Shakespeare fans are spoiled for choice in China

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Activities across China mark 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death

One of the films featured at the sixth Beijing International Film Festival, which closed over the weekend, is the 2015 version of "Macbeth," starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard and directed by Justin Kurzel. "Even if you have never read the original, you'll still be impressed with the visual presentation," wrote Xu Ruofeng, a Chinese critic reviewing the movie. For the 400th anniversary celebrations of the Bard's death, a flurry of activities in publishing, theater and films is taking place across China, bringing him closer to the Chinese public. Never before have Chinese lovers of Shakespeare had so many ways of approaching his immortal works.

Tickets sold out for the filmed stage production of Hamlet, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, and which had limited screenings in selected Chinese cities.

Other Shakespearean plays in the National Theatre Live series, such as Nicholas Hytner's Othello and Sam Mendes' "King Lear," will surely be welcome additions to the lineup of the Bard's offerings.

Even Coriolanus, a relatively obscure Shakespearean work by Chinese standards, wowed audiences, partly because it stars Tom Hiddleston of Thor fame and partly because a Chinese stage adaptation has put a local spin on it, sinicizing the title to General Kou Liulan. It was directed by stage luminary Lin Zhaohua.

Data is not available on how many of the Bard's plays have graced the Chinese stage, but perennial favorites such as "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet" obviously have been presented more often than others.

However, complete Chinese translations seem easier to compile and publish.

RSC initiative

The Beijing-based Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press has just come out with a new complete version, supported by the British Council.

The bilingual format uses an English-language edition originally authorized by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Chinese translations by eminent scholars including Xu Yuanchong.

In recent months, the RSC has also launched its own initiative to translate a new Chinese version specially tailored for the stage.

Another sorely needed Chinese translation for the purpose of title projection, which should adhere to the Bard's mantra that "brevity is the soul of wit", would help greatly with touring productions in the original tongue, but has not made it to the agendas of translators or sponsors so far.

The most influential version to date is the one by Zhu Shenghao (1911-44), who completed work on 31 of the plays under the direst of circumstances, including poor health and the Japanese invasion of China (he lost his translation manuscripts more than once to Japanese fires).

His genius in capturing the essence of the Bard's work could be the single most important factor in making Shakespeare accessible to one-fifth of the world's population.

Liang Shiqiu (1902-87) is so far the only Chinese who has translated every piece credited to Shakespeare. But his version is less literary and more verbatim, thus suitable for textual research for non-English speakers. Liang's version was republished this month by Penguin.

Fang Ping (1921-2008) was responsible for much of the first complete version that replicated the verse form.

Considering the difficulty of translating the Bard's lines, not to mention the ambiguity of some words, there will be no shortage of Chinese translators taking on this daunting task. According to Lu Gusun, a professor of English language at Fudan University in Shanghai, as many as three Chinese versions of Hamlet appeared before 1949, and more have seen the light of day since.

President's speech

But there is still no ideal equivalent for "To be or not to be", which is arguably the best-known Shakespearean quote in China. (Incidentally, the British Council is sponsoring a campaign for Chinese to share their Shakespearean quotes, which can be from his plays or poems.)

Shakespeare's plays have been a staple of Chinese theater or literature students. This year's celebrations are doubly meaningful because China's great dramatist Tang Xianzu died in the same year as Shakespeare, and comparative studies of the two are now in vogue.

In October, while giving a speech in London, President Xi Jinping recounted his exposure as a youth to the Bard, saying how he was attracted by the emotions in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "The Merchant of Venice," "Twelfth Night," "Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet," "Othello," "King Lear" and "Macbeth."

He also described Tang as the "Shakespeare of the East", adding, "China and Britain can share our celebrations of two literary giants and push the mutual understanding and exchange of our peoples."

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