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Meet The Author: Nancy Pellegrini

nanciBW: For those of us who will be meeting you for the first time at this book talk, could you briefly introduce yourself? What first brought you to China and what do you do here?

NP: My name is Nancy Pellegrini; I came to China from New York in 2000. I had done some cultural writing on Korea when I lived there, and I had hoped to do the same in China, to stay four years or so, and then to go somewhere else. But I found China so rich and so complex – in a good way – that I didn’t want to leave. Then in 2005, I became stage editor of Time Out Beijing magazine. Five years later, Time Out Shanghai opened, and I took the same position there, covering theatre, dance, classical music and opera events in both cities. I had been involved the arts my entire life, and now I was getting paid to write about them – I couldn’t believe my luck. The job also gives me a lot of freedom to do other writing and editing work, as well as to travel and to run a classical music salon, so it’s a good setup for me.

BW: The link between Shakespeare and China may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer. Where did the inspiration for your book come from? 

NP: I’ve seen Shakespeare plays here over the years, and I had already written an article on the translator Zhu Shenghao, whose depth of sacrifice is still staggering to me – and to everyone else. It was always at the back of my mind, but really, it was simple curiosity at first; the topic sounded interesting. But when I started researching, and I realised how much effort so many Chinese put into learning, performing or understanding Shakespeare, it was humbling. We always hear that Shakespeare is universal, but I didn’t truly understand that until I learned about Shakespeare in China.

BW: The prospect of gathering information on a writer as prolific as Shakespeare, and his impact on a country as large and diverse as China, seems like a daunting task. How did you go about gathering your research for this book? 

NP: Well, while there are millions of books written on Shakespeare, the field of Shakespeare in China is much narrower, and that’s where my focus lay. I started by reading academic-style books on Shakespeare in Chinaand taking detailed notes, to set up a structure. Then I started doing interviews with professors and theatre practitioners, both foreign and Chinese, so I could build on what I wrote, and so I could use their voices (more interesting than mine) to make the story come alive. I only had about four months to research and write, so it was a lot of work, but fortunately for me, Penguin Specials can’t be more than 25,000 words, so at least I had an achievable goal.

BW: Shakespeare’s works can be hard to understand even for native English speakers! What were some of the biggest challenges facing Chinese translators of his works?

 NP: Translation is incredibly difficult. For starters, the language is completely different;iambic pentameter doesn’t work in Chinese, although some translators tried to recreate the pattern using groups of syllables (yinzu) and pauses (dun), or to work in verse rather than prose. Then there are the cultural references to the Bible and Greek mythology, which are hard to explain, and the fact that even things like the sun and the moon symbolise different things in the East and West. For example, Shakespeare always felt the sun was about strength and consistency, but the changing moon is less dependable – Juliet calls it “the inconstant moon.” Furthermore, scholars here will say that reference materials are not always available, and directors and actors will say that even translations that work on the page don’t always work on the stage – that they’re beautiful to read but difficult to say.

BW: How is the story of Shakespeare in China different from that of other non-English-speaking countries? What makes this relationship particularly interesting?

NP: In terms of Shakespeare interpretations, they vary widely. For example, I heard about an anthropologist in Africa who told the story of Hamlet to some tribal leaders. They were confused – why did Gertrude wait so long to marry her husband’s brother? Why was Hamlet so angry, after his uncle was so kind to him? Another example I read was about Romeo and Juliet in Japan – we see their deaths as the definition of wasted lives and youthful tragedy, but the Japanese felt that ritual suicide was the only option they had. But in terms of a relationship, one reason that Shakespeare spread so far was because of British colonialism(in India and other former British territories), or by love of literature and drama (in Germany and particularly Russia). What I found interesting about Shakespeare in China is that his popularity peaks coincided with drastic political change, particularly in the 1900s to 1920s (the transition from feudalism to modern society), the 1950s (the advent of New China) and the 1980s (reform and opening up). Now, there may be a revival, as China becomes a superpower, and there are serious efforts to link Shakespeare with Tang Xianzu, the Chinese playwright who died the same year. That might give new life to both of them.

BW: You released this book to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. What impact does the Bard continue to have on China today?

NP: I mentioned the linkage with Tang Xianzu already; also, there is also a massive collaborative translation project underway between the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre, which will hopefully create more actor-friendly scripts, and in turn increase the number of productions. But what’s really surprising is the depth of feeling. For example, students start drama clubs in universities where they perform Shakespeare for fun – and some don’t even perform, they just sit around on weekends and read the plays together. And at my last book talk in Chengdu, there were fourteen-year-olds in the audience, without parents, without a class assignment, just because they loved Shakespeare. I can’t imagine that happening in the West.And hopefully the combination of more foreign groups bringing Shakespeare in, and new translations leading to more local plays, even at a university level, the Bard will be even bigger.

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