Monday, August 5, 2013

Professional Perspectives--2013 Summer Issue

Engaged Translation: Submerged Gender Ideology in the Chinese Version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

[Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of the Translation Journal.  It is reprinted here with permission]
In this paper, I will examine how the notions of genderlessness and formlessness of Guan Yin (觀音), the popular Buddhist prophet, are implicitly fused into the Chinese version of Pullman’s work.

1.         Introduction: Background of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” and its Chinese Translation

As a text begins to be interpreted and translated, its original ideology, values and norms will be shifted, diminished or lost, and new ideas might be added.

Among notable children’s books in recent years, Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials (1995—2000) is considered one of the most prominent. The last volume, The Amber Spyglass, published in 2000, won numerous prestigious prizes, including the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year (the first children’s book to receive the award). In 2003, the series took third place in the BBC’s Big Read Poll. In 2005, Pullman was announced as joint winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for children’s literature. The novel was then made into a motion picture, with the first episode shown in cinemas worldwide in December 2007.

One of the most fascinating elements of Pullman’s trilogy is his invention of daemons. Daemons, as described in the trilogy, are the visible and tangible animal counterparts of human souls. As Squires notes, daemons “reflect the character of their human, but also … can act as a restraint, setting up an externalized internal dialogue.” (2003: 25) From a feminist perspective, one notable feature of Pullman’s daemons is that the appearances of children’s daemons change, while adults’ daemons remain a single animal form. The changing manifestations of children’s daemons can be read as multiple, fluid expressions of the ‘Self’. When a daemon gradually stops changing and remains in one form, it indicates that the person may have fixated on one identity expression.

The fluid form of children’s daemons becomes even more interesting through Wong Jing, the award-winning children’s books translator, Chinese translation of Pullman’s books. Wong implicitly adds the idea of form transformation and genderlessness of Guan Yin, the Buddha of Compassion (Li: 2006) and well-known for the supernatural power of assuming any gender or form to expound Buddhist faith (Xing: 1999).

With the objective of investigating how engaged translation may alter the meaning conveyed in the original text, this paper examines the notions of genderlessness and formlessness of Guan Yin fused into the Chinese translated text of Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

2.         Buddhist Notions of Gender

Buddhism today is well-known for its humanistic elements such as tolerance and equality (Barua, 2008). However, the notion of equality between men and women developed only when religion entered the Chinese culture (Xu and Huang 2006). According to Shi (2005), early Buddhist scriptures are full of negative representations of women and misogynist sentiments. Women’s status was so low, they were often compared to inferior life forms such as beasts and demons. In “the Tale of King Udayana of Vatsa” in Maharatnakuta Sutra, it is claimed that:

Women can ruin the precepts of purity. They can also ignore honor and virtue…As the filth and decay of a dead dog or dead snake are burned away, so all men should burn filth and detest evil. The dead snake and dog are detestable, but women are even more detestable than they are (Paul (trans.) 1979: 27—50; Sponberg 1992: 21).

Moreover, Buddhists believed women to be unqualified to become Buddhas because of their sins and impurity; men who aspire to become Buddhas were counseled to avoid contact with women. In The Cullavagga, women are described as “cunning, tricky thieves, stay with them and you can’t see the truth.” (取巧多智的賊,和她們同在一塊兒,真理就很難找得着) (Li, 2001: 311). Similarly, in The Law Code of Manu (1871 - 1941), the most authoritative and best-known legal text of ancient India, men are warned of the evil nature of women:

Seducing men and leading them to the fall are the nature of women… on earth, women can tempt not only the foolish, but also gentlemen to stray away from the right path, making them become the slaves of love and flesh.
誘使男子墮落是婦女的天性,……因為在人世間,婦女不但可以使愚者,而且也可以使賢者悖離正道,使之成為愛情和肉欲的俘虜 (1980: 50)

Trapped by their evil nature, women were believed to be incapable of reaching Nirvana. To reach Nirvana and become a Buddhist, a woman must work hard and do good deeds. Only then, in her next life, will she have a chance to become a man, who can then follow the right path and start his journey to Nirvana (Shi, 2005: 156).

3.         Guan Yin, the Genderless Buddha of Compassion

The biased view in Buddhist belief changed as representations of Guan Yin shifted. Xing (1999) points out that in the Avatamsaka Sutra of the Huayan School, Guan Yin was portrayed as “a brave, courageous man” (勇猛丈夫) in the second century B.C. However, as Buddhism became popular with Chinese believers in the eighth to tenth centuries B.C., Guan Yin almost always appeared in the form of a charming lady. What is interesting is that Guan Yin today may look like a female, but is in fact both “非男非女” (neither male nor female) and “亦男亦女” (both male and female) (Jiang, 2006: 247). Guan Yin is believed to have the wisdom of seeing through superficialities of gender and form. Freed restrictions of gender, Guan Yin may take any gender or physical form to save beings from suffering and ignorance. The following is a description of the formlessness of Guan Yin by Li Ao (2001), a renowned Chinese writer and scholar based in Taiwan:

Guan Yin has no form of his / her own. The manifestation of Guan Yin occurs in the corporeal forms of everything and everybody. Hence, Guan Yin is not male or female. Guan Yin is also both male and female. Guan Yin can be male or female. When he wants to become a man, he’s a man. When she wants to become a woman, she’s a woman. Besides having the ability to transform interchangeably as a male or a female anytime, anyplace, Guan Yin can also take the form of birds, animals, and beings of any kind, including the form of a green dragon, a white tiger, even you and me.
觀音是無形的,他要靠「現眾身」在大眾身上顯現來表示自己。所以不男不女、亦男亦女、可男可女、要男就男、要女就女。不但如此男女自如、雌雄隨意,他還可以化為飛禽走獸、化為青龍白虎、化為你和我。(2001: 97)

Guan Yin’s fluid form is clearly demonstrated in the Tang Dynasty legend of “Guan Yin and the fish basket”, where it is said that Guan Yin transformed into a beautiful countryside fishmonger. Interestingly, Guan Yin is there portrayed as an object of sexual desire. Special attention is paid to her early death, her dead body, and its subsequent miraculous transformation... Below is a retelling written by Bagyalakshimi, an Indian scholar (1998):

Just as the marriage ceremony was to commence the girl took ill and died. Soon after the burial an old priest visited Ma Lang and requested him to dig up the grave. The coffin contained only pieces of golden bones. The old priest said that the girl was a manifestation of Guanyin who had come to lead people to salvation. After saying this the old man too vanished. From then on the people of the district became Guanyin devotees.

It is impressive to see how Guan Yin’s flesh and bone rise above the corporeal which come to be understood as ‘empty forms’. Buddhist believers are expected to try the best they can to learn to see beyond the corporeal, to perceive it as ever-changing, thereby freeing themselves and overcome all suffering.

4.         The Chinese Version of Pullman’s Daemons: Guan Yin Incarnate?

On reading the one and only Chinese version of His Dark Materials, I find that on the level of plot, the translator made an effort to be loyal to the source text. Yet, ideological alterations occur subtly on the level of discourse. In describing daemons, the translator implicitly imports Guan Yin’s notions of genderlessness into the translated text.

4.1.      Inherent ‘Guan Yin’ Nature Magnified in Pullman’s Daemons

Several parallel universes co-exist in His Dark Materials. In the world of Lyra Belacqua, the female protagonist, all humans possess a body, a daemon/soul, a ghost and a death. Each component interacts with the outside world different. While the physical body is capable of sensing the world, the daemon/soul is capable of loving the world around it. The ghost, on the other hand, is charged with learning about the world. When a person dies, his/her daemon fades away, whereas his/her ghost lives on, lead to the underworld by death. While the idea of personal daemons is derived from Greek and Roman philosophy (Levison 1995), similar beliefs can be found in Chinese culture. As Xu (2005), a scholar of Chinese mythology and philosophy recounts:

Humans consist of three kinds of yun [ghosts] and seven types of pa [spirits], together with the body, a being with wisdom and life is formed…the seven types of pa are happiness, anger, sadness, fear, love, hatred and desires. Yun [ghost] is metaphysical in nature but pa [spirit] belongs to the physical world. Hence, when a person dies, his / her three ghosts continue their way [to heaven, underworld and the grave], but his / her seven spirits follow the flesh and dissipate.
人類本來就有三魂七魄形成一個有智慧活動的肉體七魄有:喜、怒、哀、懼、愛、惡、慾。三魂在於精神中;七魄在於物質。所以人身去世,三魂歸三線路,七魄歸肉體消失。 (79)

Comparing Pullman’s universe with traditional Chinese myth, the similarities between ‘ghost’ and yun, as well as ‘daemon’ and pa become apparent. The Chinese translator may well borrow the equivalent terms yun () and pa () when translating ‘ghost’ and ‘daemon’. However, in the translated text, only yun () is used for ‘ghost’. Pa () is discarded and a new term “守護精靈” (guardian creature) is invented for ‘daemon’ instead. The question at issue is: why does the translator use “守護精靈” (guardian creature), a term that does not originate in the source text? Before the discussion, we may first consider the translation theorist, Gouanvic’s notion of habitus, or the set of socially constructed, acquired patterns of thought, behavior and taste:

If a translator imposes a rhythm upon the text, a lexicon or a syntax that does not originate in the source text and thus substitutes his or her voice for that of the author, this is essentially not a conscious strategic choice but an effect of his or her specific habitus, as acquired in the target literary field (2005: 158).

Judging from a single example, it is hard to say whether the variation in the translated text is due to the effect of the translator’s specific habitus. Nonetheless, the translation of daemons as “守護精靈” (guardian creature) instead of pa () has, in Gouanvic’s words, ‘imposed a rhythm upon the lexicon”. Semantically, there are two differences between “守護精靈” (guardian creature) and pa (): firstly, the notion of ‘guardianship’ is added in “守護精靈” (guardian creature). Secondly, compared to pa (), which refers to the seven spirits, “精靈” (creature) has less to do with the spiritual but more with a solid, corporeal body of flesh and bones.

In the source text, daemons play many different roles – parent, friend, pet, and protector. The protector role is only one among many. However, in the target text, the ‘guardian’ role is privileged and made explicit – the text tells us that daemons, like Guan Yin, are to protect humans from harm and danger. In choosing to use of the more corporeal term “精靈” (creature) rather than pa (), the translator prevents readers from associating daemons with the intangible spirits or emotions that the use of pa () would suggest. Using “守護精靈” (guardian creature) encourages readers to perceive daemons as living, physical beings with thoughts, minds, and physical bodies. The daemons ability to undergo dramatic changes in form and shape is understood as an echo of Guan Yin.

4.2.      Genderlessness of Guan Yin Enhanced in the Translated Text

In addition to magnifying the inherent ‘Guan Yin’ nature of Pullman’s daemons, the Chinese translator has also added elements that do not belong to the daemons in the source text. Clearly, daemons are not equivalent to Guan Yin. First, daemons’ formlessness is subject to more constraints than that of Guan Yin. While Guan Yin can take human or animal form, daemons are restricted to animal forms. Additionally, the animal form of the daemon is fixed forever at adulthood. While Guan Yin does not have a fixed sex or gender identity, the biological sex of daemons in Pullman’s work is fixed. They are either male or female, and they are almost always of the opposite sex of their human counterparts. For instance, Pantalaimon (Pan), Lyra’s daemon, is always male, regardless of the form it takes. In the trilogy’s source text, Pullman uses the gendered pronouns “he, him and his” to refer to Pan. Similarly, the male protagonist’s female daemon, Kirjava, is referred to using the gendered pronouns “she, her and hers”.

4.2.1.   Genderlessness Imported through Inconsistent Translation of the Pronoun ‘it’

Although on the whole the Chinese text makes it clear to readers that daemons do have a fixed sex, the pronouns used to refer to daemons are inconsistent. There are five different third person singular pronouns that commonly occur in Chinese language:

: Similar to it, gender-neutral, refers to a celestial/divine being only
: Equivalent to he, refers to male only
: Equivalent to she, refers to female only
: Similar to it, gender-neutral, refers to an animal or a beast only
: Similar to it, gender-neutral, refers to non-living object only

The target text, sprinkled with the use of (he), (lifeless objects of unspecified gender) and (animals of unspecified gender), suggests that a single daemon has different gender identities and life forms. Thus, the target text skillfully and subtly endows daemons with further freedom of form and gender similar to that of Guan Yin. This is a marked departure from the source text. The following passage describing Pan - taken from chapter one of The Subtle Knife - illustrates my point:

It leapt into her arms, and when it got there, it had changed shape. Now it was a red-brown stoat with a cream throat and belly, and it glared at [Will] as ferociously as the girl herself. (21; emphasis mine)

It is understandable why Pullman chooses to use “it” instead of “he” to refer to Pan here. The character Will is seeing Pan, a daemon for the first time. In Will’s eyes, Pan is an animal and Will cannot tell whether Pan is male or female. In the Chinese version, the translator faithfully translates ‘it’ as , a gender-neutral pronoun that refers to animals only:

跳入她懷裡,迅速換形狀。現在 是隻紅棕色的鼬,有著奶油色的喉嚨和肚皮, 兇狠注視他的模樣,和女孩如出一轍。(Wang Jing (trans.) 2002: 37. Emphasis mine)

The pronoun “” can no doubt be viewed as an equivalent term for “it”, the gender-neutral pronoun for living animals. However, a few pages later, the source text’s “it” is translated using another Chinese pronoun.

In the source text, Lyra says, “Your daemon isn’t separate from you. It’s you. A part of you.” (1997: 26. Emphasis mine.). In the translated text, this is rendered as “你的精靈並非和你分開。 就是你,是你的一部分。” (Wang Jing (trans.) 2002: 43. Emphasis mine.) Here, the Chinese pronoun becomes , which can only be used to describe non-living objects. Thus, daemons become not only genderless, but also lifeless. At this point, the Chinese reader might wonder: why is the daemon sometimes an animal and sometimes an object? What is the daemon’s gender? The inconsistent pronoun use causes confusion. More confusion arises when the translator uses the pronoun ‘he’ () to refer to the daemon later on in the passage, “He has already noticed…” (‘已經注意到…’) (Wang Jing (trans.), 2002: 83. Emphasis mine.).

The inconsistent pronoun translation provides the daemon with additional room for form transformation. Instead of being a male animal, Pan is represented sometimes as a non-living object, sometimes an animal with no specific gender, and sometimes a male.

4.2.2.   Gender ‘Hidden’ through Ellipsis of Pronouns

Interestingly, in chapter one of The Subtle Knife (1997) Wang Jing, the Chinese translator, seems to avoid and delay revealing the true gender of Pan to his readers. In the source text, as Will comes to realize that Pan is a daemon with the opposite sex of Lyra, the narrative gradually employs pronouns such as he, his and him to replace the gender-neutral “it”. For example, on page 23: “Her daemon had changed again, and become a huge brightly-coloured butterfly…The butterfly raised and lowered his wings slowly” (Emphasis mine). Similarly, on page 24: “Her daemon, a cat again, was dipping his paw in it too, but he backed away when Will came near” (Emphasis mine). In the translated text, Pan remains genderless for a much longer period of time. Wang Jing avoids using masculine pronouns to refer to Pan, either by using ellipsis or by using “” the gender-neutral pronoun that refers only to animals. On page 39 of the translated text, the translator uses ellipsis to keep the daemon’s gender hidden:

Source text:          “The butterfly raised and lowered his wings” (1997: 23)
Target text:           “蝴蝶緩緩舉翅又落下”(Wang Jing (trans.), 2002: 39)
Back translation: “The butterfly slowly raised [ellipsis] wings and then lowered them”

Also, on page 40:

Source text:          “Her daemon, a cat again, was dipping his paw in it too, but he backed away when Will came near” (1997:24)
Target text:           “她的精靈此時又變回了猫,也將掌子伸入碗,但威爾一靠近, 牠就立刻退後。” (Wang Jing (trans.), 2002: 40. Emphasis mine.)
Back translation: “Her daemon changed back to a cat, dipped [ellipsis] paw into the bowl, but when Will came near, it (the gender-neutral pronoun for animals) backed away”.

Time and again, the translator refuses to reveal Pan’s gender. At the risk of being unfaithful to the source text, he stretches the language to maintain the gender-free notion as far as possible

4.3.      Daemon Form-fixing Interpreted and Translated as a Lamentable Loss

Beyond magnifying the genderlessness and formlessness of the daemons, the translator also seems to have paid special attention to the loss of form changing powers and the transition of Lyra’s and Will’s daemons into fixed forms. In the final book of Pullman’s trilogy, Lyra and Will, the two main characters touch each other’s daemons lovingly and intimately with their bare hands. Their ecstatic feelings are described in great detail. At about the same time, the readers are told that Lyra and Will’s daemons will no longer change form:

And she knew too that neither daemon would change now, having felt a lover’s hand on them. These were their shapes for life: they would want no other (2000: 528).

The combination of intimate physical liaison with the form fixation of the children’s daemons, can be seen as symbolic of maturity and self-identity formation. It is also a farewell to childhood and the fluidity of form, a rare quality exclusive to children’s daemons. Lyra realizes this loss, but also accepts Pan’s fixed form as a pine-marten:

“It’s funny,” she said, “you remember when we were younger and I didn’t want you to stop changing at all…Well, I wouldn’t mind so much now. Not if you stay like this.” (2000: 527).

Pullman also asserts that neither Lyra, Will, nor their daemons would need or want the freedom and ability to change forms anymore, “they would want no other” (2000: 528). In a sense, childhood, innocence, and the changing forms of daemons are represented as a phase to be relinquished and accepted in life. In the Chinese text, however, the sadness in losing fluidity of form is exaggerated. The expression “neither daemon would change now” is translated as “他們的精靈再也無法改變了” (Wang Jing (trans.) 2002: 577), which, when backtranslated into English means “their daemons can no longer change by any means”. This translation implies that the inability to change forms is not just a turn in life’s path, but an undesirable, yet unavoidable consequence – if not punishment – of coming of age. Also, while the words, “they would want no other” (2000: 528) reflect a serene, peaceful state of mind, the Chinese version belies a certain rigid stubbornness - “他們也不要別的模樣” (Wang Jing (trans.) 2002: 577), which may be translated as “they refuse to take on other forms”. In the source text, the word “want” can be read as a lack, desire or need. To “want no other”, in this light, is bliss - nothing is lacking. To, “refuse to take on other forms”, in contrast, hints at stubbornness, antagonism and resistance.

Such interesting alterations are easily explained by looking at how the ability to change one’s form is normally perceived among Chinese and Buddhists. Buddhists believe the universe has numerous realms. Humans and all earthly living beings belong to the Realm of Desire. Beyond the physical realm, there exists the Realm of Form, where beings have outward appearances but no desires. Above the Realm of Form, there is also the Realm of Formlessness, the highest of all realms (Sadakata, 1997). Celestial beings, such as Guan Yin, belong to this realm and are said to be free from the limitations of the senses and the physical realm. They have no forms or desires. The state of formlessness, therefore, is superior to a fixed-form state. It is a perfect reflection of the Buddhist belief, described in one of Buddhism’s most important texts - The Great Heart Sutra: “舍利子,色不異空,空不異色,色即是空,空即是色,受想行識亦復如是。” In English, this can be rendered as:

Sariputra, form is no different from emptiness; emptiness is no different from form. Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Feeling, thought, activity, consciousness are also thus (Wong (trans.) 2002: 323—324).

Simply put, The Great Heart Sutra teaches us that forms such as gender are not ordained by nature. Form can be changed according to will, if only one has the wisdom to allow change to occur. Freedom to escape the constraints of senses, form and shape is recognized as a divine gift bringing us one step closer to Nirvana. Clearly, losing such freedom would be a step down.

The notion of free self-expression and performativity has long been received in a positive light, and happily embraced by Chinese readers. Thus, it is understandable why the Chinese translator uses a lamenting tone when the children’s daemons are ‘stuck’ in one form.

5.         Conclusion

Translation, according to André Lefevere (1992) and Jiri Levy (2000), is not done in a vacuum. It is an important form of rewriting and constitutes a decision-making process influenced by certain linguistic, ideological and poetic factors. As a text is interpreted and translated, its original ideology, values and norms will shift, be diminished or lost. New ideas may be added. I have attempted to argue that these transformations can be observed in the Chinese text of His Dark Materials.

Here, the notion of gender performativity is not only well-preserved, but made more explicit through a blending of Buddhist understandings of gender. The ‘genderlessness’ and formlessness of the Buddhist prophet, ‘Guan Yin’, are borrowed to enhance the notion of gender performativity in the source text. Through creative translation strategies, Buddhist views of gender are added and introduced to create a fusion effect in the target text.

Anna W.B. Tso
Lecturer in English and Applied Linguistics at the Open University of Hong Kong


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Two New Chinese Translations of Hamlet Introduced and Compared
[Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of the Translation Journal.  It is reprinted here with permission]

The eternal humanistic value of Shakespeare’s plays, as literary and cultural canonical works, lies in their ultimate concern for the existing state and fate of mankind, which is displayed when they try to answer the eternal questions of human life. We need Shakespeare today because his thoughts link up with and nourish the spiritual life of modern people. Shakespeare's works have been abundantly researched and translated in China. As for Hamlet, perhaps Shakespeare’s most iconic play, more than 40 Chinese translations have been published in the twentieth century. The new century has seen continued interest in Shakespeare in China, and two new Chinese translations of Hamlet were published in 2012 and 2013. Here I introduce these translations commenting on their conceptual, linguistic, stylistic, and textual aspects.

1.         The Translators and the Translated Texts

Both Wang and Huang pursue definite objectives in translating Hamlet into Chinese, breaking new ground in translating strategies, use of language, and textual construction.

Hongyin Wang’s translation was published by Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press in August of 2012 and Guobin Huang’s, by Tsinghua University Press in January of 2013. Translation of plays requires superior languistic artistry and profound cultural understanding on the part of the translator, who must be highly skilled in cross-cultural communication, sympathetic comprehension and empathetic expression. In translating a play, it is important for the translator to grasp the identity and individuality of the characters, whose psychology, language, and actions should be coordinated in the translation.

Mr. Wang is a professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, Nankai University. His main academic interests are literary translation theory and criticism. He is an accomplished Shakespeare scholar. He is also an anthropologic poet and a prolific translator, having translated international classics into Chinese and many Chinese classics and regional folk works into English.

Mr. Huang, professor of Chinese University of Hong Kong, is a scholar of literary translation theory, European literature, and comparative literature, as well as a poet and essayist. He is well versed in English, French, Italian, German and Spanish. He has been a student of Shakespeare for roughly half a century. Both of these men are competent translators of Shakespeare.

Both translations are innovative with respect to structure. A bilingual English-Chinese text with abundant annotations, Wang’s translation adopts a new pattern of translating Hamlet into Chinese. It draws on China’s ancient traditions of literary criticism, including the English text, the Chinese translated text, and the para-textual system, with a translator’s preface (comments on the humanistic value of re-reading Shakespeare, previous Chinese translations of Hamlet, the principles used in translating the new version, etc.), a synopsis, marginal notes, end notes, references, and a translator’s postscript.

Huang’s translation is presented in two volumes with an editor’s note, translator’s foreword and preface, the Chinese translated text, and references. In addition to the translated text, footnotes account for three quarters of the final work. These footnotes concern language, images, characters, structure, theatre art, performances, staging details, and translation. Though not bilingual, Huang’s translation offers original English source text when necessary in the footnotes.

2.         Translating Principles and Strategies

Wang’s main purpose is to provide readable literature. He pays greater attention to readability and ease of access to the text, writing a long preface and supplying ample annotation and critical notes. Stylistically, he renders Shakespeare’s blank verse in a flexible way - he does not adhere rigidly to the original metric scheme. He strives to reproduce rhythmic and syllabic sensations while controlling line length and the unfolding of a sentence. The result is a text that is both natural and symmetrical. Taking semantic translation as his foundation, Wang strives to give full play to the literary and expressive force of the Chinese language. With respect to the use of colloquial language in translation, Wang advocates for the use of natural language, drawing on a vernacular that is fresh, alive, and strongly expressive. While making room for topolects, he avoids an overly localized text in favor of language that is comprehensible to average readers throughout the country. Even some English expressions and ancient Chinese phrases are incorporated. Nevertheless, his translation retains a theatrical tone – it is literary stage language and well-suited to distinguishing the voices of different characters.

Huang’s translation, also rendered for the stage, is intended as a reader for directors, performers, and audiences in the Chinese-speaking world. Huang feels that previous Chinese translations of Hamlet were all oriented toward reading rather than performance. Thus, he tries to stress the performative aspect of the text, satisfying first the ears of directors, performers, and audiences, and only then the eyes of readers. Emphasizing that literariness and academic rigor meet the needs of a diverse readership, Huang includes a preface, rich annotation and commentary to guide the reader through differences in language, culture, ideology, and theatric traditions. His translation is poetic, an effort to render Hamlet into a Chinese poetic drama. As such, Huang maintains the a rigid allegiance to “dun” (groups of Chinese syllables, basically equivalent to the English ‘foot’)”. Nevertheless, he also privileges natural language using novel and expressive wording suitable for stage performance.

3.         Textual Comparisons

Proper names
There is some common ground in this regard. For example, both translators continue rendering Hamlet a “哈姆雷特”, and employ the practice of pronunciation-based transliteration. Their differences, however, are striking. In his re-translation, Wang plays with proper names to underline laudatory or derogatory characteristics, sex, and literary expression. For example, “Claudius” is transliterated as “克牢荻斯”, where the character “” means “prison”, implying that “Denmark is a prison.” “Gertrude” is translated as “特露德”, highlighting femininity by using “”. “Elsinore” is rendered as “” which is both close to the English pronunciation and carries the connotation of a place where sorrowful events have occurred, yet new promise remains. Wang uses only the first character of a Chinese name to refer to the speaker; thus when the first syllable of the proper names in English is pronounced the same, he adopts different Chinese graphs for distinction. Huang, in contrast, uses full names and limits his translation of most proper names to four syllables in order to facilitate stage performance.

Stylistic features
After reading the two translations, the author finds that the two translators implement their translating principles and strategies well, each staying true to his own characteristic features. Several examples to illustrate our analysis.

Stylistically, Wang’s translation corresponds to a traditional translation style which draws on Chinese rhymed verse to echo English poetics. In rendering the blank verse, Wang adopts a broad corresponding pattern so that the lines are basically correspondent, with similar length of and natural sentence structure. Wang is particularly attentive to stylistic imitation, natural syllabic harmony, and the visual effect of line arrangement. For example, here is a section of the blank verse in Act IV, Scene III:


            (Wang, 2012: 173)

Prominent in Wang’s translation is a technique blending expression and the language of drama. “Technique of expression” is a concept put forward by Wang (2003:258) pertaining to literary translation, which involves rendering images, thematic expressions, rhythms, stylistic elements, etc. Using these techniques, the translator can incorporate into his translation elements of topolect, dialect, folk songs and ballads, popular songs, and even foreign languages in order to achieve a personalized translation with salient and contemporary expressive power. With suitable use of fresh and interesting expressions from topolect and oral Chinese, the translation reads and sounds more vivid, idiomatic, characteristic, and vernacular using, for example, “公子哥儿”, “天下无”, “想咋, 就咋”, and “大男人能没有点那个”. Shakespeare’s use of folk songs to express identity did not receive adequate attention in the previous Chinese translations. Wang’s translation remedies this. For example, in Act V, Scene I, the gravedigger sings two folk songs while digging. Wang repeats the last three Chinese graphs in every line, and thus when the gravedigger sings and repeats the last three Chinese graphs (three syllables), he throws a spade of earth, which matches his singing. Without such repetition, the translation would not sound like a folk song. In this example, the “好像我不是土里来,土里来 (And hath shipp’d me into the land, / As if I had never been such.)” alludes to a biblical metaphor and turns the gravedigger into a philosopher.


(Wang, 2012: 217)

In Huang’s translation, the original blank verse is also rendered in similar, with similar rhythm and rhyming, and the original iambic scheme maintained with five “dun” and prose rendered as prose. Huang’s translation is on the whole accurate and smooth, blending literary and colloquial Chinese language, as well as elegant and vulgar elements. The following soliloquy take from Act II, Scene II highlight’s Huang’s style:


(Huang, 2013: 354-355)

Literary devices and cultural interpretation
Huang concludes that the two greatest challenges in rendering Hamlet into Chinese are the puns and images. The play contains many biblical quotations and allusions to ancient Greek mythology. Without adequate annotation, the average reader might grasp the superficial elements of the play without having an appreciation for its deeper structure, undertones and commentary.

In Act IV, Scene II, when Hamlet was asked for the location of Polonius’s body, the following dialogue ensues:

Rosencrantz:        My lord, you must tell us where the body is and go with us to
                                the King.

Hamlet: The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body.

                                The King is a thing —

Guildenstern:        A thing, my lord?

Hamlet:                 Of nothing. Bring me to him….

Wang’s translation reads:





(Wang, 2012: 171-173)

Huang’s translation reads:





(Huang, 2013: 494-496)

Here “body” is a pun. Wang’s translation tends to interpret Hamlet philosophically, clarifying the relationship between “本体” (the “body”, that is, the beggar, who does not seek splendor and harbors no ambition) and “异体” (the “shadow”, that is, the kings and heroes, who enjoy splendor and are ambitious), while also making clear the new king’s inevitable death implied by “” (both the old king’s body and Polonius’ body are related to the king). In the translation, “本体” and “异体” are related as the same kind, and “异体” and “一体” (here referring to the relationship between the new king and the queen) are related as opposites. The three Chinese phrases “”, “异体”, and “一体” are all pronounced in a very similar way. Thus several of the most important roles and their relationships to one another are all related with important philosophical concepts forming a broad and deep web of symbolism. Huang’s translation, by using “西” not only imitates the original image, but also expresses the original sarcasm of the king.

4.         Conclusion

Wang and Huang pursue concrete objectives in translating Hamlet into Chinese, and through creative efforts, break new ground. Wang, who translates for the page, is more concerned with the overall artistic effect of the translation and gives full play to the literary and expressive force of the Chinese language. He makes conscious efforts to tease out philosophical connotations and literary styles and to use colloquial Chinese, fresh, vivid, and alive, to retain the personal features of the characters in the play. In contrast, Huang’s translation has been rendered for the stage and pays more attention to poetic correspondence in rhythm, rhyming scheme and retention of the original images. His translation is more heavily laden with a rich annotation that provides valuable information for academic research and is a model of research-based translation. Both new translations represent China’s important achievements in studying and translating Hamlet and should be welcomed as new contributions to international Shakespeare studies.

Xiaonong Wang
Associate Professor at the School of Foreign Languages at Ludong University


1.      Huang, Guobin. Interpreting Hamlet – Chinese Translation with Detailed Annotation. Beijing: Tsinghua University Press, 2013.

2.      Wang, Hongyin. trans Hamlet. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 2012.

3.      Critique of Translation Theories in Chinese Tradition. Wuhan: Hubei Education Press, 2003.

4.      On the Criticism of Literary Translation. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 2010.

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