Xiangsheng Translation SLAM!

Beijing contains quite a few bookish people, and many who (like me) find there to be no more comforting place to be than in a bookstore. In China, a bookstore like The Bookworm, in Sanlitun, stocked with the best English and Chinese language books around, is an oasis of sorts from not only the hectic mad-dash lifestyle of Beijing in general but also the drunk frivolity and rampant consumerism within earshot, issuing forth from Beijing’s nearby bar district.

Tonight, as part of the Bookworm’s literary festival, I had a special treat that resulted in somewhat of a clashing of worlds for me. There was a special “translation slam” event, where the piece to be translated was Xiangsheng. Tonight, humor, translation, and Chinese art forms were the matter to be discussed not only in the tiny circle of comedy friends I have, but with the community at large—both foreigner and Chinese alike. Even the meeting of my improv friends and my Xiangsheng friends was a bit of a shock, albeit a pleasant one, as I realized how close I have managed to grow with the community in the last six months.

The presenters were all people I knew; the MC, Canaan Morse, is a fellow student of Master Ding’s—though he has been studying for five years now and is so amazingly fluent at the language as to be the envy of everyone in the room, both myself and the Chinese in the audience included. One of Master Ding’s Chinese students, the 60-something year old Cui Laoshi, had trekked across town to an area he surely visits only rarely, all in order to perform for a packed audience eager to hear real Xiangsheng.

The piece they performed was called 打灯谜, or “Playing at Lantern Riddles.” The piece refers to a cultural practice of saying riddles during the Chinese lantern festival, and then winning prizes from elders for correct answers. An earlier post of mine cited some pieces of the piece when Cui Laoshi and one of his students performed the piece, which includes clever riddles, justifying absurd answers, and making bets on who can guess correctly.

Laughs abounded, sometimes in crashing walls of noise, and sometimes in waves, as confusing plot points played themselves out. Everyone in the audience took in different amounts—even Chinese people often cannot get all the content in a Xiangsheng piece from just one listen through. This created an interesting situation: as a translation event, I think people were expecting to see what would come out on the other (English) end of things, but the original script, while it would appear to be the more fixed of the two products, actually varies quite a bit even from person to person. Language is a form of communication, and communication has two parts: sending and receiving. When you think not of the words that are said by the actors but those that are heard by each individual listener, changes on the receiving end winds up changing the message that is communicated. One hundred people heard one hundred different “original versions”, each one interpreting through their own cultural lens.

Now, for the translations!

The two translators who had agreed to take on the ludicrously difficult task of translating Xiangsheng were both improvisers in the small Beijing improv community. One was Jiefu, or Jeff, a close Chinese friend of mine who performs with me in the Bilingual Improv Group, BIG. The other, Jack, was a member of the Beijing Improv Mainstage Players, the English-language troupe. His Chinese, as was Jeff’s English, was superb; both were really able to take the script and claw into it, trying to mold their English versions into the closest resemblance of its original self that they could. Both spent a good deal of time and energy trying to do justice to the script; after all, the Bookworm literary festival attracts quite a crowd, and Jack himself noted that he had never read anything he translated himself in front of so many people.

Each of the translators did a read-through of their translation with Canaan, and the audience watched as they twisted their way through the poetry and punch-lines.

There seemed to be strange forces at work: some sections were clearly stronger in Jack’s translation: his “few wings short of the flock” was a brilliant parry of the Chinese 缺心眼儿,which means literally “lacks a hole in his heart” but means, or at least seems to imply colloquially, that someone is a bit not all there in the head. But Jeff’s insight into the cultural pieces of Xiangsheng was apparent, and though this script had been chosen specifically to be one that was not the hardest piece to translate, the highlights of Jack’s translation were in more of the delivery, not in the content. That’s not to say Jack’s piece translated the content poorly; rather, Jeff’s translation seemed to keep more of the local flavor, the feel of Chinese people interacting on the street in Beijing, than Jack’s did.

Afterwards, we opened up what we had just seen to a general discussion. I asked the question that if Xiangsheng—as Master Ding chooses to describe it—is a Chinese linguistic and cultural performance art, then was what we had just seen really Xiangsheng? When the language changes, and the punchlines swerve or move completely to accommodate, do we change the nature of the piece at hand?

Jack, at one point, had to (in a Hamlet-esque play-within-a-play moment) act out coming up to Canaan’s door at night to see if he was home. He played up the subtext about calling on another gentleman at night and then saying “Oh, finally you’ve come out” when Canaan answered the door. If Xiangsheng is about Chinese language and culture, then what do we make of this? The words didn’t change… but the subtext makes it completely different in its meaning, and words are only ever a gateway to meaning in the first place. And as for culture, suffice to say that I’ve never heard of any gay tension Xiangsheng, so the piece certainly wasn’t traditional in that sense… was the performance Xiangsheng, or just “sketch comedy” in a larger sense?

Jack, as a translator, had some interesting points on that front. He cited Nabokov’s thoughts on translation, that the art of translating a piece and having it emerge as the same piece in another language is nearly impossible. (My own favorite author, Borges, describes a translated piece as a completely independent piece, though one that can take the original as an inspiration.) In this manner, the translation is still uniquely tied to the original… but it can never be thought of too closely with the original.

Jeff pointed out that what Xiangsheng itself is is also in flux. The Chinese piece Canaan and Cui Laoshi performed tonight for the “control test” would definitely be considered traditional Xiangsheng, but would have been a very odd thing to call Xiangsheng a hundred years ago. Indeed, constant evolution of comedy takes place in China, even though the art form is codified and held up as a point of cultural pride. In the West, comedic styles change constantly as well, but other than for nostalgia’s sake we never seem to note any one style being more legitimate or “funny” than another.

Jeff also noted that that the pieces we performed, whether they were “Xiangsheng” or not, were still funny. The purpose of the piece was clearly translated in both English versions we heard. The sense of humor that drove the core of the piece, Jeff claimed, was clearly universal.

Jack agreed, although with an interesting caveat: while humor itself might be universal, senses of humor are all deeply individual. Jack said that while he had the language skills to do many types of comedy in a bilingual improv setting, the types he likes best—wordplay, quick, snappy jokes—don’t really translate well. If we need to sit and discuss at a literary convention whether they can be translated at all, for the improviser, who is used to getting instant gratification (or derision) for their successes (or failures), whether the wordplay can be translated takes the fun out of it—and, for Jack, means he can’t do bilingual improv the way he likes to do English-language improv.

This sense of humor might also be culturally trained as well. He mentioned that watching comedies with his Chinese partner was an interesting experience. Both of them could get behind Rowan Atkinson’s portrayal of Mr. Bean. Indeed, with no language and an emphasis on physical humor, Mr. Bean plays well everywhere in the world—which I personally don’t take to mean that non-English speakers (for instance, Chinese people) are more “physical comedy heavy” in their sense of humor than others, it’s just that the physical comedy translates easily.

But when the couple watch Blackadder—a British historical comedy featuring Atkinson playing a variety of roles throughout British history—the pieces that are hilarious to Jack and performed by the same actor are harder for his partner to get into. Indeed, Jack noted that one needs a deep historical and cultural knowledge of Britain in order to truly get the humor—which made me perk up because I thought that I liked Blackadder myself, but who knows what I might be missing?

In the end, the specific academic questions on translation and comedy weren’t the takeaway of the night for me. The takeaway was that in Beijing, tonight, there were well over a hundred people who packed themselves into a room for an event that began at 10pm. They ran the gamut of Chinese (and English, for that matter) linguistic fluency from native to novice. They came to laugh and learn together, and the core of the jokes that made them smile and rock back and forth were common and shared.

This isn’t the future. While the event that happened tonight in Beijing might take decades to get to the second, third, or fourth-tier cities in China, nevertheless the jokes and the laughter shared in China, about China, and with China would enthrall audiences wherever they were. Comedy’s ability to bring together the English speaking and Chinese speaking world was on display tonight, and with each laugh that echoed through the room, I could not help but wonder of the good that could be done in creating such bridges of laughter, and in leading people across, one sketch at a time.