April 18, 2024
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For Chinese dance student, theatre degree leads to a love for translation

Yangzhou 'Yao' Bian ‘20, MA '22, is pursuing a PhD in the Translation Research and Instruction Program

Yangzhou “Yao” Bian, who earned her master's in theatre in the fall of 2022, dances in a traditional Chinese costume. Yangzhou “Yao” Bian, who earned her master's in theatre in the fall of 2022, dances in a traditional Chinese costume.
Yangzhou “Yao” Bian, who earned her master's in theatre in the fall of 2022, dances in a traditional Chinese costume. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

When Yangzhou “Yao” Bian ‘20, MA ’22, recalls the moment when she fell in love with dance, she says “it felt like fate.”

Bian first stepped on campus at Binghamton University as a business management major in 2011, after graduating from high school in China. Because of a series of health complications, though, she had to drop out and return to China to treat her illnesses.

She returned to the region to pursue an associate degree in singing at SUNY Broome, but her vocal cords suffered due to stress. An instructor advised her to join a dance class to relax and take a break from her vocalist routine.

“I wanted to learn dance, but they didn’t offer many classes [at SUNY Broome] and do not have a dancing major. I found out that Binghamton University has a very strong Theatre Department that teaches a lot of styles of dance,” Bian said. “That’s when I knew I definitely had to transfer.”

At age 23, Bian suffered from self-doubt because of the common narrative that dancers start when they are toddlers, while she had no background in it. She thought of giving up many times.

“It’s like losing a partner or losing a child. It just feels like a part of you is dying,” said Bian, recalling those difficult periods. “Then I would start to get so emotional that I would cry and be unable to sleep. So I forgot about quitting and went back.”

After earning her bachelor’s in 2020 and master’s in fall 2022, both in theatre at Binghamton, she is continuing as a PhD candidate in the Translation Research and Instruction Program (TRIP).

She discovered her passion for translation in her History of Chinese Literature class in fall 2020 with Distinguished Teaching Professor Zu-yan Chen, which sparked her interest in how translation relates to the broader cultural context and how it affects the way the source text is perceived. Chen introduced her to the TRIP graduate certificate program, culminating in her master’s thesis about theater translation.

Chen praised Bian’s passion and commitment during her time in his class, as well as her academic capacity. The final paper was supposed to be 20 pages long, but Bian wrote 61 pages, he remembered.

“This alone convinced me that her motivation for writing this paper was beyond getting a good grade. I believe she has the intellectual capacity and the work ethic to succeed in TRIP’s PhD program,” he said. “In addition, since she is a theatre BA and MA, she may specialize in the theory and practice of Chinese dramatic literature translation, which is a special and unique field.”

Apart from translating other playwrights’ works, Bian also has self-published several plays, including My Green Card Marriage and Bookworm and Butterfly. Her writing passion also comes from a class with now-retired lecturer Kevin Oakes, whom she described as “phenomenal.”

“He introduced a lot of great idiosyncratic plays and playwrights who are his personal favorites, and not only the classics or canon. His argument is: ‘If I cannot make a good connection to the play, then how am I supposed to teach the student to make great connections to it?’” Bian said. “He caters to both the emotional and intellectual pathways.”

Campus’ robust theater community also played a significant role in Bian’s achievements at Binghamton. From directors to scene designers and cast members, everybody became a close-knit family through rehearsals that went to nearly midnight, even during school breaks and weekends, she said. Bian also praises the Theatre Department’s academic community, and how they care about the theater’s social responsibility beyond the page and the stage.

“The professors contributed a lot to my education and also to me becoming a more mature person. They’re all very forgiving with my personal mistakes but also relentless with the academic work we have to do,” she said. “They’re very patient in helping me identify what I did wrong and helped me to grow. With that kind of community and that degree of support, you don’t feel like you are alone.”

Bian’s proudest moment at Binghamton came during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, when she was a cast member in the Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Everybody. Due to social distancing, actors stood in their respective Zoom “squares” and interacted with others in a virtual space. The play was recorded and digitally manipulated to best recreate the in-person theater experience, then streamed online.

“Although I wasn’t in the acting concentration, Director Elizabeth Mozer thought I might be good for the role of Usher/God due to my talkativeness. I was really proud and really upset at the same time, because my parents wouldn’t watch the livestream, although this might be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see me in a play,” Bian said. “They said, ’We are not that good with English, there’s no point wasting time.’ This was before I started translation classes, and my dad joked that if I did the translation, he’d watch it.”

For now, Bian is preparing to print a bilingual cookbook in English and Chinese, instructing readers on how to make dumplings using ingredients available in Binghamton. As a doctoral student in TRIP, her research will focus on translating classic Chinese plays into English versions adaptable for the stage in a way that both shares their legacy and resonates with the here and now.

“I grew attached to translation because I feel the change of the words from one language to another is like a magic trick. To me, translation is not a derivative act, but an individual and independent artistic attempt,” Bian said. “When the audience, the time period when the work is received and the motivation are different, there definitely needs to be a re-imagination of the old work, not to disrespect it, but to make it better understood by new audiences.”