The British Government has pledged £1.5 million to translate the complete works of Shakespeare into Chinese. The project will be delivered by the Royal Shakespeare Company, who have also received government funding for a tour of China. The stated aim is to boost tourism and ‘cultural links’.
ARE THE BRITS HAPPY?
The plays and poetry of William Shakespeare are arguably England’s greatest cultural treasure. Every school child studies his work, and he is considered to be the greatest Englishman to ever wield a pen. Until the 20th century though, Shakespeare was almost unknown in China. The new translations and accompanying tour will bring Shakespeare to a wider audience in China. What, though, do those who hail from the land of The Bard’s birth feel about their government sponsoring this project? Are they glad to see Shakespeare shared more widely?
I read through pages of comments at the bottom of several articles announcing the project. Only a very few resented this use of taxpayers’ money, with most expressing pride that ‘their’ playwright was to be presented afresh in the world’s most spoken language. However, there are some huge challenges involved in translating Shakspeare into Chinese.
A HISTORY OF CHINESE TRANSLATIONS
The first translations of Shakespeare into Mandarin were by Lin Shu (1852-1924) and entitled Strange Stories from across the Seas. They were not direct translations, but taken from a children’s book of prose adaptations of Shakespeare’s stories. The first Chinese encounters with Shakespeare were therefore not with the verse of his plays but the stories and characters in a simplified format.
The influence of Shakespeare’s storylines has definitely been greater than that of his language. The first translation of a play didn’t come until 1922, courtesy of Tian Han and Shakespeare’s language does not easily submit to translation. Many of the words, figures of speech and references are too archaic to be understood even by native English speakers. Much of the plays is written in verse limited by strictures on rhythm and rhyme. A translator must decide whether to replicate the meaning of a phrase and disregard the rhythm, or translate the meaning more loosely in order to replicate the flow of the verse. This is particularly difficult when translating into Mandarin, a predominately monosyllabic language, rather than into European languages that are constructed similarly to English.
HOW TO TRANSFER HISTORY AND COMEDY?
Shakespeare’s ‘History Plays’ present a different challenge to the Chinese translator. As dramatisations of real historical events, these plays require the translator to have a thorough knowledge of British history. Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s comedic moments are often based on puns – clever word play to twist meaning in an unpredictable way. These are notoriously difficult to translate directly, as they often rely on phonetics – the sounds of the words – being similar whilst the meanings are different but in a foreign language, it is highly unlikely that the requisite terms will translate so neatly as to preserve the pun.
THE MAGIC OF PERFORMANCE
I was very glad to read that a new, cohesive translation of Shakespeare was being prepared for Chinese audiences, but was more excited about the announcement of a tour of China. Though the new translations will be expertly done, they will never be able to replicate the originals. It is, though, important to remember that Shakespeare is not to be read, but to be performed. I enjoy performances whilst not understanding every archaic term or historical reference, and I am sure that you would too.
There are many fantastic theatre companies in the UK that specialise in Shakespeare, the most famous being the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon – the place of Shakspeare’s birth, and The Globe theatre in London, a replica of an Elizabethan theatre which stages open-air performances. When you visit the UK attend a play at one (or both) of these venues – like me you won’t understand every word, but by seeing the action you will understand the emotions of the play far better than you can in a library. This is why I’m so excited to hear that the RSC are going to tour China, because ultimately Shakespeare has to be seen and heard, not simply read.