Sun, Nov 01, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Much ado about translation

Liang Shih-chiu, who spent 38 years translating Shakespeare’s entire collection into Chinese, died in Taipei 28 years ago this week

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

A pre-wedding portrait of Liang Shih-chiu and his first wife Cheng Ji-shu in 1926.

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Taiwan in Time: Nov. 2 to Nov. 8

Upon the mention of Shakespeare during an interview in 1987, an 84-year-old Liang Shih-chiu (梁實秋) exclaimed, “Shakespeare again! I’ve already declared that I’ve severed all relations with him.”

But the Chinese-born writer and longtime National Taiwan Normal University (國立師範大學) English professor seemed eager to discuss what he called the “most important task in his life” — translating into Chinese the entire works of the legendary playwright and poet.

Liang died on Nov. 3 in Taipei, just a few months after that interview.

When the project was conceived in 1930, Liang was a young scholar who had recently returned to China after studying literature at Harvard and Columbia universities. It was 1967 when he singlehandedly completed the momentous task, and by that time he was a retired professor living in Taiwan.

The finished product contained 40 volumes (37 plays and three poem collections) and more than four million words. During the celebratory feast, Liang listed three key traits a person would need to accomplish what he did.

“Firstly, he can’t be too academically inclined, because if so, he would be doing research instead. Secondly, he can’t be a genius, because if so, he would be creating his own works instead. Thirdly, he must be long-living. I’m lucky that I possess all three traits,” he is reported to have said.

It wasn’t supposed to take this long. Philosopher and writer Hu Shih (胡適), then on the translation committee of the China Foundation for the Promotion of Education Culture (中華文化教育基金會), had planned for it to be a group project between five scholars, to be completed in five years.

Liang wrote that the other four dropped out for various reasons, and he carried on alone. However, war soon broke out in China with the Japanese invasion and later the Chinese Civil War. The majority of the translation was done in Taiwan, to where Liang had retreated with the Chinese Nationalist Party in 1949.

Liang already had a few English-language book translations — Peter Pan and Silas Marner — under his belt when Hu recruited him.

Born in Beijing in 1903, Liang attended Tsinghua School (清華學校), which back then was a western-style prep school for students to study abroad in the US. In 1923, the entire class headed to the US, where Liang would spend time at Colorado College, Harvard and Columbia University. However, he was just as passionate about Chinese literature as he was Western.

He was very particular about his translation work, stating that his primary concern was to stay true to the original meaning of the text instead of translating directly. The main difference is that Liang’s translation is meant to be read, while Shakespeare’s works are meant to be acted out on a stage.

“Although I can’t translate word for word, at least I tried to do it sentence by sentence,” he said. “I will absolutely not delete anything, unlike some people today. I even tried to keep Shakespeare’s punctuation.”

It’s often mentioned how Liang also kept all obscene language or sexual references, which was not commonplace in those times.

“Sex is something that everyone is interested in, even in Chinese theater,” he said.

He also mentions the difficulty of translating puns.

“It’s just wordplay and doesn’t have much actual significance,” he says. “But the audience at that time enjoyed the puns. Occasionally, they can be translated into Chinese, but most of the time I can only explain them in the footnotes.”

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