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Teacher preserves folk song charm in English

Xinhua | Updated: 2021-06-16 08:03

XI'AN - In the northwestern city of Yan'an, college teacher Wen Shilong has become somewhat of a celebrity for singing local Shaanbei folk songs. Not only does Wen sing them in a silvery voice and unique charm, but the English teacher also sings them in English with the lyrics translated from regional dialects.

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

In Wen's English classes at Yan'an Vocational and Technical College, the veteran teacher is often dressed in traditional Tang clothing, 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 says.

Wen's repertoire now comprises more than 100 folk songs that he has translated into English. This includes 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, depicting 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 says.

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

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

Much to Wen's surprise, the translations turned out to be even more challenging than he initially expected. Shaanbei folk songs employ many metaphors and other rhetorical styles. They are performed in local dialects, making it complicated to keep their original meaning in English already, let alone retain their charm.

"Translating folk songs is essentially a multidisciplinary work. One has to be a good singer, interpreter and folklorist all at once to do a decent job," Wen says.

To preserve the original charm of Shaanbei folk songs as much as possible during the translation process, Wen employs several methods such as literal and interpretive translation and omission, and has even tried to integrate a rap style into the music.

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

Wen's most memorable performance was in Australia, where a young Australian girl came up to take a photo with him after the show. She 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 says.

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