Approximate Translation: Between Language and Us


approximate translationIn semantics, precision is key. So, why is it, when it comes to Chinese, there is a habit of English speakers resorting to malapropism (see: “comedy” sketches) that undermines the language and those who speak it?

Like a steamroller, the Western ear flattens the nuanced vowels and tones, rendering the Chinese linguistic landscape a wasteland. For the coloniser, reducing a language to a few flat notes makes the language easier to understand, easier to compartmentalise, easier to define, easier to stereotype. Chinese becomes a total of three or four hollow phonemes—usually Ching, Chang, and Chong—and Chinese becomes Japanese until whole volumes of diverse languages become one monolithic “Asian”. The linguistic relationship of “Oriental” to coloniser necessitates translation. More specifically, the translation of the “Them”/”Orient” into “Us”/“Occident”. But to translate language is only to provide an approximation of a culture’s rich, multi-layered semiotics—and this is the matter at hand in Felix Ching Ching Ho’s Approximate Translation.

The three-part, experimental drama is rendered in layers of Cantonese, Shanghainese, Mandarin and English woven together in some semblance of a symphony. In collaboration with other artists, Ho produces a show that intends to “unpack some of the vast and rich Chinese languages through a chamber of sound and images, to look into a traditional Chinese performing arts form through translations”. From this vantage point, Ho reflects her reality onto the audience through the use of surtitles.

Ho’s intent is most effective in the second act where Chinese outgrows English-the lens through which it is understood. Three languages are performed: Mandarin by Yuchen Wang, Shanghainese by Rose Weirou Gui, and Cantonese by Derek Sheung Bun Lo. For the length of the act, the three performers recite sentences, perform laryngeal features, and demonstrate different intonations of their specific dialect. Here, speech is translated into lyrical notes that bear an almost ethereal quality. As surtitles flash on the screen in rapid gunfire, the sounds that emerge from the mouth do not match up with the letters on the screen. The cognitive dissonance that results forces the audience into communing with the ebb and flow of the language that floats through the theatre. On the stage, the English language is arrested by the overwhelming technicality of the Chinese phonemes: its Roman alphabet is unable to capture the sound. As plosive pops and clicks are made with the mouth, the differing dialects that seemed to grate against one another suddenly find harmony in certain words. The effect is as if fine string is being looped in pursuit of these choreographed connections and what Ho presents us with is a tapestry in worship of the languages performed on stage. 

At this point, I closed my eyes and allowed the disembodied voices to sweep me into the waves of sound. Like the meditative urgency of a monastic chant, Ho urges us to listen to the complexity of the language. The act concludes with a poem—Between Chinese and English—written by Ouyang Jianghe. This poem is recited collaboratively by the three players in their respective dialects and then in English by Ho. The performance, while lengthy, confronts the audience with the burden of language and the urgency of its gradual disappearance. Ho does not pretend to be original with this concern, citing Ouyang’s poetry to aid in her battle cry. What is most interesting is the pairing of a meticulous dissection of each dialect’s distinguishing features with a literary voice. The beauty of the language was not to be found in the artist’s literary mastery but in the prosaic staccato of voice.

At the beginning of the work, Ho states her intention and purpose of the piece—unwilling to yield to an audience’s tendency to universalise the art:

This journey is a reflection of my journey not only to fulfil the hunger and curiosity as an artist, to share the sophistication of the languages I speak, and me making connection to the communities and culture that I was, am, and will be part of.

And in “Dialectics Chamber”, Ho certainly hits the mark. While it may have seemed—to some—distanced and clinical in its delivery, in fact it is deeply personal. There is a strong sense of Ho’s curiosity, yearning, and love for the language that shines through in her method.

However, while “Dialectics Chamber” possesses a quality that has stayed with me, the other parts of the work felt more like the first stages of Ho’s experimentation with the form.

In the first part, titled “Triangular Relations”, Yuchen Wang takes centre stage and begins a monologue from Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis. The passage selected is a deeply personal piece taken-out of context-from the harrowing drama about an individual’s battle  with (and subsequent loss to) suicidal ideations. “Triangular Relations” introduced the playfulness with language that Ho utilises to better effect in “Dialectics Chamber”. The monologue is recited, in both English and Mandarin, at superhuman speed, and then slowed down in resentful bitterness (to the credit of the talented Yuchen Wang). Surtitles ghost the monologue, flashing up a few key words. Gestural performance concludes the segment. This part seemed to be more appropriately a study or experiment for “Dialectics Chamber” and an attempt to become self-referential and cohesive in dramaturgy.

Finally, the third act of the Approximate Translation, “Invisible Rituals” is an excerpt from The Moon Pavilion, a Cantonese Opera performed by the Kong Chew Chinese Opera Association. Including the unaltered opera at the end of the work feels like a reference to historical traditions and a nod to other forms of theatre that do not necessarily fit in the Western conception of the art. The opera feels like an affirmation of the notion that language transcends speech. This is apparent in the way actors convey humour, not only through what is said in the scene, but by what is implied through double entendre, body language, gestures, and emoting. Surtitling, while effective in the other parts of the play, undermines the intent of “Invisible Rituals”. With surtitles, the linguistic safety blanket of the audience remains and inhibits the ability of the audience to experience the reflexive translation that occurs when encountering another language.

It is evident that Felix Ching Ching Ho has wrestled with language at all levels of discourse. Approximate Translation marks the first step towards a more refined piece about the relationship between actor, audience, and content. Even in its early stages, the work reveals the utter miraculous manifestation of language and is persistent in its interrogation of multilingualism and translation.

Felix Ching Ching Ho is a Hong-Kong born independent theatre director and maker based in Melbourne. Felix is currently Assistant Director for The Caucasian Chalk Circle at Black Swan State Theatre Company. Approximate Translation was an artist curated event at The Malthouse Theatre on May 28 2016.

Conceived and Directed by / Felix Ching Ching Ho
Design / Eugyeene Teh
Sound / Chris Wenn
Surtitles / Vincent Ging Ho Yim
Stage Management: Tia Clark
#1 Triangular Relations
Performer / Yuchen Wang
Extract/ “Psychosis 4.48” by Sarah Kane
Chinese Translation / Kaiqi Hu
#2 Dialects Chamber
Performers / Rose Weirou Gui, Derek Lo, Yuchen Wang
Poem / “Between Chinese and English” by Ouyang Jianghe
English Translation / Austin Woerner
#3 Invisible Rituals
Performed by Kong Chew Chinese Opera Association Inc.
Singers / Helen Chin Yuan Wu, Emily Miaoqi Chen
Percussion Ensemble Leader / Sophia Xiu Liang Ko
Ensemble Leader / Xingxin Yuan
Ensemble / Peter Dat Wing Lee, Shuoyou Pan, Yaoxin Zhao, Qibin Liang
Excerpt / “The Umbrella Story” from Cantonese Opera “The Moon Pavilion”
Excerpt English Translation / Chanel Chan & Rick Qi

Allison Chan

Author: Allison Chan

Allison Chan is Peril Magazine’s writer-at-large, completing her studies in Literature at Monash University. Allison is currently co-producing Peril’s upcoming podcast, Please Explain, which unpacks national conversations and the racial underbelly of Australian myth-making. She was also a resident blogger for the 2016 Chinese Writers Festival.

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