A fuller sounding of the “opera” derived from this can be found at http://counterpathpress.org/yingelishi (J.R.)]
I spent a morning in a small park
at the center of
Hunched over in benches,
or pacing back and forth,
students are reading English aloud from textbooks.
I can’t recall what anyone was saying;
I had not attended to the frequency of meaning,
but to the frequencies of sound—
the strange opening of Chinese vibrations
beneath the surface of each English word.
They spoke Chinese syllablesrearranged into English syntax and diction;
and Chinese made a home in English,
had become English
without having stopped being Chinese.
Turn you head slightly to the left,and you hear English,
slightly to the right,Chinese,
straight ahead, neither,both.
We were all foreigners here.In this fusion of Chinese and English
we all have a choice to make.
We can pull back the curtain of sound
to peek through the windows
or just rest a while in our dark rooms.
For years I immersed myselfin this Yíngēlìshī
and its chanted songs, its beautiful poetry
have changed everything
I thought I knew about our languages
I call this fusion of my two languages, Sinophonic English, or, Yíngēlìshī 吟歌丽诗 (spelled in Sinophonic English). I have chosen these characters to oppose popular ideas of “Chinglish” as “bad English.” Instead, I want to bring awareness to its eerie poetic beauty, its haunting music, and to the absolutely singular poetry it is capable of generating. Of course, “Sinophonic English” is not particular to the students in the park, but is fast becoming a dominant global dialect of English. A fusion of the two primary languages of globalization: Chinese and English, variations of this Sinophonic English is being spoken by more people than there are Americans alive (over 350 million), and has already begun to transform the language of the global marketplace. English purists everywhere will no doubt begin to clamor toward “rescuing” English from this Sinophonic dialect, but I am more interested in experimenting with this new global language. Since 1997 I have been experimenting with this linguistic fusion and working toward a transpacific imagination where a Chinese-English poetry, poetics, philosophy, and ethics might be born in a language that belongs to both Chinese and English speakers, and yet neither as well. But in the end, I have simply fallen in love with both the poetry generated between these languages and the translingual voices that emanate from them.
To bring this dream of Yíngēlìshī 吟歌丽诗 into the world, I have rewritten a large portion of a totally ordinary English phrasebook that you can pick up in most any Chinese bookstore, which teaches English through transliteration. In a sense, this book is not unlike Duchamp’s “urinal” insofar as both are “found art.” But I have totally rewritten this book by changing all the original’s simple Chinese characters (chosen to “pronounce” common English phrases) into complex Chinese poetic phrases and “poems.” I have recomposed the Chinese in mixture of modern and Classical characters to suggest passages resonating with Confucian meanings like the Sinophonic fusion of the characters 孤 德 孤 德 gū dé mào níng which can be translated as “Even alone, the Moral one appears peaceful” but is heard by the English speaker as “Good Morning.” So the Sinophonic poems that make up the first half of this book exist as short Chinese character stanzas, but like the phrase book, they are sandwiched within Chinese and English to reveal to all readers what is taking place both aurally and semantically in the poem. Take for example this more Buddhist leaning stanza:
请原谅我Please Forgive me
pǔ lì sī , fó gěi fú mí
vast private profits,
Buddha offers impermanent mysteries
Here only the line “普利私，佛给浮谜” is truly Sinophonic English poetry, but the other lines are there to let both Chinese and English readers know what the line means in both Chinese and English.
So on one level this is a book of experimental Chinese poetry that blends classical allusions and contemporary vernacular to be read as “stand-alone” Chinese poems, yet to the English speaker, the very same characters resonate accented English phrases that tell the story of a Chinese speaker who uses his/her limited English to negotiate the trials of traveling to and becoming lost in America. For as it turns out, the phrases of this handbook end up constructing a narrative, a tragedy in fact since the “protagonist” is robbed soon after arriving in America and is left alone in an alien language and land with no friends, no money, no passport and no way to understand the English language which appears to have swallowed her/him whole. When I first read this simple phrase book, I felt so moved, not because of its melodramatic tenor that capitalizes on the commonly exaggerated danger of traveling abroad, but because of the accented voice that never really becomes English because it never really stops being Chinese. If the vulnerable voice of the protagonist is the tragic “chanted song” of this book, then the poems that take shape within the phonetic architecture of this simple story are its beautiful poetry.
What emerges on the pagesis a figment of a transpacific imagination,
a dimly remembered dream of translingual consciousness
born in the strange half-light of cross-linguistic procreation.
Regardless of whether you are an English Speakera Chinese speaker (or both),
it is my hope that you will wake up
from this dream of reading
with the dim memory of having spoken in another’s language.
III. “Evolving from Embryo and Changing the Bones: Translating the Sonorous”
The second half of this book offers a variation on the dream of Yíngēlìshī 吟歌丽诗. What would it be like to translate sound itself? What if we could translate not only the meanings of poems, but their songs? The poems in this section arise from such an attempt by invoking Huang Tingjian’s (黃庭堅 1045-1105) notion of 夺胎 换骨or “evolving from embryo and changing the bones” which instructs poets to create their own poetry by either mimicking the content or the form of earlier poetry. An exquisite poet of the first order, Huang Tingjian, raised mimicry to the level of high art and philosophy by revealing that every act of mimicry results in an act of transformation. My translations follow both of Huang’s directives to mimic both the content (all translation does this) and the form by following all the basic aural constraints of Classical Chinese poetic forms (number of syllables, rhyme schemes, and tonal prosody).
客 舍 青 青 柳 色 新
kè shè qīng qīng lin sè xīn
guèst ìnn greēn greēn wil lòw sheēn
Yet these poems are also only figments of transpacific imagination: for even the same sounds (untranslated) are not the same sounds to those who hear them. There is no single, original song because everyone who hears it, feels it differently (especially those from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds). So why try… Ezra Pound would argue that one should “Fill [your] mind with the finest cadences [you] can discover, preferably in a foreign language.” But I am not sure we need to reduce these poems to such “usefulness”; instead in my earliest publication of Sinophonic English I wrote that “I write Chinese in English and English in Chinese, which, in its simultaneous success and failure, offers not a translation but a space for the translingual to be imagined.” (Chain, 2003, 109)
[author’s addendum. This excerpt from my collection of poems Yingelishi was published on the Poems and Poetics blog in 2009, a full year before the work was performed as an Opera at
and two years before it was published by Counterpath Press in its current book
In the years since, I have continued to explore the interlingual and
transgraphic spaces between Chinese and English leading to my latest work
“Mirrored Resonance: The English Rime Tables,” a recreation of a 12th
century Chinese “rime table” (an ancient pronunciation dictionary that uses
Chinese characters to represent sounds rather than meanings) where I am
replicating every formal aspect of the original (a slow process as I am
constructing a movable woodblock printing press to do so). While it may look
like a Chinese text, it is not. Instead the work is an embodiment of a totally
new system of transcribing English into Chinese Characters which functions with
the same or greater phonetic precision as the Latin alphabet. The whole
English language now lives in this script (over 130,000 words though the rime
tables only use a representative sample). Until the rime tables are complete,
the work primarily takes the form of lectures and demonstrations. The first was
a TEDx talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7de8ENdf1yU
(delivered to a general audience with a focus on the “origin story” and
“applicability/utility” rather than poetics) and the second was delivered at
Penn State in March 2015 http://cnet.pegcentral.com/player.php?video=d0816e9b277ae375663eeb0f497c4d02
where I discuss this work in relation to a set of theoretical concepts I have
tagged as “graphonic drifting”, “phonotaxis,” and “heterographia,” and in
relation to notions of “the sacred” as it relates to sound especially across
and between languages.] Yunnan University