Jonathan Stalling at TEDx

Jonathan Stalling at TEDx Talk, February 22nd, 2014
Jonathan Stalling at TEDx, February 22nd, 2014

Over the years I have explored issues of “interlanguage” in my critical and creative work. As a translator, I often try to hover between the source and target languages as long as possible, in order to realize different interlingual states. But translation is only one way in which we can formally move between languages. Actually, transliteration has always been more interesting to me. My masters thesis at the University of Edinburgh was entitled “Prefacing the Text: Toward a Transliterative Telos,” and described a theory of reading that would work “against translation” as its end goal—instead offering a way to more powerfully transcribe one’s attending to the materiality of signification located in a phenomenology of enunciation/translettering. Since the mid-1990s, I have engaged in interlingual and transgraphic writing practices culminating in my book/opera Yingelishi, and in a series of poems I have been calling “DeRomanizing English,” where transcriptions of English in Korean, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese scripts articulate the space of what I call the “phonotactic rift.” Such a space indicates the exact points two languages diverge and overlap in their allowable sequencing of sounds (phonotactics). Transgraphic writing practices allow one to get to this place relatively quickly and intuitively. When we consciously compose a language in the script of another (digraphia), we enter this rift aesthetically/formally in what I would call “phonotaxis.” Whereas hypotaxis and parataxis compose by way of subordinating grammar or juxtaposition, phonotaxis composes by way of phonotactic constraints (the allowable sound sequences in a language). Yingelishi, for instance, is built upon such constraints. When we write across scripts (or read across them/transpronunciation), we can hear/feel the result of these constraints as an “accent,” a particular kind of prosody and music that I believe is fundamental to identity and consciousness (I call such spaces “interlanguage bodies,” for those bodies within which no accent is perceptible, beyond which everything is accent). Writing work attuned to this music is central to my poetics.

However, the talk linked to this intro is constructed around my newest project, “Pinying” 拼英 (this name is a pun on the name of Romanization in Chinese, pinyin, which means to combine phonetic sounds, but whereas “Pinying” keeps this connotation, it means “to combine the phonetic sounds of English”). This work is another example of “DeRomanizing English,” but it is quite different from Yingelishi. “Pinying” is a new alphabet I created in/of Chinese characters using ideas inspired by classical Chinese phonology (before the Latin alphabet and Western linguistics were introduced to China). Due to the method of using whole Chinese characters to transliterate English results in a radically altered English pronunciation, I developed another interlanguage “technology” that uses characters in a new way. In this way, “Pinying” can better “localize” English phonetics with less transference “interference.” Unlike my other work, “Pinying” constitutes an “invention,” which meant that I have had to disclose it to my university,followed by a period to decide how they want to proceed with the IP. I accepted the invitation to do a TED Talk on this subject as a “public disclosure” of the “invention” to speed up this process (so that it can begin a more thorough testing period).

My goals for “Pinying” are three-fold. First, I am handing the alphabet over to people changed from “audiences” who are better suited to evaluate its “uses” for language learners and/or others. Secondly, I am using “Pinying” as the medium and subject of a book of poetry/poetics tentatively entitled “Split Resonances: The Book of Cut Rimes.” Thirdly, I am exploring the theoretical implications of this kind of interlanguage practice in my current critical work in progress: Ghost in the Ear: Interlangauge Theory and Poetics. I am interested in disrupting the metaphysics of phonetic writing more generally, and Romanization in particular, which from the late-19th century to the present retain a translinguistic/cultural claim to the applicability of Latin graphemes across all languages and times—a claim that I argue is equal parts metaphysical and ideological in nature.

There is no such thing as “language” in the singular or plural. There are only continuums of interlanguages. Transgraphic writing practices, among other experiments, help reveal how fragile and arbitrary the walls between so-called languages are. In fact, I hope that such practices will reveal that writing systems are not “walls” at all but pathways that take us between (always between) points within interlanguage spaces. “Pinying”is my attempt to create another pathway, to see just how much agency lies in the space of the interlingual imaginary to “do work” of this kind.

I feel that my TED Talk needs to be contextualized a bit in the wider web of my current work, or risk being taken as a strange deviation from poetics. This talk does play with ideas of “utility” and “value” as it attempts to “translate” (but not to subsume or displace) experimental poetics into tangents of activation distinct from those that happen inside “art” per se. At this point, I am handing it over to applied linguists and ESL professionals to test further, and that story will unfold in time.—Jonathan Stalling


Jonathan Stalling is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma, specializing in modern to contemporary American poetry and East-West Poetics and is the co-founder and an editor of Chinese Literature Today journal and book series, as well as the Deputy Director of the Center for the Study of China’s Literature Abroad at Beijing Normal University. He is the author of Poetics of Emptiness, Grotto Heaven, Yingelishi (吟歌丽诗) and Winter Sun: The Poetry of Shi Zhi 1966-2007. He is also the editor of The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.