Across China: English teacher gives Chinese folk songs a foreign twist

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XI'AN, May 20 (Xinhua) -- Wen Shilong, a college English teacher from the northwestern Chinese city of Yan'an, has become something of a celebrity for singing the local Shaanbei folk songs. Wen does this, not only with a silvery voice and unique charm but with English lyrics translated from regional dialects.

Many locals see the 57-year-old Wen as a devoted preserver of Shaanbei folk songs, an age-old genre that features powerful, usually high-pitched melodies. The songs are also characterized by lively rhythms and bold lyrics that portray the happiness and hardships of life on the loess plateau of Shaanxi Province.

Dropping in one of Wen's English courses at Yan'an Vocational and Technical College, one would often find the veteran teacher dressed in the traditional Tang suit, instructing his students to rehearse English versions of Shaanbei folk songs.

"The students are just crazy about the songs presented in a new form," he said.

Wen's repertoire now comprises more than 100 folk songs which he translates into English, including the famous revolutionary song "Nanniwan," based on the eponymous revolutionary site in Yan'an. It also includes the song "Wild Lily Flowers Blooming with Red Brilliance," which depicts the local natural landscape.

For Wen, there is no greater honor than to introduce his most cherished art to the younger generation and bring it onto the international stage with a creative twist.

"I just hope my translations can help more people know and love Shaanbei folk songs," he said.

Wen started to translate Shaanbei folk songs in 2008 at the behest of a musician friend. An amateur singer and lifelong folk song lover himself, he had doubts about the move at the beginning, nevertheless.

"I thought the translation is tiring and pointless work at that time," he recalled. "Then I remembered the many times that I performed folk songs for my foreign friends, who missed a significant part of the music because of the language barrier. That's why I decided to give it a try."

Much to Wen's surprise, the translation job turned out even more challenging than his original expectation. Shaanbei folk songs employ many metaphors and other rhetorical devices. They are performed in local dialects, making it complicated to keep their original meaning in English already, let alone retaining their unique flavor.

"Translating the folk songs is essentially a multidisciplinary work. One has to simultaneously be a good singer, interpreter, and folklorist to do a decent job," Wen said.

To preserve the original charm of Shaanbei folk songs as much as possible in translation, Wen has used multiple strategies such as literal and interpretive translation and omission and has even tried to integrate the rap style into the music.

To date, Wen has performed his Shaanbei folk songs at many domestic TV programs and concerts. He has also performed in foreign countries, including Turkey, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Wen said his most memorable performance was the one in Australia, where a young Australian girl came up to take a photo with him after the show and told him that she understood the lyrics and liked his version of Chinese folk music.

"At that time, I was even more determined to continue with my translation work and let people across the world understand China through my translations and singing," he said. Enditem

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