[FEATURE] “Evolving from Embryo and Changing the Bones: Translating the Sonorous” by Jonathan Stalling

Co-Editor Tammy Lai-Ming Ho‘s note: Jonathan Stalling’s “Evolving from Embryo and Changing the Bones: Translating the Sonorous” 奪胎換骨: 譯詩存音, re-published below, first appeared in Issue 22 (December 2013) of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, themed “Ancient Asia” and guest edited by Lucas Klein, who currently serves as Cha‘s Translation Editor. Han Yu’s 韓愈 “Spring Snow” 春雪, translated from the Chinese by Stalling in the essay, is reprinted on Poetry Daily on Monday 14 December 2020. In an accompanying piece, “How to Write Classical Chinese Poetry in English”, also on Poetry Daily, Stalling writes about ‘mov[ing] away from translating existing poems using this method, to further explore the possibilities of composing original verse’ and the Newman Prize for English Jueju at the University of Oklahoma, which he created in 2011, in conjunction with the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature. He ends with a writing prompt if you want to try writing your own English jueju. (Header image: Lu Xinjian’s “Invisible Poem / Du Fu: Welcome Rain on a Spring Night”, 2012.)

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Jonathan Stalling


Letting Go: The Limits of Translation

Let me begin this section by stating two widely accepted beliefs: first that poetry is closely related to the sonorous and that the first thing lost in translation is the sound of the original. Regarding the first point, poetry and the sonorous have a very close connection in both the classical Chinese and Western traditions. In fact, the very name “poetry” denotes singing in Chinese “shige” (诗歌): the first syllable, 诗, can stand alone as “poetry” but is almost always coupled with the second character for “song.” (Here the “song” (歌) originally refers to the poem accompanied by “music” (音乐) rather than the rhythm of poetry itself. The Book of History (Shangshu,《尚书·虞书》) states that “poetry aspires to sing/chant language, to echo forever, the law of harmony” (“诗言志, 歌咏言, 声依永, 律和声”). The Book of Rites (Li Ji, 《礼记·乐记》) states that “poetry gives thought expression; singing extends/prolongs the notes of the voice; dance sets the body in motion. These three spring from the mind and musical instruments accompany them” (“诗, 言其志也; 歌, 咏其声也; 舞, 动其容也; 三者本于心, 然后乐器从之”). Lyrics, song, music, dance were, therefore, once united into an organic whole as “诗歌” (poetry) but have developed independently.

Of course, in English, too, poetry has a long relationship to the word “lyric” which is etymologically tied to the lyre, or a stringed instrument once used to accompany poetry singing and/or recitation. While poetry in both traditions was not wholly tied to the lyre (or in the Chinese context, the guqin [zither]), we might say that the voice itself is treated as an instrument that produces sound in excess of the requirements for communication. In this regard, poetic utterance might be, in part, defined as that which exceeds, or spills over, the communicative requirements of language itself into something more (less, or perhaps offering its own measure entirely), and that this is one of the primary characteristics that makes poetry poetic.

The second point, that sound is the first thing to be lost in translation, is also difficult to refute. After all, poetry is uniquely drawn from the particularities of the source language and these socio-linguistic particulars and textures cannot be brought across the seemingly impenetrable expanse between different languages. Yet many translators have not accepted this and have attempted to bring sound across the interlinguistic divide. Louis Zukofsky’s “homophonic translations,” Dennis Tedlock’s concrete poetic translations, Jerome Rothenberg’s experiments with “total translation,” Lawrence Venuti’s notion of foreignisationii and Douglas Robinson’s notion of the schizophrenic translator standing in-between languages are important expressions of a strong desire to do just that.

Attending poetry written (and recited) in languages other than one’s own offers an opportunity to “listen to the pure sonorous escape” of poetic utterance in foreign languages which wholly exceeds and flees from its usual subordination to communicative instrumentality. Yet readers/listeners experience these sounds in radically different ways. Clearly, sound waves emitted through the reading act swell and fall in exactly the same patterns for everyone (“yuan sheng” or “original voice”), but our ears only collect and channel sound waves into our mind-bodies, which in turn experience these same sounds differently from one to another. (Imagine the sound of a stranger’s mother’s voice as compared to that of one’s own mother.) Just as we each come to relate to sounds in different ways, and imbue them with different meanings, so to is the indeterminacy of sonorous meanings exponentially exaggerated by one’s familiarity and identification with the voices or languages being heard. In other words, the sonorous text has always already (to borrow a common Derridean refrain) escaped translation insofar as the matrix of potential psycho-physiological stimuli made available by a sonorous text cannot be concretised into a single “original” interpretation from which a translation can follow, however literally or freely. In other words, there is never just one source experience of the sonorous; they are always radically multitudinous.

This should make us think twice about what we imagine translation does in the first place.

In English, the term “translation” is etymologically linked to the idea of moving bishops from one church to another, and it retains this idea by posing the possibility of moving meaning from one place to another. However, it would seem that poststructuralism has destroyed the English metaphysical understanding of translation by convincingly demonstrating that meanings are not “present” as “things” in themselves and languages are not conduits transmitting these “things” but are instead highly complex differential oppositions of phonemes that make up vast webs of potential significations taking place through myriad layers of contextualisation (more like the “transformation” as in “fanyi’s” meaning). If meanings are not “things” transmitted within one language, then they cannot be transferred between languages either. Instead, something else is happening which results in the crude and abundant fact of innumerable translations “successfully” taking place everywhere around us. Clearly, translation “works” because of the incredibly dynamic and continually adapting nature of these webs of differential sounds, which are more than capable of mimicking the translators interpretation of the source text.

Of course, translators of poetry do not complain about losing the meanings of words nearly as much as we do the sounds they make. And, of course, this is my main point, that when we speak of “losing the song” of the original, we have leapt too far ahead of ourselves to assume there is but a single “song” when there are as many “songs” or sounds as there are those to experience them. Yet we long for this original song, the “original sound” that would offer the same meanings to anyone who encounters it. For instance, I want to believe that if I could hear Li Bai chant his poetry, just as his audience did, in its original middle Chinese, then I could translate this experience into a form my readers could take in for themselves. I believe that we must let this dream go, however, if we are to realise that what is possible is far more wondrous than what we have eulogised as impossible.


Evolving from Embryo and Changing the Bones: From an Economy of Loss to the Possibilities of Mimicry

If we cannot “transfer” existent “things” or even experience the singular “song” of the original even once, what are we left with? The answer is that we are left with what we already have and the potential of what we have not yet made. Whether dealing with meanings or sounds, translation successfully brings new meanings and sonorous excesses into being through acts of mimicry. My question is this: what is wrong with taking mimicry as not only our method, but our goal (what we might even call our philosophical aspiration)? Of course, translators might object to the idea of mimicry given its lowly status in Western philosophy: mimicry and mimesis after all have a very chequered past. From Plato to the present, we have worshiped at the alter of the original, the authentic, the creative and the new. To be derivative is perhaps the worst insult one can levy upon poets and critics alike. Yet there are precedents for elevating mimicry to high art, to a philosophical ideal.

Huang Tingjian 黃庭堅

For instance, I am particularly fond of Huang Tingjian’s (黃庭堅, 1045–1105) notion of “夺胎换骨” or “evolving from embryo and changing the bones.” This phrase first appears in the third century AD in a text called the 黃庭經 (Huangting Jing, The Scripture of the Yellow Court),iii a major early text on Daoist inner alchemy. Like all Daoist alchemy, this text describes ways in which the Daoist adept endeavours to become immortal through a series of successive transformations. In the external-alchemy schools, the adept attempts to produce a pill that distills multiple elements into a single harmonious aggregate that can bring life everlasting. In inner alchemy, the adept deploys a metalanguage culled from external alchemy (proto-chemistry) to guide one through complex mental and physiological techniques meant to nourish and congeal the body’s vital energies or what is called 精 jing, 氣 qi and 神 shen through the fire of 意 yi (intention) and 念 nian (thought) to gestate the “immortal embryo” 結胎 in the lower 丹田 dantian (or cinibar field [just beneath the navel]), which one gives birth to allowing the old body to fall away as the “husk” or “cocoon.” One is thus enabled to enter into the eternally replenishing cycles of the Dao itself as the being one has given birth to. Such a transformation was given the name: “evolving from embryo” and “changing the bones”  for this reason.iv

As already alluded to, this phrase came into Chinese poetics by way of the Song Dynasty poet/critic Huang Tingjian. James Liu, whose widely accepted translation of the phrase I have also adopted, describes Huang’s use of the term “evolving from embryo” as a means of imitating the idea while using different words, or imitating the words while using a somewhat different idea (“changing the bones”) concluding that “imitation was raised to the status of a fine art.”v

While Huang did not leave behind 詩話 (shihua, poetry talks), his many friends and students recorded his poetic theories in some detail. A contemporary of Huang’s, Hui Heng (慧洪, 1071–1128) quotes him:

The meaning of poetry is unlimited, but man’s talent has a limit. Even a T’ao Ch’ien or a Tu Fu could not seek unlimited meaning with limited talent. Thus not to change the meaning but to create one’s own meaning but [use the original words] to describe it is called the method of evolving from the embryo (Huan Ku) [huàngú].

“Tu-t’ai [duó tai] (changing the bones) can be seen as using the general form and even the words of a former poet’s writing to express an idea that goes beyond or is different from that in the original poem.”vi Huang emphasised the rigorous training required to perfect poetic forms, which he argued only came through a careful study and mimicry of earlier literature. In addition to the Daoist residues of this phrase, Huang is also known to have championed the phrase 點鐵成金, “Changing Iron into Gold.”vii And another student of his wrote that, “studying poetry is like studying to become an immortal—when the time comes the bones naturally change.”viii

Yet James Liu, perhaps predictably criticises Huang’s theories as “principles [that] can hardly be defended” as he sees Huang’s methods as purely derivative. While it is difficult to disagree with the notion that poetry tied to specific acts of mimicry would be limiting, Liu’s description of Huang’s work totally eschews the interesting philosophical emphasis on transformation and change that resides at its core. After all, Huang was a student of Su Shi (aka Su Dongpo) the great Buddho-Daoist Sung Dynasty poet, and one can clearly see that Huang’s theories of composition by way of mimicry take as their starting and end points the fact of transformation imbued with its Buddho-Daoist significance. Take these elements, Huang writes, and add new elements, combine in the cauldron of reading and writing and something new from the old is born.


Mimicry as Method

To accomplish this two-fold mimicry, I must, as all translators must, “change the bones,” or use new words to convey the same or similar meanings as the original, but I also want to “evolve” my translations “from the embryo” of the source text. Or, in other words, I must mimic as exactly as possible what I perceive to be the sonorous event of the original. This means following the same aural constraints as those followed in the original composition of Classical poetic forms, except in English. Therefore, I must compose the English poem in a nearly monosyllabic lexicon with a set number of syllables per line, with strict end rhyme schemes for the Shi form and also internal rhymes for the Ci form. I must also mimic all cases of reduplicative binomes (repeated words) and other heightened acoustic textures (strong alliteration or assonance, etc). Example:

And finally, I must compose the line with exactly the same tonal prosody with its harmonious alternation between yin and yang tones as pronounced in modern Mandarin.ix Why modern Mandarin? Having cast off the metaphysical belief in a single “original” song, it makes sense to mimic the poetry as it is recited today by the majority of Chinese people not as it is imagined to have been recited during the Tang and Song dynasties.

Before ending, let me finish my theoretical discussion by emphasising what I see as the sheer honesty of mimicry which worships not in the cult of “creativity,” which is, after all, the bastard child of Romanticism still haunting us apparently undaunted by postmodern aesthetics and theoretical insights. The myth of the creative ego expressing itself autonomously still obfuscates just how creative a place this world actually is. The world is not creative only because individuals create ideas from the ethers, but because we are intertextual, heterocultural cauldrons within which transformations unceasingly take place. We cannot help but co-create the phenomena we encounter since we are constantly interpreting and thus transforming everything we come across. When we make a concerted effort to mimic, however, especially in acts of “translation,” we pay homage to and bend our attention toward that which we want to learn from, that which we want to both make a part of ourselves and by extension make new.


Translations are Dreams

There are different ways of reciting Classical Chinese poems: lansong and yinsong are representative of these, the first focuses on matching the meaning with an emotive resonance in the recitation, the other is closer to singing, allowing the tonal prosody to dictate the basic contours of the melody but exaggerating these into song. I prefer the later when the melody cleaves closely to the poem’s inherent prosody (and not a superimposed theatricality biaoyan popular on TV and in middle school poetry schools), but this style has fallen out of fashion in China since the early 20th century. The following translations allow the English to be chanted in either way, which I think brings a missing dimension to the experience of Chinese poetry into the fray of translation, but, again, this experience is not “closer” to the “original” which is not for sale, and never was. But it does begin to change the listener, by building within her or him a cultural space in which to house new feelings not available in the monolingual consciousness that may have otherwise been the primary receptive frame for these poems.

What follows are representations of most of the major genres of Tang, Song and Yuan poetry. But I would rather call these poems dreams than translations. This seems more honest: they are translations in the sense that I am careful to ensure semantic fidelity to the originals, but they are dreams in both the sense that they dream to be more than translations, and because translations are always only ever dreams of the original.

i. This piece is based on a talk I gave at Beijing Normal University in May, 2008.

ii. This term used by Lawrence Venuti refers to the practice of bending the linguistic features of the target language into the features of the source language. See The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (London and New York: Routledge, an imprint of Taylor & Francis Books Ltd, 1998).

iii. The text first appeared around 356 AD, the 12th year of the Yonghe reign of the Eastern Jin dynasty.

iv. For more about the Huangting Jing see Paul Kroll, “Body Gods and Inner Vision: The Scripture of the Yellow Court.” Religions of China in Practice. Ed. Donald Lopez (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) 149–65.

v. See James Liu, The Art of Chinese Poetry. (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1962) 78.

vi. See Adele Rickett, “Method and Intuition.” Chinese Approaches to Literature from Confucius to Liang Ch’I-ch’ao. Ed. Adele Rickett, et. al. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978) 110–111.

vii. Quoted from the Dahongjufushu 答洪駒父書, Rickett, 110.

viii. 陳師道 Chen Shidao (1053–1101) was one of Huang’s students. See Rickett, 118.

ix. I have been translating poetry in this way since 1996 when June Jordan asked me to translate a Tang poem so that she could “hear the song.” See my chapter in the critical work on June Jordan’s poetics Still Seeking an Attitude, Ed. Valerie Kinloch, Lexington Books, 2005.

x. “Night jar” is often translated as a “cuckoo,” which I have chosen not to use due to its distracting connotative residues.

Jonathan Stalling Jonathan Stalling (Chinese: 石江山,思道林; born June 24, 1975) is an American poet, scholar, editor, translator, professor, and inventor who works at the intersection of English and Chinese. He is the Harold J & Ruth Newman Chair for US-China Issues and Co-Director of the Institute for US-China Issues, and is Professor of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is also the affiliate English professor at the University of Oklahoma where he serves as the founding curator of the Chinese Literature Translation Archive (CLTA), and as a founding editor of Chinese Literature Today (CLT) journal and as the editor of the CLT book series published by the University of Oklahoma Press. His books include Poetics of Emptiness (Fordham University Press), Grotto Heaven (Chax Press), Yingelishi (Counterpath Press), Winter Sun: The Poetry of Shi Zhi (Oklahoma University Press) and he is an editor of The Chinese Character as a Medium for Poetry (Fordham UP).

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