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May 26, 2012 / ABC Translation Services

Found in translation

Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest is one of those quintessentially English works of the theater that the thought of it being produced in another language immediately sets off alarm bells. But it is such a great work of comedy that it has nevertheless been adapted numerous times, not least into Chinese. This weekend sees the revival of a Chinese-language production that premiered 28 years ago, translated by one of Taiwan’s great poets and translators, Yu Guangzhong (余光中).

The play proved an enormous success when it was first shown in a Mandarin and Cantonese version in 1984 and 1985 respectively, under the direction of Daniel Yang (楊世彭), who even then was already a major figure in theater and had staged the works of major European and American playwrights. He is now Professor Emeritus of Theater, University of Colorado Boulder, and Artistic Director Emeritus, Hong Kong Repertory Theater, and his return to this challenging adaptation is a thrilling event for fans of contemporary Asian theater.

Yang said that he would select The Importance of Being Earnest as one of the top five works of theater in the English language, and he has directed the play in five separate productions in Asia over the course of his career.

The success of the Chinese adaptation owes much to the skill of Yu, who is best known as a poet and essayist, and is also a prolific translator. “In the translation of poetry and novels, especially poetry, I cannot lightly make changes to the words on the page. Poetry is designed to be read with care and patience. In a play, on the other hand, the words are spoken by actors, and pass rapidly through the ears’ of the audience. For this reason, the way I deal with the translation of plays is very different from how I approach poetry. It needs to be much more accessible,” Yu said.

Yu relies heavily on his outstanding command of the Chinese language to create dialogue that approximates the lightness and sparkling wit of the original. It is not without some irony that Yu has recently been in the news for criticizing the overemphasis on English language education in Taiwan, especially in relation to the very young. Speaking at a international conference on translation last month, Yu addressed the issue of enhanced English language testing to be introduced by the Ministry of Education. Speaking as one of the most respected translators from English to Chinese, Yu said he didn’t start learning English until high school, and that this late start had never got in his way. Yu warned that foreign language education should not be pressed at the expense of obtaining a solid grounding in Chinese. He said that as a student of foreign languages and a teacher of English, he did not oppose English-language instruction, but added that “I was very lucky in that with my other hand, I retained a very firm grasp of Chinese.”

Yu said that the linguistic subtleties of Wilde made him a great challenge to the translator, but added that on occasion, the nature of the Chinese language made his translations superior to the original. “Wilde loved using symmetrical phrases for effect, and no language on Earth is as good at this kind of symmetrical composition as Chinese,” Yu said.

Apart from the verbal pyrotechnics, Yu added that Importance of Being Earnest is a social satire, and despite the period setting and the razor-sharp banter, the play is rooted in the hypocrisy and vanity that characterized the society of his time; and society has not changed all that much, so the play continues to resonate even in modern Asian society.

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