With a Little Help from Our Friends:
Theatre Translation as Self-Writing in Hong Kong from the 1980s to the Present
Shelby K. Y. Chan (Department of Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong)
“Borrowed time, borrowed space”—that’s a familiar phrase to describe colonial Hong Kong. It is still valid after the handover in 1997, as the PRC has promised that Hong Kong will remain virtually unchanged for 50 years. When it comes to writing its self, Hong Kong is also a great borrower. Under the influence of Eastern and Western cultures, yet without a legacy of indigenous history and tradition, Hong Kong has been borrowing languages, cultures, and sometimes even ideologies. However, Hong Kong is not a mere copycat, rather it picks and chooses foreign elements that are suitable for itself. Then, through interpretation and reinterpretation, it converts those elements into parts of its self-identity.
Translation is by nature an act of borrowing, i.e., retelling other’s texts in one’s own language. The selection, translation, and reception of foreign texts provide, consciously or subconsciously, an index of what the self lacks, and eventually what it needs and takes to develop its own subjectivity.
Translation is important and everywhere in Hong Kong, but it is particularly popular in the theatre. Theatre translation has a long tradition and is still the mainstay in the local theatre scene today. Translated plays outnumber original plays and have developed an array of self-writing strategies different from those of original plays. The significance of translation for subjectivity construction could be attributed to the “instant” and “public” dimensions of a theatre text. As an art of “here and now,” each theatrical performance calls for effective delivery of semiotics and immediate reception of the audience, and thus becomes inevitably target-oriented. Theatre translation involves to various degrees replacement of exotic language markers (e.g., slang, dialect, nonsense words, etc.) with their equivalents in the target language, as well as the substitution of a familiar background and reconfigured ideology. As for the Hong Kong situation, theatre translation also evinces affiliation and integration with popular culture. With its proximity to the pulse of the target language community, theatre translation in many ways represents one’s self in the guise of the text of the other.
The paper investigates the development and strategies of theatre translation in Hong Kong from the 1980s to the present, and the role such translations has been playing in reflecting the construction of a Hongkongness or Honkongism. It attempts to provide a new definition of theatre translation, moving beyond traditional concepts of language and culture into subjectivity construction of individuals and communities.