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Two New Chinese Translations of Hamlet Introduced and Compared

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Xiaonong Wang photoAbstract: The two new Chinese translations of Hamlet by Wang and Huang represent continued efforts in the new century by Chinese scholars in studying and translating Shakespeare. In a display of creative artistry, both translators break new ground in translating principles, language use, and textual construction. Their main differences lie in that Wang, who translates for the page, is more concerned with the overall artistic effect by giving full play to the literary and expressive force of Chinese in characterization, uses conversational Chinese in characterization, and lifts his translation in philosophical connotation and literary conception. Huang’s version, far more annotated, is rendered for the stage and pays much attention to rhythm-rhyming scheme and image correspondence by concise and accurate Chinese, blending elegant and vulgar features according the characters’ identity. The two translators have made an important contribution to international Shakespeare studies in general and Hamlet studies in particular.

Key words: Hamlet; Hongyin Wang; Guobin Huang; translation; Shakespeare’s plays


The eternal humanistic value of Shakespeare’s plays, as literary and cultural canonical works, lies in their ultimate concern for the existing state and fate of mankind, which is displayed when they try to answer the eternal questions of human life. We need Shakespeare today because his thoughts link up with and nourish the spiritual life of modern people. Shakespeare's works have been abundantly researched and translated in China. As for the translation of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s iconic play, into Chinese, there were more than 40 versions in the twentieth century. The new century has seen continued interest in Shakespeare in China, and two new Chinese translations of Hamlet were published in 2012 and 2013. Here the author will introduce them on the basis of his reading of the translations, their prefaces, with emphasis on their conceptual, linguistic, stylistic, and textual aspects.

1. The Translators and the Translated Texts

Both Wang and Huang pursue their definite objectives in translating Hamlet into Chinese, and through creative efforts, break new ground in translating strategies, use of language, and textual construction.
Hongyin Wang’s translation was published by Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press in August of 2012 and Guobin Huang’s, by Tsinghua University Press in January of 2013 (hereafter referred to as Wang’s translation and Huang’s translation, respectively). Translation of plays, compared with other categories of translation, requires superior language artistry and profound cultural understanding on the part of the translator, who should be highly skillful in cross-cultural communication, sympathetic comprehension and empathetic expression. In translating a play, it is important for the translator to grasp the identity and individuality of the characters, whose psychology, language, and actions should be coordinated in the translation. Mr. Wang is a professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, Nankai University. His main academic interests are literary translation theory and criticism, and he is an accomplished Shakespeare scholar. He is also an anthropologic poet, and as a prolific translator, has translated not only some international classics into Chinese, but also many Chinese classics and regional folk works into English. Mr. Huang, professor of Chinese University of HK, is a scholar in literary translation theory, European literature, and comparative literature, and also a poet and essayist, well versed in English, French, Italian, German and Spanish. He has been a student of Shakespeare for about half a century. Both are competent as translators of Shakespeare.

In terms of text construction of the Chinese translations of Hamlet, the two versions both feature some innovations. An English-Chinese bilingual text (289 pages) with abundant annotation, Wang’s translation adopts a new pattern of translating Hamlet into Chinese, for it draws on the tradition of ancient Chinese novel criticism and includes the English text, the Chinese translated text, and the para-textual system, with translator’s preface (comments on the humanistic value of re-reading Shakespeare and on previous Chinese translations of Hamlet, the translating principles of the new version, etc.), a Synopsis of Hamlet; marginal notes on important translating points; end notes mainly on the English text and the difference between different translations of Hamlet; references, and translator’s postscript. Huang’s translation is a book of two volumes (a total of 676 pages), with editor’s note, translator’s foreword and preface, the Chinese translated text, and references. The 134 page foreword and preface contain analysis of the probable year when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, early editions, the English title of the play and its Chinese translations, key points of commentaries on Shakespeare and Hamlet through the ages, analysis of Hamlet's character, history of the play's performances, translations of the play into European languages, and his translating strategy. Besides the translated text proper, it includes footnotes which occupy three fourths of the whole length of the book. These footnotes concern language, images, characters, structure, edition, theatre art, performance effect, stage details, and translation. Though not bilingual, the version offers the English original when necessary in the footnotes. Therefore, Huang’s book can be considered an academic monograph.

2. Translating Principles and Strategies of the Two Translators

On the basis of analyzing their prefaces, translated versions, and comparatively analyzing typical examples, the two translators’ main translating principles and strategies can be summarized as follows.

Wang’s main purpose is to provide readable literature, and he pays more attention to the readability, understandability, and appreciability of his translation. Therefore, he writes a long preface to his translation and supplies annotation and critical notes. Stylistically, as he has advocated, he renders Shakespeare’s blank verse in a more flexible way, and in a broader correspondence to the original, he does not adhere rigidly to the original metric scheme. What he gives salience to is basically reproducing the rhythmic and syllabic sensation and meanwhile controlling the line length and the unfolding of a sentence, so that on the whole the lines look nice, natural and symmetrical. He employs some textual principles on arranging lines in free verse, avoiding distortion caused by random sentence structures. Considering semantic translation as the basis, Wang makes an effort to give full play to the literary and expressive force of the Chinese language. On the question whether colloquial language can be used in translation, Wang holds that the translation should make proper use of the natural language, which is in current daily use, fresh and alive, and strongly expressive, and allow for topolects to some extent, on the condition that it is not too local and is comprehensible to average readers of the whole country. Besides, some English expressions and ancient Chinese phrases can also be absorbed into the translation. On the whole, he makes sure that his translation language, which retains the main key of theatre language, is a stage language, different from the daily language, and a literary language for characterization, suitable for distinguishing different characters with their typical ways of expression.

Huang’s translation, which is rendered for the stage, is intended to be a reader for the directors, performers, and audiences in the Chinese-speaking world. In the Huang's opinion, the previous Chinese translations of Hamlet were all oriented toward reading rather than performing. Thus, he tries to stress the stage performing effect, satisfying first the ears of directors, performers, and audiences, and only second the eyes of readers. He considers it necessary to add preface, rich annotation and commentary to the translated text because of differences in language, culture, ideology, and theatric traditions between English and Chinese. He thinks that both literariness and academic rigor should be considered in translation to meet various needs of different groups of readers so that they can enjoy full understanding of the classic. His translation pursues mainly a poetic style in an effort to render Hamlet into a Chinese poetic drama, not only retaining the content of the “drama,” but also conveying the features of “poetry”. Huang keeps “dun (group of Chinese syllables, basically equivalent to the English ‘foot’)” of the Chinese translation in rigid accordance with the English line feet. He emphasizes the naturalness of language in his translation and treatment of images, and ensures that his translation is both novel and expressive in wording and suitable for stage performance, avoiding lines that may be too dissonant for the audience.

To reach their translation objectives, the two translators have made a considerable effort in the following three aspects: First, research-based translation. They strive to achieve their own understanding and interpretation of Hamlet, so as to guarantee the cognitive basis for their re-translations. Second, innovative translation. They try to ensure that the translation takes on a new look not only in rendering strategies and methods, but also in textual construction. Third, surpassing translation. The translations do not merely mechanically reproduce the positive features of previous translations, but pursue a more ambitious goal. They both are strongly reader-and-audience-conscious, stressing the para-textual features. As for their differences, their translating purposes are different. Wang translates for the page, while Huang does it for the stage; Obviously different in linguistic and stylistic pursuits, Wang, more flexible in his rendering methods, makes a conscious effort to refine colloquial language and employ it in his translation, with emphasis on different characters’ distinctive utterances matching their roles, while Huang keeps closer to the English original in metric scheme, concerned more with the stage effect. Para-textually, Huang’s is a translation with the more abundant annotation. Wang analyzes the merits and demerits of the four major Chinese translations in the twentieth century. Huang, by contrast, mentions almost nothing about those previous translations, although he comments on some translations into other European languages.

3. Simplified Comparative Study of the Two New Chinese Translated Versions

The two translations are both rendered from the Q2 text, also making reference to some other editions. Wang (2010:225) argues that a re-translation of a classic should surpass the previous translations in comprehending the original work, translating methods and overall translation effect; though entitled to refer to the previous translations, the re-translator should not borrow too much from them; it is not necessary to seek novelty by completely ignoring those past translations; the re-translation should take on a new overall look of its own. Wang’s re-translation of Hamlet is the very practice of his opinion. Drawing on a few established translated expressions, his translation displays some completely new features. Huang does state the relationship between his translation and the previous ones, but obviously he adopts some traditional practices like using “dun” for the English “foot”.

3.1 Proper names

There is some common ground in this regard. For example, both continue rendering Hamlet into “哈姆雷特”, and employ the practice of pronunciation-based transliteration. Their differences, however, are obvious. A striking feature of Wang’s is his re-translating some proper names on the basis of such factors as laudatory or derogatory coloring, sex, and literary expression. For example, “Claudius” is transliterated into “克牢荻斯”, where the Chinese graph “牢” means “prison”, implying that “Denmark is a prison.” “Gertrude” into “乔特露德”, highlighting its femaleness, for “露” is used in female names. “Elsinore”, into “哀尔新诺,” both close to the English pronunciation and revealing for it implies that “This is a place where some sorrowful things have happened, yet with a new promise.” In the text, Wang uses only the first Chinese graph of a name to mark the speaker; thus when the first syllable of the proper names in English is pronounced the same, he adopts different Chinese graphs for distinction. Huang’s translation uses full names to mark the speakers in the play. He limits most of the Chinese translated proper names to four syllables to facilitate stage performing.

3.2 Stylistic features

After reading the two translations, the author finds that the two translators implement their translating principles and strategies well in practice, each with his own characteristic features. We will cite several examples to illustrate our analysis.

Stylistically, Wang’s translation corresponds to the original styles, which embodies in that Chinese rhymed verse is employed to render the English rhymed verse, the translation of the original prose parts is strong in rhythm, and Chinese oral language elements enter the dialogues, in a tasteful manner. In rendering the blank verse, Wang adopts a broad corresponding pattern and thus in such a section, the lines are basically correspondent, with similar length of all lines and natural structure of a sentence. Wang is particularly attentive to stylistic imitation, natural syllabic harmony, and visual effect of arranging the lines. For example, here is a section of the blank verse by Claudius in Act IV, Scene III.












(Wang, 2012: 173)

Wang’s translation is prominent in blending technique of expression and the language of drama. “Technique of expression” is a concept put forward by Wang (2003:258) pertaining to literary translation, which involves rendering images, thematic expressions, rhythms, stylistic elements, etc. Using such techniques, the translator can incorporate into his translation elements of topolect, dialect, folk songs and ballads, popular songs, etc, and even foreign languages in order to integrate various elements into a personal writing and translating practice with salient idiosyncrasy, expressive power, and features of the times. Dramatic language is imbued with dynamic and individual traits with strong expressive force and performing features. Thus, by using vivid individualized utterances, the reader and the audience can easily distinguish the various roles in a play. With suitable use of fresh and interesting expressions from topolect and oral Chinese, the translation reads and sounds more vivid, idiomatic, characteristic, and close to the daily life of people, such as “公子哥儿”, “天下无贼”, “想咋样, 就咋样”, and “大男人岂能没有点那个”. Shakespeare tended to employ some folk songs to express the identity of some typical roles, which did not receive adequate attention in the previous Chinese translations. Wang’s translation does very well in this respect, so that the translated songs match fully the roles’ identity, action, and psychology in specific contexts. Foe example, in Act V, Scene I, the grave-digger sings two folk songs while digging. Wang repeats the last three Chinese graphs in every line, and thus when the grave-digger sings and repeats the last three Chinese graphs (three syllables), he throws a spade of earth, which matches his singing. Without such repetition, the translation would not sound like a folk song. In this example, the “好像我不是土里来,土里来 (And hath shipp’d me intil the land, / As if I had never been such.)” alludes to the metaphor in the Bible, which says that man comes from the land and finally returns to it, and therefore with his understanding of life and death, the grave-digger turns into a philosopher.










(Wang, 2012: 217)

In Huang’s translation, the original blank verse is also rendered into such similar style in Chinese, with similar rhythm and rhyming, and the original iambic five-foot scheme is rendered into Chinese lines each with five “dun,” which looks neat, and the prose parts are also rendered as prose, which reads unrestrained and rich in rhythm. In linguistic and stylistic expression, Huang’s translation is on the whole accurate and smooth, blending literary and colloquial Chinese language, as well as elegant and vulgar elements. For example, the following soliloquy of Hamlet in Act II, Scene II.











(Huang, 2013: 354-355)

3.3 Literary devices and cultural interpretation

Huang (2013:110) concludes that the two greatest challenges in rendering Hamlet into Chinese are the puns and images. The play contains many quotations from the Bible with allusions back to the cultural fountainhead of mankind and human nature and to the ancient Greek mythology for resources of narrative prototype and mapping framework, which is manifested in the use of such literary devices as puns, epigrams, idioms, and images to construct meaningful connection between the dislocated signifier and the signified. Without adequate annotation and hermeneutic information provided, the average reader and audience would only be aware of the general idea implied, yet they would not be able to reach its core for interpretation of the deeper thought. There are also cases of linguistic reasons calling for annotation; especially where Shakespeare’s profound thought is concerned, translation and annotation are both needed. The two translations solve such problems well, which can be illustrated by the following examples.

In Act IV, Scene II, when Hamlet was interrogated for information on where the body of Polonius is, there is such a dialogue:

Rosencrantz: My lord, you must tell us where the body is and go with us to

the King.

Hamlet: The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body.

The King is a thing —

Guildenstern: A thing, my lord?

Hamlet: Of nothing. Bring me to him….

Wang’s translation:





(Wang, 2012: 171-173)

Huang’s translation:





(Huang, 2013: 494-496)

Here “body” is a pun. Wang’s translation tends to interpret Hamlet philosophically, and in it, there are two places concerned with the discussion of the king (the other on P. 85), which clarifies the relationship between “本体” (the “body”, that is, the beggar, who does not seek splendor and harbors no ambition) and “异体” (the “shadow”, that is, the kings and heroes, who enjoy splendor and are ambitious), and also makes clear the new king’s inevitable death (for his double sin) implied by “遗体” (both the old king’s body and Polonius’ body are related to the king), and the varied form (killing his uncle because he marries his mother) of the Oedipus Complex (killing father and marrying mother) (Wang, 2012: xxvi). In the translation, “本体” and “异体” are related as the same kind, and “异体” and “一体” (here referring to the relationship between the new king and the queen) are related as opposites. The three Chinese phrases “遗体”, “异体”, and “一体” are all pronounced in a very similar way, and thus several of the most important roles and their relationship are all related with several most important philosophical concepts which form a broad and deep system of symbols. Huang’s translation, by using “东西” not only imitates the original image, but also expresses the original sarcasm of the king, which also shows ingenuity in rendering .

4. Conclusion

From the above, we can conclude that both Wang and Huang pursue their definite objectives in translating Hamlet into Chinese, and through creative efforts, break new ground in translating strategies, use of language, and textual construction, displaying a high level of artistry, and instill new blood into their translations so that they can be regarded as equivalents to the original work. Their main differences lie in that Wang, who translates for the page, is more concerned with the overall artistic effect of the translation as a reader by giving full play to the literary and expressive force of Chinese in characterization, keeping an eye on the stage performing effect, and by more flexible rendering methods, he makes conscious efforts to lift the translation in philosophical connotation and literary conception, and to use colloquial Chinese, fresh, vivid, and alive, to retain the personal features of the characters in the play.

Huang’s version is rendered for the stage and pays more attention to poetic correspondence in rhythm and rhyming scheme and retaining the original images by means of concise and accurate Chinese, foregrounding elegant and vulgar features according the characters’ identity in specific contexts. His translation, far more annotated with valuable sources of information for academic research of Hamlet, is a model work of research-based translation in China. In a word, the two new translations by Chinese scholars represent China’s important recent achievements in studying and translating Hamlet and a new contribution to international Shakespeare studies in general and Hamlet in particular.


[1] Huang, Guobin. Interpreting Hamlet – Chinese Translation with Detailed Annotation. Beijing: Tsinghua University Press, 2013.

[2] Wang, Hongyin. trans Hamlet. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 2012.

[3] ---. Critique of Translation Theories in Chinese Tradition. Wuhan: Hubei Education Press, 2003.

[4] ---. On the Criticism of Literary Translation. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 2010.

Published - October 2013

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