back on the study of Asia, then, he looked for a way out of this intellectual cul de sac in the utterly unimaginable community of Scotland, reading an MA in English Literature and Cultural Theory at the University of Edinburgh. This led him back to the US for a PhD from Buffalo’s Poetics program, where something snapped again and he began reinvestigating the productive ways in which writers have imagined East Asia and brought elements of its literatures into English. This re-awakening has motivated Stalling’s career since, resulting in academic work—a critical edition of Ernest Fenollosa’s & Ezra Pound’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (Fordham, 2008, which he and I edited with Haun Saussy) and the monograph Poetics of Emptiness: Transformations of Asian Thought in American Poetry (Fordham, 2010); editorship—of the journal Chinese Literature Today and the Chinese Literature Today Book Series from University of Oklahoma Press; translation—his recent volume of the seminal modern Chinese poet Shi Zhi, Winter Sun (Oklahoma, 2012; see my take in a forthcoming Chinese Literature: Essays Articles Reviews); and poetry—Grotto Heaven (Chax, 2010), based on an introductory Chinese language textbook, and now Yingelishi.
A story of inter-continental and trans-civilizational travel, the base text of Yingelishi—the word “English” as pronounced in Chinese that, depending on the tones of the syllables, can mean “Chanted Songs Beautiful Poetry” or “The Sounds of Songs Leaving the World”—was taken from an English phrasebook published in China. But like a Monty Python sketch acted out by either the Dharma Bums or the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, this is a phrasebook that does not communicate, or that communicates too much, as Stalling has “totally rewritten the book by changing all of the original simple Chinese characters (chosen to mimic the pronunciation of common English phrases without initiating Chinese meanings) into complex Chinese poetic phrases and ‘poems’” (p. 4), which he then translates into English poetry. The result fuses the mundane, the ridiculous, and the sublime:
where is my seat
wài ‘è yì si mái xī tè
Outside the border
of meaning buried
the faint cricket’s whisper error
Cracking open translation—the first two lines are straightforward equivalents of the same phrase in two different languages—Stalling’s method in these pieces is to bring attention to the sound inherent in meaning and the meaning inherent in sound. The result is an English poetic image—a “radiant node or cluster,” as Pound defined it, “from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing”—that often, as in the poem above, comments on its own poetic process as much as on the prisms and misprisions of cross-cultural communication.
Another piece, in which the themes of the book cluster even more radiantly:
fó gěi fú mí
Buddha offers floating enigmas (p. 87)
While the pieces’ ultimate lines present stunning poetry, they do raise a question about the politics or ethics of using Chinese texts in such a way (we want our legislators, after all, to be fair representatives). Because of his background in studying, walking away from, and then walking back to Chinese, Stalling is clearly aware of this; as he writes in the helpful introduction, “working against the anti-pidgin/Chinglish stereotype is a complicated and difficult task. The cultural frame through which these sounds are heard in the West has long been ideologically contaminated by a history of ‘yellowface minstrelsy’ and other ways of degrading pidgins, accents, and dialects that arise from the admixture of English and various Pacific Rim languages” (pp. 3 – 4). But only by engaging with the ideological contamination can he overturn it. Indeed, the English-reader should know that the Chinese characters that transcribe the sounds of Stalling’s sinophonic English are often very obscure; Chinese-readers will probably find themselves lost in the semantic meaning of Stalling’s transcriptions into Chinese. Nor are the translations from Chinese necessarily proper representations of how Chinese-speakers would understand these phrases. English-learners in China may joke about how “thank you” sounds like sān kè yóu, but they are less likely to write it as 三客游 (p. 41) than as 三克油, laughing that it means “three grams of oil.” Nor would they understand 三客游 as “Three wanderers floating,” but here Stalling is able not only to avail himself of the tradition of Chinese signification in English poetry from Pound onward, he is able to draw on other instances of poetry translation playing with sound and sense: when Louis Zukofsky turned Catullus’s Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire, / et quod vides perisse perditum ducas into “Miss her, Catullus? Don’t be so inept to rail / at what you see perish when perished is the case,” the point was not whether readers of Latin would have understood it that way, but to create poetry out of the misreadings inherent in translation that could displace Latin from its position of superiority over English and English from its position of superiority in the ears of a non-native speaker such as Zukofsky. Not only does Stalling’s Chinese also come from the rare position of a non-native speaker, by writing against “the ideological framework … of hearing what is not there (the phantom ‘other’ that serves ideological jingoism), rather than what is (the full range of human experience and aesthetic complexity within other ways of speaking)” (p. 4), he is able to push towards a further level of transcendence, his English departing from the ground of Chinese as his Chinese has departed from its grounding in English.
As it happened, I read Yingelishi on flight from Hong Kong to Beijing, airborne from the ground of one relationship between English and Chinese to another, from one relationship between Chinese written characters and their pronunciation to another. I found the reading experience especially apt, not only in the translingual resonances but in the phrasebook’s implied narrative of a tourist finding his passport stolen and struggling to communicate with the authorities. Miscommunication, like translation, is another of poetry’s legislators. But even if read elsewhere than on an airplane, the transcendent resonances with American poetry and its incorporations of Chinese allow Yingelishi to take off into, and from its, chanted songs and beautiful poetry.