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Shakespeare & Beyond

Translating the Chinese classic 'The Peony Pavilion' with a 'Shakespearean flavor'

The Peony Pavilion
The Peony Pavilion
The Peony Pavilion

The Peony Pavilion. “Kunqu performance at Peking University.” Wikimedia Commons / Antonis SHEN / CC BY-SA 2.0

Could Chinese literature be more popular with English-speaking audiences if translators favored words, phrases and poetic forms that spark associations with Shakespeare? This is the question being explored by Bikang Huang, who came to the Folger Shakespeare Library last summer on an artist-in-residence fellowship.

The scholar from Peking University in China is scrutinizing common approaches to translation and proposing an alternate path: Rather than worrying about being strictly faithful to the original text in translation, aim instead for language that will feel familiar to English speakers. In other words, focus on what reader will most easily embrace.

Shakespeare’s plays are an obvious choice: Not only are they the most-read works of English literature, but many words and phrases from the plays are commonplace in everyday speech. Huang wants to apply this translation approach to classical Chinese plays, those primarily written in the 14th , 15th, and 16th centuries during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. A principal example is the 16th-century Chinese play The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu, who died in the same year as Shakespeare, 1616.

⇒ Related: Listen to a Shakespeare Unlimited podcast about Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare in China

Huang’s aspiration to create a translation of The Peony Pavilion that reminds English-speaking readers of Shakespeare’s plays led to his Folger artist-in-residence fellowship in 2019.


I very much like Dr. Huang’s approach to the translation of traditional culture.

Peng Qing hua — March 24, 2020