Fan Wu / Twilight Zone of the Tongue: Vignettes of Translingualism

Four Provocations

Transformation is intrinsic to language. The inner processes of language are transitional: in the jumps between the neuronal sensation and the utterance; in the silences that both interrupt communication and make it possible; in language’s quavering between sound, tone, and meaning. Language is not a stable entity and is constituted by nothing but its dynamic transformations: this is the atomic structure of what we will name translingualism.

Translingualism understands that language is not an abstract idea, but a pattern of experience within language. It feels out the stitches between the different discourses that compose a natural language; it is the energy that allows us to pass from a lover’s idiom (promissory) to a labourer’s idiom (pragmatic) to a cat owner’s idiom (cooing) in the span of minutes. Every idiom within language has its own grammars, syntaxes, and ideals.

Translingualism challenges hegemonic monolingualism from within. Under capitalism, a global, techno-bureaucratic form of monolingualism attempts to commandeer language by bending it to the teleologies of market value, efficiency, and advertising. But monolingualism is susceptible to internally splitting off into creolizations, hybridities, and dialects that forge their own desires and aims. So English, for example, is not a language, but a tool with which to build real, live, active languages. Translingualism is an act of resistance in language against the forces that would narrow its potentials for the sake of consolidating power.

Translingualism affirms that we are all monolingual (because all the languages and idioms we speak make up a continuum that is the singular language of our subjectivity) and that we are not even monolingual (because no language properly belongs to us, and neither language itself nor our subjective grasp of it ever coheres into a monolingual “oneness”).


My Own Private Degenerating Mandarin

I left China when I was four years old. I have no memories of China, only a few photographs of the farms I grew up on with my grandmother, and those photographs have supplied me with the retroactive illusion of memory. (Those farmlands are now being seized by the government and turned into high-rise developments—but the horror of contemporary China is a story for another day). In one photo, I’m posing with two parakeets, beaming from ear to ear in my Charlie Brown-esque knit vest. Later my mother would laugh at me when I asked for the story behind this photo. She told me I’d wrung the necks of the parakeets out of curiosity about my own strength.

At age four, one already has a sense of language, a grasp of syntax and a burgeoning base vocabulary. But the brain is still pliable enough to pick up a new language fairly quickly and forge what essentially seems like a “native” competence with that language. Personally, I have no trace of an accent, nor any strangeness of syntax; the only “tell” that fellow “bilingual” speakers have noticed is that I pronounce “sure” like “是,” the Chinese word for “being.” My parents were conflicted as pedagogues: they wanted me to learn Mandarin but at the same time needed to learn English themselves, so our household ended up speaking a blended Chinglish (hardly uncommon in immigrant households) where we’d sub in and out of languages depending on our comfort levels. “你可以今天不用 computer 行吗?” I grew up flung deep into translingual constellations, and this interweaving hybridity taught me so much about the inherent flexibility of language-systems and their openness to play.

The sounds and rhythms of Mandarin are forgotten nostalgias that haunt me; in my thoughts I still count numbers, work multiplication tables, and identify fruits in Chinese. My English is still half-lit by Mandarin, even as my real knowledge of it has faded into a kindergartener’s set of nouns. The rhythms of the Tang poems that my grandparents recited for me still wend their way into how I write poetry, and in the very musicality of my inner ear, Mandarin composes my sonic unconscious. The language I speak, English, where I feel myself to have the most communicative power, is founded on a loss whose resonant traces shape it in ways that exceed my knowledge and are buried deep in my intuitions:


Li Bai’s children’s lullaby, perhaps the most popular poem in Mandarin, is one such resonant trace. Here’s my best attempt to render its lilt of perfect simplicity into English:

before the bed a moonbeam’s thrust
moonlight wet the ground like frost
raise your head to see that moon
lower it to know what’s lost

(adapted from my Storm Work: An Icarus Opera in Three Acts)

These Mandarin melodies that hum beneath my hearing leads me to assert, in places where one announces one’s identity: I’m not bilingual, nor trilingual, I’m translingual. For the translingual subject, questions orbit around the daily practices of self-identification: How traumatic is the loss of a language? What kind of development is arrested when the mother tongue’s been frozen in time? Why is it that I can’t bring myself to sit down and learn Mandarin properly — what am I holding on to in my incomplete, perversely improper understanding of it?


Pound I

The translingual has made a traitor of me. My ostensible body is Chinese but I mostly reached a sense of “Chineseness” through the Western tradition’s fascination with it. Portrait of an Asian orientalist. Barthes’s passionate idealization of Japanese language and Zen culture, Pound’s praise of the Chinese ideogram and its potential for poetry: their fascination felt kin to mine, spurred as it was by the sense of an irreducible difference entwined with an essential lack. Something in the Other held a truth that was missing from their local, Western context. They found something in Japan or China that their souls were missing in the West, just as I saw their illuminated hunger as the bridge between myself and the homeland I had given up.

Barthes’s and Pound’s romanticizations of Eastern poetics were deeply sincere, thoroughly researched, and fruitful; texts like Barthes’s Empire of Signs and Pound’s Cathay were highly influential in generating East-West literary transcultural exchange. If we read them with a critical eye — for these are not faultless texts, and are riddled with their fair share of misunderstandings and essentializations of Eastern culture — we can understand not what defines either Eastern or Western culture but the peculiar transcultural and relational space between them.

Pound worked within an unstable translingual space because he didn’t read much Chinese; rather, he used transliterated texts by Ernest Fennellosa as rough guidelines to produce his idiosyncratic English “translations.” Here’s “Huang Niao” (“Yellow Bird”) from the Book of Classics, one of the earliest recorded compilations of Chinese folk poetry:


This is James Legge’s literal version:

Yellow bird, yellow bird,
Do not settle on the oaks,
Do not eat my grand millet.
The people of this country,
I cannot dwell with.
I will return, I will go back,
Back to my uncles.

And here’s Pound’s rendition:

Yaller bird, let my corn alone,
Yaller bird, let my crawps alone,
These folks here won’t let me eat,
I wanna go back whaar I can meet
the folks I used to know at home,
                              I got a home an’ I wanna’ git goin’.

Yalla’ bird, let my trees alone,
Let them berries stay whaar they’z growin’,
These folks here ain’t got no sense,
can’t tell them nothing without offence,
Yalla’ bird, lemme, le’mme go home.
I gotta home an’ I wanna git goin’.
Yalla’ bird, you stay outa dem oaks,
Yalla’ bird, let them crawps alone,
I just can’t live with these here folks,
                              I gotta home and I want to git goin’.
To whaar my dad’s folks still is a-growin’.

Pound transmogrifies these Chinese folk songs into poems composed of patchwork elements from the history of English poetry. He renders the seven-line Chinese poem into two sestets and a quatrain, expanding the rhythms of the poem into an English folk song structure. His vernacular doubles down on the folk song feel, as he transcribes the phonetics of rural American speech — with its own minor variations, like between “yaller” and “yalla”— into a sing-songy cornfield rhythm. The poem’s musical urgency matches its message of hostility and a pained nostalgia for the homeland. Pound’s deep knowledge of English poetry’s history, from its high-cultural intertextuality to its low-cultural vernacular speech, allows him to forge a resonant link between 8th century BCE China and the 19th century American South. He lets the ancient Chinese poem roam over the surface of English poetics, searching for correspondence in affect rather than, as in Legge’s version, communication of bare meaning.

In Pound’s example, translingual translation expresses not the original text itself, but the crosscultural act of encounter between the original and the translation. Such an act necessarily records the imprint of the translingual subject who makes two languages meet in the unformed, undefined middle space between the two languages. No longer a mere translator, Pound is a spiritual medium for the poem. Certainly this is a speculative act, leaping as it does into the abyss of the incommensurable to try to match idioms between languages. But the attempt is inspirational to me, as it passes the spirit of the original Chinese through the prism of English to create a trans-temporal, trans-geographic poem that glints with the original poem’s energy. A translingual poetics releases us from the limitations of accurate meaning, and allows experimentation, failure, and the unknown to seep into the translated text.



Excerpted from “Twilight Zone of the Tongue: Vignettes of Translingualism” by Fan Wu, featured in Issue 3.42: Translingual (Fall 2020). To read the piece in its entirety purchase a print or digital copy here.

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