Approximate Translation is certainly not director Felix Ching Ching Ho’s first attempt to grapple with notions of translation and multi-lingual theatre. In her introduction to the event, Ho said that what she was presenting could be the subject of an entire life’s work. I hope that she does continue exploring this territory – it’s fascinating, complex and vast.
This is the third of the Malthouse’s newly introduced 'artist-curated events', and that title feels fitting for what Ho has created. Her piece comprised of three separate presentations, each having gone through some form of translation. From my perspective as an English speaker, the three pieces were deftly crafted as a journey into Chinese languages, both verbal and non-verbal.
The first sequence was entitled Triangular Relations, and comprised excerpts of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, performed with meticulous attention and presence by Yuchen Wang. The surtitles are fragmentary, and we struggle to grasp meaning. It’s a clear introduction to the fallibility of surtitles as a way of translating performance. Meaning becomes muddied when Wang dispenses with speech and starts performing large, repeated gestures. The surtitles continue, sporadically. What is being translated here, and how? Perhaps this is what the triangular of the section’s title alludes to; a triangle formed between speech, surtitle and physical presence and movement.
So a text of English-language provenance has been our entry into this exploration of translation and Chinese languages. The next section, Dialects Chamber, functions at first as a kind of rapid language lesson, exploring the extreme delicacies of tones and other spoken language elements in Mandarin, Shanghainese and Cantonese. Three performers introduce themselves and their language, and demonstrate the differences between their three languages. There is much laughter from the audience during this section, but it doesn’t feel cruel or insensitive – Ho is clearly making a spectacle of Chinese languages, not to denigrate them but to elevate them to the level of spectacular music. These speakers then perform sections of Ouyang Jianghe’s poem Between Chinese and English. These performances are not surtitled in English; instead, Ho takes the stage with her three performers and reads the whole poem in English. This is still an accented English, which is fitting and powerful in light of the poem’s themes of Chinese speakers aspiring to learn and live through the English language.
The piece had served thus far to draw me in to a rudimentary understanding of Chinese languages. Enter the last act, the Kong Chew Chinese Opera Association, with their performance of an excerpt from a Cantonese opera, The Moon Pavilion. The opera is supported by Chinese and English surtitles on screen, but it’s clear that there is much here that cannot be translated. The title Ho has given to this third section is Invisible Rituals, and there is much in the costume, vocal tone and gesture of this performance that cannot be conveyed with mere surtitles.
Across these three performances, Ho has taken three very different approaches to the same thesis – that a direct and full translation of any performance is an impossible task, especially when the translation inevitably must occur not only across languages but across cultures. Rather than despairing at this impossible task, Ho rejoices in the attempt, and allows us to do the same – by the end of the Cantonese Opera, an audience with a mixed level of cultural knowledge are laughing and sighing as one at the farce unfolding in front of them.
Australia is no longer the single-language nation it has tried to be in the past, and we’re so much the richer for that. Ho’s work shows us that there is both immense work and immense reward in communicating across cultures. But, even further than that, we have a glimpse here of something beyond Chinese and English – something more than the sum of the parts that emerges from the bridge between languages and cultures – and that something is very exciting.
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
28 May 2016