“Democracy” with Chinese characteristics

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Yang Liu “East meets West”

The Challenge.

A few years back we got approached with an exciting challenge – translating a play. My country – Lithuania – selected an award-winning playwright to represent us in a festival in China, and for that, we would need to have a Chinese version of his play. Translating literature is probably the toughest challenge one can get in cross-cultural communications, and here someone will be expressing each line out loud, on a stage!

The author chose his most famous play called ‘Democracy’ –  it was something around 100 pages, and we had just a bit over a month to complete the translation in order to make deadlines required for all necessary procedures that would follow to ensure the play is allowed to go on stage.

The Narrative.

The text was a deep, thoughtful story about a tall building where electricity frequently gets cut off. The neighbours believe it’s rats. They gather together and form a committee and design an action plan how they would resolve the issue. Soon it becomes a grotesque portrayal of democracy: a voting system is created, campaigning begins, one neigbour becomes the leader, and another neighbour is blamed for the ‘rat problem’, neighbours start developing hatred towards that neighbour and decide to teach her a lesson. The rat problem soon escalates to a war against parasites – and the neighbour suddenly becomes the embodiment of all parasites.

The Scope of Work.

The first week we outsourced the translation to a fellow Lithuanian, who had HSK6 and a Chinese wife – he helped us with the first round of word-for-word translation, while internally we were reading and re-reading the text, analyzing the details and discussing the approach with the author. Then we soon had the basic canvas to build on.

The title of the play was a challenge. But we learned that the author used it ironically, just to intrigue the audience – as the play does not discuss political governance at all, so together with the author we soon decided to call the play ‘A House Where Electricity Gets Cut Off’ (停电大楼) – keeping the intrigue intact, yet staying away from any unnecessary assumptions that may arise from a name ‘Democracy’.

The play also used a lot of cultural elements – each character was a stereotype representing a certain minority or archetype prominent in society. We asked the author if he would like to tell a story of Lithuania, or take a bigger picture and narrate the described social experience through a Chinese cultural lens. He chose the latter.

The Process.

The first task – then – was to give an appropriate name to each of the characters, as they were cryptic and incorporated many layers of meaning. The man who later becomes the leader of the neighbours we named 王金石. Mr Wang is probably the most common surname in China, yet it symbolizes a king – which the character so badly wanted to become. And that internal conflict was further supported by characters ‘gold’ and ‘stone’ in the name – typically in Shanghai around 1970’s people would name their children by choosing empowering characters & symbol, providing that which personality would be lacking.

The second task was choosing representative archetypes with regional characteristics. In the original, the characters were ascribed to the national minority, yet we chose to play with Chinese regional identities instead. One of the characters is a Polish truck driver who has a drinking problem and had lost his kidney when a prostitute drugged him in some gas station, he also has a stutter. When translating his lines, we chose China’s Guangdong accent – apparently, there are many truck drivers there, also many poor people go there to find odd jobs, and during the time of translation, a similar incident had occurred with stolen organs.

The third task was translating all the slang and cursing. “Every 4th word is challenging” – the author warned me in advance. So we had a map of archetypes and we talked to people we knew personally, coming from representative regions – to understand what expressions they use in everyday life, and what swear words are the most popular. Gradually we made the Lithuanian characters become thoroughly Chinese, yet the essence of personal characteristics survived.

Lastly, there were many elements of Lithuanian culture we transformed to culturally familiar ideas: a poster of Jesus in neon lights became a shining Buddha, whereas a basket of apples (common in autumn in any Lithuanian home) became a rice container. We also included lots of metaphors (成语) and local jokes.

The Result.

In the end, the play was presented in a festival as planned and received strong support by the local actors and generated heated discussions in the audience – both for the narrative and for the translation. The author concluded “it was a thoroughly positive experience” and hopes to come back to China in the future.

The Collateral.

Through this collaboration, we learned that anywhere in the world people face the same social issues and tensions, and if we go deeper into the situation, the only difference is the choice of words to express our experience of the situation – the same phenomenon will be described differently in different locations. It is fascinating to see that it applies to business and art just the same.


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