Translating the Chinese classic ‘The Peony Pavilion’ with a ‘Shakespearean flavor’

The Peony Pavilion
The Peony Pavilion. “Kunqu performance at Peking University.” Wikimedia Commons / Antonis SHEN / CC BY-SA 2.0

Could Chinese literature be more popular with English-speaking audiences if translators favored words, phrases and poetic forms that spark associations with Shakespeare? This is the question being explored by Bikang Huang, who came to the Folger Shakespeare Library last summer on an artist-in-residence fellowship.

The scholar from Peking University in China is scrutinizing common approaches to translation and proposing an alternate path: Rather than worrying about being strictly faithful to the original text in translation, aim instead for language that will feel familiar to English speakers. In other words, focus on what reader will most easily embrace.

Shakespeare’s plays are an obvious choice: Not only are they the most-read works of English literature, but many words and phrases from the plays are commonplace in everyday speech. Huang wants to apply this translation approach to classical Chinese plays, those primarily written in the 14th , 15th, and 16th centuries during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. A principal example is the 16th-century Chinese play The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu, who died in the same year as Shakespeare, 1616.

⇒ Related: Listen to a Shakespeare Unlimited podcast about Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare in China

Huang’s aspiration to create a translation of The Peony Pavilion that reminds English-speaking readers of Shakespeare’s plays led to his Folger artist-in-residence fellowship in 2019.

As part of its fellowships program, the Folger Institute sponsors poets, playwrights, artists, fiction- and non-fiction writers, and designers to come to the Folger in order to work first-hand with rare materials. These artists-in-residence use the Folger’s collection for inspiration for their own creative works.

“Huang’s project was an ideal fit for this program,” says Folger Institute Associate Director for Fellowships Amanda Herbert. “He is using early modern sources to inform and enrich modern creative productions. It was a delight to learn from him and to have him in residence.”

The Peony Pavilion is considered Tang Xianzu’s greatest dramatic work. It has an epic length, running about fifty thousand lines in 55 scenes, if completed in translation.

“Tang is honored by Chinese and some British Shakespearean scholars as ‘China’s Shakespeare’ because of his panoramic portrayals of social-cultural life 16th and early 17th century China and his penetrating insight into human nature in an epoch of great social changes, conflict, and uncertainty,” says Huang.

In Huang’s view, the thematic and structural affinities between classical Chinese plays and Shakespeare’s plays provide a strong starting point for his translation.

Translating The Peony Pavilion into English with a “Shakespearean flavor” could mean composing the lines in blank verse, deploying rhymed couplets and appropriating particular phrases that appears in Shakespeare’s plays, such as “painted pomp” from As You Like It, says Huang. Here is Huang’s translation of the prologue of The Peony Pavilion:

Tired of the busy, painted pomp of the court,
Come I to live here as a retired lord.
Life is flat and weariness the killer of time,
But where shall I go for some mirth and fun!
Those heart-breaking poems I read during the day
Show that love is unique and hard to say.
Here sit I in this Wild Tea Hall, all alone,
Watching starry light replaced by morning tone.
Now the red candles at the door make me delight
And my verse is lit fair by morning night.
Love is as thoughts and dreams and tears and sighs,
But it shall stand firm in the tide of time,
When you shall come to Peony Pavilion brave
To enjoy true love beyond the edge of grave.

The words in bold highlight Huang’s attempts to establish close verbal and idiomatic parallels with Shakespeare’s sonnets, As You Like It, Hamlet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And the rhyming scheme of the passage may also be reminiscent, he hopes, of Shakespeare’s poetic form used in some prologues, such as the one in Romeo and Juliet.

Will Shakespearean language and poetic form create thematic association in readers’ minds as well? If the translated classical Chinese play reminds them of Shakespeare, Huang reasons, may be they’ll find it more interesting and enjoyable. Huang, now back in China, is continuing his translation work and writing a research article about his approach.

Dr. Bikang Huang, professor of English at Peking University, China, is the author and translator of seven books on Shakespeare, English Literature and American Studies. He is currently the Vice-Chair of the Shakespeare Society of China.

Interested in other questions around Shakespeare and translation? Listen to the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast.