Edwin K. C. Li
Translation plays a key role in the circulation of histories of music theory across the globe; yet stories of translation are often left untold. In this blog post, I recount two stories about my experience as a translator of music-theoretical texts. My goal is to show that stories of translation are part and parcel of history of music theory.
Three years ago I received the daunting task, together with Zhang Yan—Professor of Music Theory at East China Normal University in China—of translating Suzannah Clark’s Analyzing Schubert (2011) into Chinese. In Chapter 4 of her monograph, Clark discusses the use of the “negative-sounding words” such as “deformations,” “wrong,” “signs of decay,” “failures” in James Hepokoski’s and Warren Darcy’s Sonata Theory. I agonized over the word “deformation” for weeks. Initially I translated it into “變形,” which literally means “change in form/shape.” But the translation did not sound—literally and figuratively—negative at all; the linguistic context would be incoherent when the reader got to the point of “negative-sounding words” on the next page. Just when I was about to give in, Zhongyu Wang published an article entitled “On the Innovations of James Hepokoski’s and Warren Darcy’s Sonata Theory” in 2020. He translated “deformations” as “變異.” The word (i.e., the combination of the two characters) literally means “change,” but the character “異” also harbors the meanings of “separated,” (分) “peculiar,” (怪) and “different” (別). His translation, I think, is successful on two fronts: first, it captures the meaning of the prefix “de-” (“off” or “away”) in “deformation”; second, it has the potential to be interpreted in neutral or negative terms with the character “異,” while my translation “變形” sounds more like an objective description of the change of form.
Wang’s translation, with its potential to be interpreted in neutral or negative terms, is a solution to two issues. First, it is a solution to a terminological confusion in English, because when Hepokoski and Darcy define “deformation,” they claim that the term “carries no negative charge, no negative assessment.” They write, deformation “signifies only a purposely strained or non-normative realization of a musical action-space, a surprising or innovative departure from the constellation of habitual practices, an imaginative teasing or thwarting, sometimes playful, of expectations, presumably in order to generate an enhanced or astonishing poetic effect.” Wang’s translation, if being interpreted in neutral terms, prevents such a potential confusion. Second, simultaneously, since Wang’s translation can also conjure up a sense of negativity, it maintains the coherence in Clark’s linguistic context.
Yet for all its merits, I hesitate to adopt Wang’s translation, because it has no implication of “form” whatsoever. While my translation “變形” might furnish a mode of listening that favors Sonata Theory over Clark’s critique of it owing to the word’s lack of “negative-sounding” elements, it does capture the process of moving away from a form, an important aspect in the etymology of “deformation.”
In retrospect, my intuition about the Chinese language reveals my stubborn, perhaps culturally-conditioned, belief that while some characters or words can be interpreted in multiple ways, some of them can only contain a particular affective connotation. Is translation not, as Walter Benjamin reminds us, an act of liberating languages from their signification impasse? If my translation “變形” can be “negative-sounding” in some unforeseen ways, where does my hesitation come from? The overwhelming feeling of the need to add a footnote to almost every word I translate? My lack of trust of the reader? My worry about my loss of control in the “afterlife” of languages, if not in the “afterlife” of modes of listening? To this date, the struggle has not come to an end.
I was writing a paper on Chinese Confucian and Taoist discourse about music (they are two major philosophical schools in ancient China). The problem I encountered with translating Chinese into English was the way through which the two languages express meaning: if the English language can be construed as an unfolding of thoughts in a particular syntactical order of words, ancient Chinese is the condensation of thoughts into a single character. It was thus exceedingly difficult for me to translate a Chinese character into an English word, because no English word can possibly capture the polysemy embedded in a single Chinese character.
A challenging Chinese character to translate was “樂.” In the Book of Music 樂記—which is generally considered to be the culmination of Confucian thought of music in ancient China—“樂” has two meanings, each of which has a different pronunciation in Mandarin: first, when it is pronounced yuè, it refers to a conglomerate of art forms performed in an appropriate manner, context, and in accordance with certain rituals and dances; second, when it is pronounced lè, it means joy or to rejoice. More often than not they are presented as one in the Book of Music. But how could I translate it into a single word in English? I consulted many scholarly writings on this topic, and every scholar, as one could expect, translated the two pronunciations in their own way. For example, Scott Cook translated yuè as “music” and lè as “Music,” while Park So Jeong chose first to adhere to Cook’s translation in 2013 but decided to retain the Chinese original in 2016.
One important thing that I did not address in the paper is how translatability and untranslatability of the character can shape our understanding of what “樂” and “music” might mean, and how they come to mean anything. The semantic difference between “music” and “Music” is obscure, and Cook, I think, intended this to be so because, as he wrote, “lè and yuè are essentially two moments of the same thing.” To translate the character “樂,” for Cook, is to hide its meaning so that the obscurity can demonstrate the untranslatability of the original. Park’s decision to retain the Chinese original is a clear statement of untranslatability, which lures the readers into immersing themselves in the linguistic cultures and listening practices. The signifier-signified relationship between a word and its meaning breaks down in the declaration of untranslatability.
Examples such as these abound in my translation processes over the years, but sadly, in this short blog post I cannot illustrate them at length. What I would like to share, however, are two humble observations: first, translation of music-theoretical concepts between languages exposes modes of listening in various cultures. The translation process does not only activate language renewal, but it also reinvigorates what a musical-theoretical concept might sound like, and sensitizes the reader’s listening within a particular worldview vis-à-vis their own. Second, the act and the refusal of translation constitute a history of music theory in and of itself. I noticed that the process of (not) translating and transforming music-theoretical concepts across languages and cultures has not received much scholarly attention. Perhaps translation has become such a habitual practice in a globalizing world that its everydayness papers over its hermeneutic power of revelation and its visualization of the translator’s self-positionality in the liminal space between the original and the translation. And perhaps translation is often regarded as a mechanical work, rather than as a knowledge-producing enterprise. Stories of translation await to be told as histories of music theory.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn, 69–82. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. The original is published in Charles Baudelaire, “Tableaux parisiens”: Deutsche Übertragung mit einem Vorwort über die Aufgabe des Übersetzers, von Walter Benjamin [“Tableaux parisiens”: German Translation, with a Foreword on the Task of the Translator, by Walter Benjamin], 1923, trans. Harry Zohn.
Clark, Suzannah. Analyzing Schubert. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Cook, Scott. “Yue Ji 樂記: Record of Music: Introduction, Translation, Notes, and Commentary.” Asian Music 26, no. 2 (1995): 1–96.
Hepokoski, James and Warren Darcy. Elements of Sonata Theory: Norms, Types, and Deformations in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Sonata. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Li, Edwin K. C. “Mysticism as Philosophical (Non-)Foundation: Reconstructing a Daoist Critique of Confucian Discourse of Music in Early China.” Paper presented at the Music and Philosophy Study Group, Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, Boston, 2019.
Park, So Jeong. “Musical Thought in the Zhuangzi: A Criticism of the Confucian Discourse on Ritual and Music.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 12, no. 3 (2013): 331–50.
––––––––––. “On Sound: Reconstructing a Zhuangzian Perspective of Music.” Humanities 5, no. 3 (2015): 1–11.
Wang, Zhongyu. “詹姆斯．赫珀科斯基与沃伦·达西’奏鸣理论’创新探究.” [On the Innovations of James Hepokoski’s and Warren Darcy’s Sonata Theory] Journal of the Central Conservatory of Music, 1 (2020): 53–65.
 Clark 2011, 204.
 Wang 2020, 55.
 Hepokoski and Darcy 2006, 11.
 A further complication is that Plato’s “form” is often translated as “型” rather than as “形.” The former denotes a “mold” or “type,” while the latter a “shape” or “form.”
 Benjamin 1923.
 Li 2019.
 Cook 1995.
 Park 2013; 2016.
 Cook 1995, 25.