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To 逼 or not to 逼?: From V-独白 to “I’ll say it [in 10 dialects], 阴道!”

July 16, 2013

There are a number of things in China that are not spoken in public easily. Chinese speaker Julian Baird Gewirtz, writing for The Huffington Post, did manage to report publicly on his hearing and presumably speaking “a marvelous bilingual pun”:

“To bi or not to bi?”

Gerwitz was at a play written by a woman for English audiences, translated by a man for Chinese audiences. A part of the “crowd on opening night, which was predominantly women, [who] seemed highly excited,” some “college students,” with “[a]most everyone attending the performance … under 30,” he was “the only Caucasian person there.” Gerwitz goes on:

As in the English-language version, the actress Lin Han concluded one of her pieces by chanting the word “bi” over and over again, zealously calling on the largely female audience to do the same. But from this Beiing crowd, a few male voices yelled out the word once; not a single female voice could be heard…. As I talked to some Chinese young men and women after the show, they seemed undecided. “It was very challenging for me to hear that word [bi] said by a woman,” said one young woman. “Men use it, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a woman say it before.”

For his English-reading Huffington Post audience, the reporter translates:  “the word “bi” [is] a vulgar slang term for the female genitalia.” He goes on to report how, with no apologies either to Mr. William Shakespeare or to Ms. Eve Ensler, Mr. Wang Chong has radically played on Hamlet’s opener and has rendered The Vagina Monologues as simply The V Monologues or, officially, “‘V独白’ (V-dubai).” Here’s the fuller report of what took place on that March 11, 2009.

(Time magazine’s Emily Rauhala followed up also to recall that this really was not the first attempt in China to translate and to show the play; she suggests that it was the unspeakable word in question that, in 2004, led to failures of tries at official runs of the play for Chinese audiences.  The Chinese entry on the play in Wikipedia gives some of the history and maintains a link to the Wang Chong online public announcement, which is a bilingual program.)

Another Chinese speaker, writing for The New York Times, has today reported on something similar. Didi Kirsten Tatlow has told of the play “Our Vaginas, Ourselves” which has shown since January 2013 “about 10 times in Beijing, Tianjin and Xiamen.”  She explains how the “English title… makes reference to the feminist classic ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ — its Chinese title translates as ‘The Way of the Vagina’.” Tatlow quotes the play’s producer to summarize it:

Of the play’s 11 scenes, eight consist of original material, while two are Chinese translations of excerpts from Ms. Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” and one is from an earlier Chinese play inspired by the American play, Ms. [Hang] Ji said.

And she describes the very opening scene:

“I’ll say it: vagina!” two actresses, called A and B, say in Mandarin, on a stage with minimal props.

“I’ll say it in the Shanxi dialect: vagina,” B says. “In the Wenzhou dialect: vagina,” A says.

Then it’s the Hubei dialect, and so on until they have uttered the word in 10 dialects, the audience reacting with delight to the shock of the familiar, yet rarely heard word, spoken in their hometown tongues.

Now, the NYT reporter is writing this for English reading audiences. Chinese readers would likely see this as 阴道! Quite a start to any play in any language!

(These reports, written by Chinese speakers for English readers, suggest that translations — and even the originals too — hardly get at all the play. There is “trans-cultural” and “bi-lingual” and [what Mikhail Epstein might call] “inter-lational” play here. There is feminist play that encroaches on the male domains, in both the West and in China. It some reminds me of an internet youtube version of A Chinese Girl’s Vagina Monologues Presentation In University. Some plays must be experienced, and read, and read, and heard. It’s all very complex, except for people like Didi Kirsten Tatlow and Julian Baird Gewirtz, who seem to live [what Pearl S. Buck called] mentally bi-focal.  UPDATE: I meant to include this link to bilingual reporter Eric Abrahamsen‘s post, “The Unspeakable Bi,” as if that might help some readers here with what the audience of V独白 was struggling to say.)

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