Staging China: translation/ adaptation/ transcreation

pgcs21Staging China is an AHRC research network linked to the ‘Translating Cultures’ theme. Led by Ruru Li and Susan Daniels at the University of Leeds, it is a cross-sector partnership between a number of universities from the UK, China and elsewhere. Academic colleagues are working with theatre practitioners and others from the cultural industries in order to ask questions central to ‘Translating Cultures’: namely, how are China and Chinese culture presented in intra-cultural, intercultural and transcultural theatre productions, and how do languages and translations play a key role in stage productions to form or to alter people’s perception of cultures other than their own?

A workshop held just before Easter provided a welcome opportunity to learn more about the research emerging from this collaborative project. Two panels, open to the public and held in the University’s excellent stage@leeds facility, explored (i) contemporary Western theatrical representations of China, and (ii) the intra-cultural and cross-cultural translations of The Orphan of Zhao (a thirteenth-century classical play, based on historical events during 600-500BC).

Both sessions focused on a range of case studies, with the panel on contemporary Western representations including presentations by Stephen Pucci, the actor (and Modern Languages graduate from Leeds) who has recently starred in Chinglish, and Davey Anderson, the playwright and director who is currently working with the Scottish National Theatre to bring a season of newly commissioned short Chinese dramas to the innovative Glasgow venue, Òran Mór. Anderson described the commissioning and production process, focusing on the translation of the works from Chinese and then the transformation by a number of Scottish authors of these initial English-versions into new adaptations. His comments on this exciting new season resonated with Gregory Doran’s own observations based on the recent direction of The Orphan of Zhao at the RSC. Doran called for more literal translations of Chinese drama, allowing an expansion of the repertoire and the provision of a wider range of material on which English-language translations/adaptations/transcreations can be based. (The new version of The Orphan was written by James Fenton.) What these very different examples—Anderson’s collaboration with contemporary Chinese playwrights, Doran’s engagement with a thirteenth-century Chinese classic)—illustrate is the importance of translation in extending the field of cross-cultural reference and in ensuring the diversification of what comes to be staged.

This genuinely rich potential of a national theatre situating itself in a transnational network of performance and production was made clear by discussion of The Orphan of Zhao—for the recent RSC production was presented quite clearly as only the most recent stage in the ‘travels’ of the play. The panel and accompanying exhibition presented several other Chinese and Korean productions—the Beijing opera version premiered in 1959, the Hubei flower-drum opera version premiered in 2002, spoken drama (or huaju) versions from 2003 (by Tian Qinxin at the National Theatre company of China) and 2009, the Henan clapper theatre version from 2003, the Yue opera version from 2005, and a Western operatic style version from 2011. These examples span different theatrical genres, different moments and different (regional) sites of production; their creative translation of an ancient narrative privileges certain aspects of the story, and illustrates changing interpreations of China and ‘Chineseness’. As a body of work, they allow close interrogation of translation as a process that is at once linguistic and formal, cultural and political, intercultural and intracultural.

The network project poses a series of questions with which its participants will engage: does ‘translation’ betoken only a ‘verbal’ process, and what happens when a written text transfers through performance and travels intracultually through dialects and stage vocabulary? what modes of translation are involved when an English-language poet adapts The Orphan for the British stage? how does the process of intracultural encounter with which the play has long been associated contribute to the emergence of an intercultural work? and by extension, how can and does theatre shape the perception and reception of China and Chinese culture through the translations on which it depends?

‘Staging China’ will seek to answer these key conceptual and theoretical questions through scrutiny of skills gaps and translation practices in the theatre, and by exploring the potential application of digital technologies. Answers will usefully inform the ‘Translating Cultures’ theme as those of us linked with it aim to develop knowledge and understanding of the process and nature of translation and interpretation across different languages, cultures, historical periods, media and sectors.

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