Information Services Office   4.11.2011


Newsletter No. 386 > Thus Spake... > Prof. Laurence Wong, Research Professor, Department of Translation

Prof. Laurence Wong, Research Professor, Department of Translation


You translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. Rumour has it that you taught yourself Italian. Is that true?

No, I first learnt Italian at the University of Hong Kong, then at the Dante Alighieri Society, and finally at Florence University in Italy, where I took courses in Italian language, in Italian literature, and in Dante’s Divine Comedy. After I came back, I kept reading Italian literature, particularly Italian poetry. With a living language, taking courses—particularly courses taught by teachers who are native speakers of the standard form of the language—is much more effective than self-teaching. Taking courses is a dynamic, interactive process, far superior to static self-teaching.

The number of students studying literary translation and literature has been declining. What do you think of that?

It’s a pity. In my school days, many students, especially those of famous government or grant-in-aid schools, took English literature. Your English will never be the same after you have studied great writers like Shakespeare. I was lucky at school, because in Form 6, I had the opportunity to study the works of the masters, including Shakespeare, Milton, and Johnson. Nowadays, fewer and fewer Secondary 6 students are interested in the classics, whether Chinese or English. By way of introduction, I often tell students of literary translation, ‘Literature won’t make you a Li Ka-shing, but once you have studied literature, your spiritual world will never be the same again; you will be able to appreciate God’s glorious Creation much better, and your spiritual life will be richer.’

Besides Italian, you also know French and Spanish, and you write beautiful Chinese and English. Talent aside, how did you become so good at languages?

Even with my Chinese and English, there is still much room for improvement. Looking back on my school days, I am grateful to my alma mater, Queen’s College (QC), which provided me with a balanced exposure to Chinese and English. At Queen’s College, an Anglo-Chinese government school, classes were taught in English, but QC also attached a lot of importance to the teaching of Chinese. My classmates and I took part in Chinese writing contests. I remember winning one in Form 3. The adjudicator was a famous newspaper columnist who was under the impression that QC students were only good at English. Seeing me, he joked, ‘So you’re from Queen’s College. How come you’re not “stir-frying chicken intestines” today?’ (English is sometimes referred to as ‘chicken intestines’ in colloquial Cantonese because of the resemblance of the cursive writing of English to the said offal.) I think interest is important in language acquisition. You also need to read a lot, especially when young.

You have taught at different universities. How do CUHK students compare to students of other institutions?

CUHK students are wonderful; they are la crème de la crème, the best of the best. I have spoken and written about this on more than one occasion, and said that CUHK alumni should be proud of their alma mater for the tremendous progress it has made in the past decades. As a member of CUHK, I share their pride. It is a joy to teach at CUHK.

What was your experience translating Hamlet? Why Hamlet?

Hamlet is fascinating and challenging as a source text; it is Shakespeare’s magic play, enthralling all teachers and students of literature, myself being no exception. I studied the play in one of the courses I took in my undergraduate years. As time went by, I appreciated Shakespeare’s greatness as a poet and playwright more and more. In 2006–07, I taught a translation course which covered drama translation. To show what a translator could do with drama, particularly with the work of the greatest dramatist of all time, I translated Act I, scene i of Hamlet, and discussed my draft with students in class, drawing their attention to pitfalls many translators were not aware of. I finished translating the whole play a couple of years ago. The project was time-consuming but exhilarating.

Could you tell us about your creative projects, in particular, your poetic dramas? Why this particular genre?

In the coming years, apart from academic papers, I shall divide my time between creative writing and translation. I’ve just finished a narrative poem of some 1,300 lines, which is going to appear in a literary magazine soon. Two years ago, I had an eight-act verse play published in the Hong Kong Literature Monthly. Having written so many short pieces during the past decades, I think it’s time to try my hand at something new, especially at narrative poetry and poetic drama. I’ve long been interested in these two genres, perhaps because of the wide range of possibilities they hold out for me—not to mention my deep admiration for Homer, Dante, Milton, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and their fellow Olympians.

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