Shakespeare on the Chinese bookshelf–the translation of Shakespeare’s work in China, past and present
As one of the best known British writers, Shakespeare has an undeniable influence on literature around the world. However, for the majority of foreign language readers, including students in China, the first encounter with this literary master is actually the translated version of his works. Therefore, the quality of translations plays a crucial role in the spread of his works. A Chinese saying about Shakespeare is that “There are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people’s eyes”, similarly, maybe when translating Shakespeare’s works, there is no right or wrong only ‘more appropriate’. In this article, I will be introducing the development of translation of Shakespeare’s work in China in last hundred years, and think what should we do to make readers from a totally different era, in a different culture, from Shakespeare enjoy his works.
The work of translating Shakespeare into Chinese started from the 1900s, European playwrights such as Ibsen and Moliere were already quite famous before his dramas were received by the Chinese literary public. Since that time, Shakespeare’s works have already been used as a tool for fighting against the feudalism. Both Macbeth and Hamlet have been adapted and offered criticism of the ruler at that time, Yuan Shikai, who declared himself emperor. The plays were welcomed by ordinary people and had a huge popular following.Later scholars affirmed the value of such adapted versions and productions in Chinese history, arguing that Shakespearean ideas of humanism and spirit of resistance could not be found in traditional Chinese dramas.
Foreign culture was just like the fresh blood for China in 19th Century. Litterateurs, revolutionists, translators have all posited the supremacy of written translation for spreading his work. Several translations have appeared and then faded in popularity, after criticisms were made. It is popularly held that the most authoritative work was accomplished by Zhu Shenghao, who has been regarded as one of the greatest English-Chinese translators in China. He translated 31 playwrights using two dictionaries in only 10 years, and died when he was thirty-two years old because of poor living condition and tuberculosis (leaving his translation of the complete works to be completed by other scholars). Zhu used his solid knowledge in English and literary cultivation to create a translation that as close to the original as possible. When I once read about his description of translating Shakespeare’s work, I was really astonished by his devotion to the task. He said he could spend several days wracking his brains about the translation of a single word, possibly rearranging the whole paragraph to make the language read smoothly in Chinese, sometimes imagining himself as an actor standing on the stage to see if the line sounds right.
However his works have also been criticized for only translating the elegance of Shakespeare’ works but not engaging with ‘vulgar’ slang and banter, this was a great loss for readers in terms of the taste of the original. Also, later translators and literature critics have pointed out there are a lot of avoidable mistranslations: cases of too much simplification and not explaining puns in the right way. Such criticism does not affect the popularity of his translation in later generations: nowadays, if you go to any big book stores in China, you will find Shakespeare’s dramas translated by Zhu being put in the most conspicuous place. On the other hand, his translation of Shakespeare’s poetry has been criticized for not following the format and rhyme of the poems, and reads like prose, which is fatal for transmitting the charisma of the original. As a result, the most used Chinese versions of Shakespeare’s poems and sonnet are the ones translated by other great translators such as Liang Zongdai and Tu An. From the portion of dramas and sonnet put on the bookshelf, you can easily tell that Shakespeare is most famous for his drama in China.
Shakespeare in Chinese translation has been included in the national curriculum. A hundred years ago, Shakespeare began to appear in Chinese classrooms to develop students’ literary knowledge. Selected scenes from Hamlet are listed as compulsory context together with other three famous Chinese texts, learnt by high school students in Chinese classes. Zhu Shenghao’s translation was used in the textbooks, with little alteration. In some high schools, there are competitions among different classes to perform the translated drama.
Also, there are some editions for even younger readers, such as bilingual books and simplified story books with pictures. Roughly, these serve two purposes: learning English through reading and getting some ideas about Shakespeare and English culture/literature. Both of these kinds of books could be seen as constituting adapted versions of Shakespeare’s dramas. They either translate already-adapted stories from English or rewrite the story in modern Chinese suitable for the learners’ young age. The quality of these translations is hard to define, for some of these books are not from the major publishers in China and the translators’ expertise and authority is not made clear. However, whereas older, if fuller, academic translations might adversely affect readers’ understanding of the meanings of Shakespeare’s works – for Chinese people do not speak exactly the same as eighty years ago – the adapted versions for children use fresher, more easily recognisable language. This can be seen as a positive development, maintaining Shakespeare’s charm for young Chinese readers so that he continues to be accepted widely and appreciated by them.
- Min Han
Murray J Levith. (2006). Shakespeare in China. London: Continuum. 4-16.
Li Weiming. (2004). ‘China: translating Shakespeare in half century’. Chinese Translation Journal (Vol.25 No.5).
‘Shakespeare in Chinese revolution’. (2014). Accessed at http://cul.sohu.com/s2014/shaweng/ 27 June 2014.