Translation

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. 

In this series, What Translation Sparks, we’ve asked a group of poet-translators to share a seminal experience in translation. How does the work of translating poetry feel essential to the writing of one’s own poetry? Our contributors reflect on inspiring moments as intricate as a grammatical quirk and as wide-ranging as the history or politics of another place. 

Jonathan Stalling on “Spring Snow”

Sparked by Translation or How to Write Classical Chinese Poetry in English

The most influential genre of Classical Chinese Poetry is called ‘regulated verse’ (各路诗), and these forms were thought to gather the world into words and refold them into inter-resonant patterns on a cosmological scale. Each monosyllabic word must be stacked in relation to the one before and after, above and below until the whole rests upon a final balanced point, as relaxed and exact as a cairn of transparent quartz.

While the prosodic patterns of regulated verse arrived in China from esoteric Buddhism in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, they increasingly became integrated into pre-existing Classical Chinese “inter-resonance” cosmology (with concepts like yin and yang and five-element theory). By the time of the late Tang Dynasty, regulated verse patterns were integrated into the Imperial Examination system and this form of poetry became a public mirror for aspiring government officials to demonstrate their ability to balance and harmonize the substrate of human consciousness and society (文, language) with the patterns of nature (道,Dao/Tao). For well over 1,500 years, one’s ability to compose regulated verse became an important gateway into a career in the imperial bureaucracy.

While English poets have long been inspired by the concise imagery of classical Chinese poetry, we have not attempted to stack English words following the ancient patterns of parallel and antithetical inter-resonance ascribed by Classical Chinese regulated verse. It has been assumed that regulated verse can only be written in Chinese, but this is not true because what we call “Chinese” is really a large family of many dozens of distinct languages, all of which can be used to compose regulated verse. Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese (Sino-Japanese, Sino-Korean, and Sino-Vietnamese) were adapted over the centuries so that poets in these language worlds could compose Classical Chinese regulated verse as well. At the end of the day, regulated verse forms require a storehouse of monosyllabic words (with the exception of Japanese which found its own interlanguage hack) and it turns out that English has the largest vocabulary of monosyllabic words after Chinese, and thus “Sino-English” is an ideal medium for these forms.

Sparked by Translation: I began experimenting in English-Chinese interlanguage poetry and poetics as a Chinese major at UC Berkeley in the 1990s, when I served as a “STP” (Student Teacher Poet) in June Jordan’s “Poetry for the People” program. Jordan first gave me the assignment to find a way to reveal the music of Classical Chinese poetry in English and over the course of a winter break, I produced my first prototypes which we taught at Cal, and regional high schools, homeless shelters, and prisons. Over the next twenty years, I continued to develop the systems by translating a wide range of Classical Chinese poetry into rhyming, tonalized English monosyllable verse following a syllable-to-syllable methodology and simply adding Chinese tones to the English vowels:

客  舍                            青     青                    柳    色    新
kè shè                         qīngqīng              liǔ    sè    xīn
guèst ìnn                greēngreēn           wǐl  lòw  sheēn

The seeming magical resonance between English and Chinese could work in rare moments of interlanguage serendipity, but in most translations I had to change the word order within lines in order to reproduce the original’s prosody in English. Here is an example of these early translations, a Sino-English translation of “Spring Snow” by the poet Han Yu (韩愈)

春 雪
新 年 都 未    有 芳 花
二 月 初 驚    見 草 芽
白 雪 卻 嫌    春 色 晚
故 穿 庭 樹    作 飛 花

Chūn xuě
xīn nián/ dōu wèi/ yǒu fang huā
èr yuè/ chū jīng/ jiàn cǎo yá
bái xuě/ què xián/ chūn sè wǎn
gù chuān/ tíng shù/ zuò fēi huā

Spring Snow
nēw yeárs/ cōmes bùt/ bloǒms dōn’t grōw
Màrch neàrs/sūr-prīsed/ gràss sprǒuts grów
yét whǐte/ snòw thínks/ sprīng’s còme lǎte
ànd fālls/ thróugh treès/ lìke blōoms blōw

While it may appear that we are looking at a translation that matches word meanings to word meanings, we are not. Instead, the translation is based on matching the meaning of each line, but the translation is re-inscribed into “Sino-English,” which retains the original’s tonal prosody so that one can chant the English version as if it were another dialect of Chinese.

Over time, I moved away from translating existing poems using this method, to further explore the possibilities of composing original verse. With over 5,000 monosyllable words to play with, it is possible to reconstruct a viable life world for regulated verse culture and its poetics in English. To accomplish this end, I have mostly focused on the genre known as “jueju” (a poem of four lines of five or seven monosyllable words), and developed the genre with three levels of difficulty: The first is modeled on “ancient style jueju” (古体诗), while the other two are inspired by the “regulated” genre of “recent style jueju” (新体诗). The later two categories incorporate parallel and antithetical prosodic and semantic rules. For the sake of this writing prompt, I will introduce only the first level (ancient style) jueju, but I encourage everyone to try their hand at the more complex “recent-style jueju” as they can be the most rewarding.

In 2011 I created the Newman Prize for English Jueju at the University of Oklahoma (in conjunction with the Newman Prize for Chinese Literature) which awards $500 to the best English jueju in four categories: Elementary School, Middle School, High School, and College/Adult and this year the competition is open the UK as well. You will find all of the resources (games, rules, vocabularies, and writing prompts) and rules for the regulated jueju forms here:

https://link.ou.edu/english-jueju
https://link.ou.edu/english-jueju-resources

Writing Prompt

How to write an Old Style (古体诗) English Jueju:

1. Only use monosyllabic words and try to avoid unstressed particles.
2. Chose between a quatrain (four-line poem) of either five-word or seven-word lines but both will end in a “AABA” rhyme scheme.
3. Pair your imagistic monosyllable words into two- and three-word units.
            a. If you are composing a five-word-line jueju (五绝), you should have a two-word unit
followed by a three-word unit on each line. Here is an example:

white+stones/ cold+stream+flows

            b. If you are composing a seven-word-line jueju (七绝), you should have two two-word units followed by a three-word unit. For example:

white+stones/ soft+breeze/ cold+stream+flows

In every case your word units should “stick together” more in their groups than they do between groups. The break between units creates a natural cesura which one can further emphasize in oral recitation.

4. Follow the traditional thematic progression: A起, line one introduces external scene; B承 line two deepens and extends the external scene, C转, line three turns the poem inward toward emotional resonance and D合 the fourth line resolves the poem, and brings it to a close revealing a wider or deeper frame of reference wherein the external (natural) scene and internal feeling are revealed to be inter-resonant extensions of one another.

Example:

1. The first line 起introduces a scene of nature:

White stones/ soft breeze/ cold stream flows

2. The second line 承extends and deepens the scene:

Wet path/ birds sing/ tall grass blows

3. The third line 转introduces a turns toward the human world, often beginning an inward movement to poet’s inner feelings (which can extend into the final line):

Aged hands/ cut bait/ cast clear line

4. and the fourth line 合concludes the poem, brings it to a conclusion:

Still thoughts, hours pass, wide mind slows

So the final quatrain reveals a single holistic scene that blends the natural and human worlds (qing & jing) into an inter-resonant whole:

White stones/ soft breeze/ cold stream flows
Wet path/ birds sing/ tall grass blows
Aged hands/ cut bait/ cast clear line
Still thoughts hours pass/ wide mind slows

To submit your poems to the Newman Prize for English Jueju competition, please send them to newmanpoetryaward@ou.edu along with your name and preferred contact information.

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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.