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A Bridge Between Cultures


A company offering simultaneous translation for foreign audiences has revolutionized their appreciation and understanding of Peking Opera.

A 500-strong audience, mainly foreigners, regularly packs the Chinese Traditional Opera College in the southwest of Beijing to watch Peking Opera with wireless earphones providing simultaneous translation.

A recent performance of The Romance of White Snake was an experiment in using the earphones, planned and carried out by the Beijing One Tone Cultural Exchange Co., Ltd. and the Chinese Traditional Opera College.

Cui Xiangwei, 50, who once worked as a simultaneous interpreter in the Permanent Mission of the People's Republic of China to the United Nations, founded the company at the end of last year.

"One Tone's purpose is to help people speaking different languages and from different backgrounds to understand each other," Cui explained.

"I myself love Peking Opera very much, having been influenced by one of my brothers who is a Peking Opera actor.

"Because of my work I have many foreign friends and I have found that most of them like Peking Opera, but because of the language barrier, they choose only to watch action pieces that involve the martial arts."

Language Hurdle

For decades, foreigners could not fully appreciate the art, a combination of music, fine art, dance, martial arts and poetry, representing the best of traditional Chinese culture.

In most of their minds, Peking Opera simply means The Monkey King Raises Hell in Heaven (Danao Tiangong) or Crossroads (San Cha Kou), which feature a lot of acrobatics and kungfu stunts.

"The costumes are gorgeous and the battle scenes simply terrific," is a common remark from international tourists watching Peking Opera.

They are so dazzled by the color, sound and acrobatics that they overlook the meaning the dress and the gestures might convey and what the story is actually about.

Fighting, simulation and acrobatics are important components of Peking Opera, but they do not represent it in its totality.

"Language is the biggest problem hampering foreigners in their attempts to appreciate Peking Opera, which has had a long history of two centuries," said Sun Zhencai, performing director of the experimental opera, who retired from the Beijing Peking Opera Theater a few years ago.

Making It Work

There have been several attempts to surmount the language barrier.

In 1984, The Phoenix Returns to the Nest (Feng Huan Chao), a Peking Opera by the Mei Lanfang (1894-1962) School, was translated into English by Elizabeth Wichmann of the Oriental Drama Department of Hawaii University. It was sung in English throughout the United States.

But some foreign fans did not consider it to be genuine Peking Opera.

"It sounded strange and lost its original flavor," said Ghaffar Pourazar, from Britain.

He himself once studied singing Peking Opera in China. This time he was invited to translate for Xu Xian, the antagonist in The Romance of White Snake.

At the Liyuan Theater, Huguang Guild Hall and Chang'an Grand Theater, where hundreds of foreign tourists watch Peking Opera every day, simple English subtitles are projected onto the walls near the stage, making it hard work for audiences who have to watch performances and read subtitles at the same time.

"Sometimes I don't know which way to turn, whether to watch the opera or read the captions," said Jenny Chalupnik from the United States, who does some translation for Xiao Qing, the female supporting role in the opera.

Dream Comes True

A Peking Opera fan with experience in simultaneous interpretation, Cui worked out his idea of offering simultaneous interpretation for Peking Opera shows 10 years ago.

But because of some technical and financial problems, he could not realize his dream until now.

He still has difficulties. The company has no financial support and the few people who work with Cui are his brothers or friends.

Cui has rehearsed with his four interpreters for more than a month in their spare time, and none of them is a professional.

Two Chinese translators work alongside Ghaffar Pourazar and Jenny Chalupnik.

Chen Xiaoquan is a professor at the University of International Business and Economics.

He said: "Cui and I have been good friends from childhood. I admired his courage to blaze new trails. It is not only good for himself but for the nation's art."

Wei Wei, who translates White Snake, works at an import business in the China National Philatelic Society.

In her 20s, she knows little about Peking Opera and seldom watches it, like many Chinese young people her age.

But this job has given her the opportunity to appreciate every line of the libretto - and she has found that it is beautiful.

Wei considers it a tough task. "Before I did it, I supposed what I should do was read it out loud. When I started doing this, sometimes I would speak before the actress sang, sometimes I would lag behind."

She realized that she needed to become familiar with the plot of the opera and the melodies of the libretto.

As well as being the first time for the employment of simultaneous translation, this is the first time an entire play has been performed for foreigners.

Chinese troupes that travel abroad usually select certain episodes.

A Drama First

Peking Opera is first of all a form of drama, and as such there is often a beautiful story, profound characterization, humorous dialogue and plenty of human interest.

"Almost every dramatic story in Chinese history has been turned into a Peking Opera," Cui said.

He once invited a foreign friend to watch The Orphan of the Zhao Family (Zhaoshi Gu'er). He had to explain its meaning in English.

The friend said it compared well with Shakespeare's Hamlet, and suggested that Cui introduce this art abroad.

Art Black, a film and music critic from the United States, said after watching The Romance of White Snake: "We never get the chance to watch a whole opera, in the United States or in China."

"I am familiar with Chinese culture, but the story about White Snake is totally new to me."

Cui learns many plays by heart. He chose this one because this year is the Year of the Snake.

The opera is a classic work written by Tian Han (1898-1968), based on a well-known Chinese fairy tale about a snake spirit.

Further Improvement

Cui still has improvements to make.

Although his translation retains the original flavor of the arias and recitative, it is limited to the performers' lines, Cui admits.

So Huang Jinqi, a professor at the Foreign Affairs College, suggested that Cui add more narration about the psychological complexity of the characters, atmosphere of the story and cultural background between the scenes and arias.

Ni Yaoli, a former Chinese diplomat to the United States, suggested that Cui add some extra explanation about the special gestures used in Peking Opera.

Art Black found the earphones sometimes affected his enjoyment of the songs on the stage.

"Although it is a good way to promote Peking Opera, sometimes I have to remove one of the earphones to hear the melodies better," he said.

(China Daily 05/09/2001)

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