September 18, 2014

“You speak a language that I understand not,” or, Brits fund Mandarin translation of Shakespeare


"What's in a name?"

“What’s in a name?”

The Royal Shakespeare Company will get 1.5 million pounds ($1.63 million in real money) from the British government to translate all of William Shakespeare‘s works into Mandarin.

The effort, said British Culture Secretary Sajid Javid, is meant to forge “stronger links with China.” The Company will also use the funds to tour China in 2016 and to translate 14 culturally significant plays from Mandarin into English, thus making it a reciprocal cultural exchange.

Though Britain’s greatest cultural export has been dead for around 400 years, the first complete play to be translated into Mandarin was Hamlet in 1922. That translation was by Tian Han, who was working from a Japanese version. The complete works weren’t published until 1967. That project was undertaken by Liang Shiqiu, who studied at both Harvard and Columbia.

In 2012, China’s National Theater staged Richard III in Mandarin in London. While their Globe Theater performance was a more traditional setting for the play, many adaptations fuse the Bard’s work with Chinese culture and history. For example: King Lear set during the Ming Dynasty.

It’s fair to say Shakespeare is having a cultural moment in Asia, with a “boom” of new film adaptations and dramatic stagings, like this contemporary take on Romeo and Juliet, set in a small Chinese town.

And the Brits are taking note: “I profoundly believe that we foster deeper understanding between cultures by sharing and telling each other our stories,” the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Artistic Director Gregory Doran told the BBC. He also said they’re hoping it attracts Asian tourists to the UK…