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Celebrating Shakespeare

Do Chinese like the Bard’s sonnets too?

Celebrating Shakespeare

Tomorrow (April 23rd) marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. While the English-speaking world is commemorating the playwright’s works and long-lasting influence on English literature, China is getting in on the celebration too with the publication of a new translation of some of his sonnets (14-line rhyming poems).

Most Chinese who have gone through the country’s education system would have learned about Shakespeare. However, they are likely only familiar with his well-known plays – most know very little of his highly acclaimed sonnets. The reason is obvious: there have been few successful Chinese translations in the past century. A quick search on Wikipedia finds that “there is no major written language into which the sonnets have not been translated, including German, French, Italian, Japanese, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Hebrew, Welsh, Yiddish and Esperanto.” But it didn’t list Mandarin Chinese, the most spoken language in the world.

Verseis particularly difficult to translate: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” acknowledged American poet Robert Frost. The reason that few Chinese today can recite even a single line of a Shakespeare sonnet is because the dozen or so existing Chinese interpretations lack charm. Mostly done by academics they are very literal, rather than very literary.

Luckily, a recent book published by China Youth Publishing Group may help the Chinese to better appreciate the sonnets.

Eternal Summer: Shakespeare’s Sonnets after 400 Years (穿越四百年来读你), written by a virtually unknown translator Sarah Ye (叶秀敏,佚名滚滚君), is a unique book which includes not only translations of 20 of Shakespeare’s love sonnets (all selected from his 154 sonnets), but also explains the poet’s circumstances, as well as the interpreter’s thought process in recreating the Chinese versions.

To make them more relevant to Chinese, Ye’s verses play on poetic styles used in the Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty, as well as in modern times. Ye’s translations capture the key features of the original sonnets – the theme of undying love, the elegance of the language and the enchanting poetic atmosphere created.

For readers who understand Chinese, here is one sample of Ye’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 22 together with the English original:

My glass shall not persuade me I am old,

So long as youth and thou are of one date;

But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,

Then look I death my days should expiate.

For all that beauty that doth cover thee

Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,

Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:

How can I then be elder than thou art?

O, therefore, love, be of thyself so wary

As I, not for myself, but for thee will;

Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary

As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.

Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;

Thou gavest me thine, not to give back again.















What is even more amazing is that Ye has never visited the UK. Actually, she has never even travelled outside China. She graduated from the same university as me in Beijing in 1992, majoring in English. But her first job was as a technical translator in the navy for 16 years, before becoming a civil servant in Beijing in 2008. As a single mother with a modest salary, she can’t afford to rent a place close to her workplace, so she has to commute more than three hours each day by bus and subway. And that is when she reads Shakespeare and contemplates Chinese versions of his sonnets. Thanks to the popular social media platform WeChat, Ye’s translations of the sonnets have gained a devoted following among her university friends, including myself. We encouraged her to compile her translation notes and helped her gather enough orders to get the book published – just in time for the anniversary of the Bard of Avon’s death.

Mei grew up in northeast China, attending an elite university in Beijing and graduate school in the US. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China in the media and at two investment banks. If you’d like to ask Mei a question email her at [email protected]

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