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Ren Xiaofei photoFeng Qinghua photo Abstract

As the major part of drama, dramatic dialogue serves to push on the development of the story and guarantee performability of the drama on the stage, with stress on the gestic (undertext) features of the utterances. This paper explores the feasibility of performatives in dramatic dialogue translation, by comparing Ying Ruocheng's English version Teahouse with Howard's. We have found that Ying's version, considered more suitable for performance, better conforms to the rules of the theory of performatives, confirming his recommendation that orality, action and characters' personality are three major factors for the translator to bear in mind. It is well illustrated that performatives provide a proper theoretical framework for successful dramatic dialogue translation.

Key words: performatives, drama translation, Teahouse

1. Theory of Performatives

Performatives is an important concept in Speech Act theory. It was first introduced into pragmatics by the English Philosopher Austin to refer to performative utterance, used to perform an action. According to him,

To issue such an utterance is to perform the action—an action, perhaps, which one scarcely could perform, at least with so much precision, in any other way. (He Zhaoxiong, 2003:223)

In addition to performative utterance, Austin initially presents constative utterance as its counterpart. With further research, however, he finds that the distinction between the two normal forms used to separate the two types of utterance is invalid. (One form: a verb in the first person singular of the present indicative active, as in 'I promise you that...,' and the other form: a verb in the passive voice and in the second or third person of the present indicative, as in 'passengers are requested to cross the line by the footbridge only.') Instead, to make an utterance performative, people may resort to many other more primitive devices instead of the explicit formula, such as intonation, gesture, or the context in which the words are uttered. With so many flexible factors involved, it is unnecessary to distinguish performative from constative. Thus, he eventually gives up the performative-constative antithesis, and argues that what we need is a new doctrine, both complete and general, of what one is doing in saying something, which he calls speech-act in totality. (ibid: 236)

With the new doctrine, Austin states that a speech-act usually entails three kinds of acts: locutionary act, illocutionary act, and perlocutionary act. Searl later introduces a taxonomy of illocutionary act based on Austin's idea. They are assertives, directives, commissives, expressives and declarations.

2. Performatives in drama translation

A drama is a literary composition designed for theatrical presentation.1 It serves as the source for actors to act on stage by providing the lines they utter during the performance and the basis of the behavior they should assume in acting. Ying Ruocheng, a well-known Chinese actor, director as well as drama translator argues that " to act" is not only "to be dressed up as somebody", but also "to play the role and act". Actors are doing things with their utterances on the stage, such as to warn, to comfort, to provoke. Even expressive and argumentative utterances entail some kind of action, such as request or protest. (Ying, 1999:5).Ttranslators of drama should bear all these features in mind so as to rewrite a drama for acting in another language. Scholars of translation studies home and abroad being concerned with drama translation agree that the purpose of drama translation is for theatrical presentation in another language. (Newmark 1981, Susan Bassnett 1985, Nida 1993 and Ying Ruocheng 1999). According to Susan Bassenett (1978) drama translation should conform to the Principle of Performability. Ying believes that in drama translation, lines should preserve the action underlying the utterances, especially those seemingly having nothing to do with actions, like expressive ones.(ibid). Take Hamlet as an example:

To be, or not to be—that is the qestion:|
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.

The monologue is expressive, showing Hamlet's contemplation of the uncertainty of life. But as it develops, people can realize the underlying actions of struggling against the 'outrageous fortune' and foresee the later fierce actions against his uncle.

Hitherto, the feasibility of performatives or speech-act in drama and drama translation is rather obvious.

Douglas Robinson (2003) even borrows Performatives into translation studies from a macro perspective by seeing translating as well as speaking as doing things with words.

3. Performatives in Ying's English version Teahouse

In translating Teahouse, Ying puts into practice his remarks on drama translation—"to act" by figuring out all those illocutionary act of utterances and reproducing their underlying actions properly. We will explore the five kinds of illocutionary acts mentioned above in his translation.

3.1. assertives

According to Searl (He Zhaoxiong,2003: 272) the point of the members of the assertive class is to commit the speaker (in varying degrees) to the truth of the expressed proposition.

At the very beginning of the play, as the dialogue goes,

(王利发: 唐先生,你外边遛遛吧!


王利发: 算了吧,我送给你一碗茶喝,你就甭卖那套生意口啦! 用不着相面,咱们既在江湖内,都是苦命人!坐下!我告诉你,你要是戒不了大烟,就永远交不了好运! 这是我的想法, 比你的更灵验!)

Wang Lifa: Mr. Tang, why not take a walk somewhere else?

Tang the Oracle: Oh, Manager Wang, boost up poor old Oracle a bit. Offer me a cup of tea, and I'll tell your fortune for you. With palm-reading thrown in, it won't cost you a copper! Now, it's the 24th year of Emperor Guangxu's reign, the year of the Dog, and your honorable age...?

Wang Lifa: Enough, enough! I'll give you a cup of tea, but spare me the sales talk. What's the point of fortune-telling? In this harsh world, we're all on our own. Life will never be easy. Sit down! Listen! If you don't stop smoking opium, you'll never have any luck. There, you see, I'm a better fortune-teller than you are!
(Ying's version)

You know, if you don't break that opium habit nothing good will ever come your way. That's my way of telling fortunes—much more effective than yours.
(Howard's version)

Wang is giving Tang a lecture by performing assertives so that he may not come again for free drinking with so called fortune telling. Ying chooses a short statement in English in the end—"I am a better fortune-teller than you" to replace the original adjective phrase, together with some modal particles such as "there" and "you see" to emphasize Wang's assertive tone, while Howard uses the comparative form of adjectives as a complement of the main sentence, weakening the assertive tone.

With different interpersonal relationships, assertives may take different shapes. Here is another example:

王利发: ,一边做一边学吧,指着这个吃饭嘛,谁叫我爸爸死的早,我不干不行啊!好在照顾主儿都是我父亲的老朋友,我有不周到的地方,都肯包涵,闭闭眼就过去了。在街面儿上混饭吃,人缘儿顶要紧。我按着我父亲遗留下的老办法,多说好话,多请安,讨人人的喜欢,就不会出大岔子!......

Wang Lifa: Well, I learn as I go along. I have to. It's my living! With my father having died so young, I've no choice. Luckily my customers were all friends of my father. They're ready to overlook my slips. In a business like this you have to be popular. I do everything just like my father. Always be polite, always make obeisance, try to please everybody. Then there won't be any serious trouble.
(Ying's version)

Wang Lifa: Ai! I've had to learn because I depend on this place for a living. Since my father died young, I have no choice. Luckily, the regular customers are all old friends of my father; they're prepared to overlook my mistakes. When you're in business to make a living it's very important to be well-liked. I do things just like my father did. If I'm not dropping to my knee, in greeting, I'm dropping compliments—trying to please everybody. That way you avoid trouble.
(Howard's version)

The assertiveness here is achieved differently from the former one. Wang is chatting with his landlord who is unsatisfied with the current house rent. For the fear that he may take the house back, Wang is eager to inform the man of his careful ways of running the business to assure him of his ability to pay additional rent. Both Ying and Howard, in "In a business like this you have to be popular", makes use of "you" rather than "I" to generalize the situation and show Wang's willingness to get Qin's agreement with his assertiveness. Then Ying uses three short imperative sentences in correspondence with the source language to develop the assertiveness, which leads to Wang's conclusion that "There won't be any serious trouble," the ultimate assertiveness of his rather successful management of the teahouse. Howard, instead, uses a rather long and complex sentence: "If I'm not dropping to my knee, in greeting, I'm dropping compliments—trying to please everybody," with the assertiveness becoming lost. In the following sentence, Howard once again transfers the subject to "you" as in "That way you avoid trouble," which is inappropriate here, considering the purpose of the utterance.

Thus, the former assertiveness is achieved through teaching an underling something the speaker believes true. This is achieved through reporting to a superior something the speaker believes to be the case. In turn, differences also lie in sentence structures, lexical choice and the tone of the utterance. But one thing is sure: that in order to effectively perform assertiveness, short sentence structures are vital.


The illocutionary point of these consists in the fact that they are attempts by the speaker to get the hearer to do something.(ibid: 274)

(常四爷: 你要怎么着?

二德子: 我碰不了洋人,还碰不了你吗?

马五爷: 二德子,你威风啊!

二德子: , 马五爷, 您在这儿呢? 我可眼拙,没看见您!)

Chang: What do you think you are doing?

Erdez: Perhaps I don't touch the foreigners, but I'll give you one of my touches. I will!

Master Ma: Erdez, you are quite an important person, aren't you?

Erdez: Oh, it's you. Master Ma! Pardon, sir, I'd never see you sitting here.
(Ying's version)

Fifth Elder Ma: Erdezi, you're quite something.
(Howard's version)

Obviously, Ma is trying to stop the fight. Ying adds a tag question after the statement to strengthen the directive force of the utterance, which is more powerful than Howard's with the respect of directiveness.

3.3. commissives

Commissives are those illocutionary acts whose point is to commit the speaker to some future course of action.

秦仲义: 小王, 这儿的房租是不是得往上提那么一提呢? 当年你爸爸给我的那点租钱,还不够我喝茶用的呢!

王利发: 二爷,您说的对,太对了!可是,这点小事用不着您分心,您派管事的来一趟, 我跟他商量,该长多少租钱,我一定照办!!!

Qin: Now, young man, don't you think it's about time we raised the rent a bit? The pittance your father used to pay me as rent won't even pay my tea!

Wang: Of course, sir, how right you are! But there's no need for you to bother yourself over such small matters. Send your steward 'round. I'll work it out with him. I'll certainly pay what's fair. Yes I will, sir!
(Ying's version)

... Send one of your clerks to talk it over with me, and of course I'll pay whatever we agree on. Of course I'll pay it.
(Howard's version)

In reply to Qin's request, Wang performs commmissiveness in an over-obedient way. In order to preserve the characteristics, Ying uses "I'll" twice and another repetition of "I will" plus the title "sir" to express the illocutionary act of commissives here. Howard's translation, especially the first sentence here loses Wang's willingness to perform the commissiveness by combining the two sentences into a longer one and converting the original subject into the object of preposition.

3.4. expressives

The illocutionary point of this class is to express the psychological state specified in the sincerity condition about a state of affairs specified in the prepositional content.

Let's refer back to the former example. Qin adds an exaggerated complaint about the current rent after the request for a rent raise, showing his dissatisfaction and making his request reasonable. Ying chooses "pittance" and "even" to reproduce the exaggeration and the mental state of the character, and the illocutionary force of expressive.

The pittance that your father gave me is no longer enough to keep me in tea.
(Howard's version)

But Howard's version fails to reflect the exaggeration with the objective phrase "no longer," thus affecting the force of expressive here.


Declarations bring about some alteration in the status or condition of the referred object or objects solely by virtue of the fact that the declaration has been successfully performed.

For example,

宋恩子: ...他说"大清国要完", 就是跟谭嗣同一党!


常四爷: 告诉你们,我可是旗人!

吴祥子: 旗人当汉奸,罪加一等!...

Song: He said: "The Great Qing Empire is done for!" he must be a follower of Tan Sitong.


Chang: Remember, I'm a Bannerman!

Wu: A Bannerman turned traitor gets a heavier sentence!
(Ying's version)

... When a Bannerman turns traitor, the crime is one degree more serious.
(Howard's version)

The utterances by the two secret agents are declarations with the illocutionary force of taking Chang in. Chang's declarative statement shows his fierce opposition to the other two. Ying chooses "must be," short "S+V+O" structure, "I'm," and exclamation marks to express all the declarations and their illocutionary force. Howard uses "conditional clause + main sentence" structure, making it sound like an exposition rather than a declaration.

In addition, as Searl noticed, some members of the class of declarations overlap with members of the class as assertives. (ibid: 280). Here "I'm a Bannerman" also can be seen as an assertive declaration.

4. Conclusion

The theory of Performatives finds its perfect application in dramatic dialogue translation. Utterances with locutionary acts are explicit and can easily be translated into acts so as to facilitate performance, while utterances with illocutionary acts are implicit, which makes it hard for translators to figure out their undertext in order to preserve the illocutionary force. Searl's taxonomy makes it easier to observe the illocutionary acts and is instructive and meaningful in drama translation practice. Ying's English version of Teahouse sets a good example in performing performatives in dramatic dialogue translation.


Acknowledgements: The research is sponsored by the "Qinglan Project" of Jiangsu Province and the Philosophic and Social Sciences Fund for Universities in Jiangsu Province (06SJD740011) and the Talent Fund of Jiangsu University (JDR2005041).


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  3. Robinson , D. Performative Linguistics : Speaking and Translating as Doing Things with Words [M] . Routledge ,2003.
  4. Bassnett McGuire , S. Ways Through Labyrinth : Strategies and Methods for Translating Theatre Texts [ A ] . The Manipulation of Literature : Studies in Literary Translation [ C ] . Ed. Theo Hermans. New York : St . Martinps Press. 1985
  5. Translating Spatial Poetry: An Examination of Theatre Texts in Performance. In: Holmes, J., Lambert, J. & Van den Broeck, R. Literature and Translation: New Perspectives in Literary Studies. Leuven: Acco, pp. 161-176. 1978
  6. Newmark , Peter. A pproaches to Translation [ M ] . Oxford : Penguin , 1981.
  7. The Merriam Webster Dictionary (50th Edition), Merriam Webster, Inc. 1997.
  8. He Zhaoxiong. Introduction to Pragmatics [M], Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Education Press, 2002.
  9. Lao She. Teahouse[M] . Translated by Ying Ruocheng. Beijing: 中国对外翻译出版公司 Chinese Translation Publishing Corporation, 1999.
  10. Lao She. Teahouse [M] . Translated by John Howard- Gibbon. Beijing: Foreign Language Press1980.
  11. Ma Huijuan. On Performability inYing Ruocheng's Teahouse Translation. Journal of PLA University of Foreign Languages. 2004/5.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary (50th Edition), p235

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