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  • Lutes Abroad:Translations, Productions, and Derivations of Pipa ji in Western Languages
  • Josh Stenberg

Despite considerable interest in Chinese drama and performance abroad, barriers of language and geography have tended to limit the degree to which any given Chinese narrative has flourished outside China. There has been, however, a great deal more of such travel than is usually recognized, and that is partly because such transmission and translation has been sporadic across languages and eras. This research note seeks to marshal in one place some information on lesser-known foreign adaptations of Pipa ji 琵琶記 (The Lute). Since this note is intended to be useful for those interested in the history of this narrative abroad, I have included information not only on some littleknown adaptations, but also seldom-consulted sources of reception for the two bestknown non-Chinese iterations of the narrative, Bazin's French translation of 1841 and the 1930 (premiere)/1946 (Broadway musical) American adaptation Lute Song. As a major text of the Chinese dramatic canon as well as a persistent element of xiqu repertoire in numerous genres, understanding the translations and metamorphoses of Pipa ji is likely to remain an area of lively interest in our field.

With the last major production of Lute Song occurring in 1989, it has proven impracticable to attempt to limit this survey at a certain date, but the materials being both interesting and otherwise inaccessible, I thought it useful to include them. Likewise, it seemed probable that the recording history of Lute Song's most famous song, "Mountain High, Valley Low" might surprise and entertain some CHINOPERL readers. On the other hand, I have made no effort to catalogue other post-war translations of Pipa ji, which are relatively recent and widely accessible, let alone give an account of Sinological Western scholarship about the play or its productions. Finally, I have made one exception to the "Western languages" of the title by including brief mention of a Dutch East Indies Malay text, because it derives from an English-language intermediary text, and because I happen to have information respecting it. On the other hand, I have no competence in other languages where adaptations may have occurred (Japanese,1 Korean, Vietnamese), and this note has no pretensions to completeness. [End Page 68]

Bazin's Pi-pa-ki (1841) and its Reception

Antoine-Pierre-Louis Bazin (1799–1862) was a leading French Sinologist in the midnineteenth century. From 1843, he occupied the first chair for modern Chinese language at École spéciale des langues orientales (the forerunner of Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales [INALCO]), France's premier institution for the study of Asia (Kaske 72; Fabre, "Paris et la langue chinoise en 1867" 75–88; Fabre, "La sinologie" 97–123; Julien 181–182).2 Translation of drama was a major area for French Sinologists of the period, perhaps because of the high status of Western drama as well as the "relatively … easy accessibility of the texts" (Idema, "Why You Have Never Read a Yuan Drama" 767). Bazin was not the first French translator to take an interest in Chinese drama; the 1731 translation of Zhao-shi gu'er 趙氏孤兒 (The Orphan of Zhao) by Abbé Prémare (1666–1736), famously adapted by Voltaire, likely remains, despite its shortcomings, the most influential French version of a Chinese dramatic text. After that, almost a century had gone by without a translation from Chinese drama until Bazin's teacher Stanislas Julien (1797–1873) in 1832 produced a version of Huilan ji 灰闌記 (The Chalk Circle) and a more complete translation of Zhaoshi gu'er (1834).3

Bazin began his contributions to drama translation with his 1838 work Théâtre chinois, offering translations of four Yuan zaju plays as well as a scholarly preface introducing Chinese theater which, almost fifty years later, was still deemed to have "presented to European readers … the best sketch and illustrations of Chinese theatre as yet published" (Posnett, "The Chinese Drama" 199). It was three years after Théâtre chinois, in 1841, that Bazin published his version of Pipa ji, constituting the first translation of any longer Chinese (i.e., nanxi/chuanqi rather than zaju) drama into a European language...


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