The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Footfalls to脚步声Jiăobù shēng: Translation of Rhythm Through Syntactic and Syllabic Structures from English to Chinese in the Work of Samuel Beckett

Footfalls to脚步声Jiăobù shēng: Translation of Rhythm Through Syntactic and Syllabic Structures from English to Chinese in the Work of Samuel Beckett

By Logan Sander

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, translation of Western works flourished in China, including those of Samuel Beckett. Western scholars have harshly criticized the translations and their attitude toward adaptations of Beckett’s work in China has largely been unenthusiastic. Furthermore, almost no scholarly study has been done on these translations of Beckett’s work, leaving a gap in the study not only of Beckett in China, but also of current methods of translation of Western works into Chinese. This study aims to demonstrate that within the vastly different sociopolitical and cultural context, Chinese and Taiwanese translators have been able to use their own language and culture to express and create meaning from Beckett’s work, thus giving it a new life. Similarly, Beckett himself took many artistic liberties when translating his own work from English to French and vice-versa, translating not only language, but cultural elements as well. This study aims to show how, through their different translations of Footfalls, Liu Aiying and Stan Lai use specific structures and characteristics of the Chinese language—specifically rhythmic tendencies—to express themes and effects of Beckett’s original language. While they cannot attempt to mimic exact linguistic and structural characteristics because of unavoidable genealogical differences in language, they translate key characteristics with nuance and astuteness, devising ways of expressing similar phenomena through inherently Chinese linguistic and cultural structures. This occurrence is not limited to Beckett, but Footfalls provides an ideal model for the study of the translation of structural, formal elements across vastly different languages because of its distinct emphasis on rhythm and other formal elements. Researching and analyzing works deriving from different traditions and discourses of translation, especially those not part of the dominant Western tradition, can serve to broaden the scope of comparative literature and translation studies.


The translated title of Beckett’s Footfalls might just be more apt, or at least more direct, than the original: 脚步声Jiăobù shēng. It does lose the two-syllable, alliterative rhythm of “footfalls,” but, translated literally as “pace sound” or “step sound” (“脚步 jiăobù” and ”shēng”), it captures the nuanced distinction that the English merely hints at between footsteps and footfalls: the latter is limited to the sound of feet falling while the former is not. “脚步声,” the most direct translation of “footfalls,” rhythmically separates the word into the common Chinese 1+1 morpheme pairing of脚步jiăobù and the single morpheme声shēng, (as is also shown in the spacing of the pinyin transliteration: jiăobù shēng), placing emphasis on sound of footsteps. Perhaps Beckett would stray away from such a literal reference in favor of a more ambiguous and alliterative one, but the Chinese title nonetheless underlines a crucial element of this brief play, as well as a complication that arises when thinking about translation of sound and, in turn, rhythm. While it is true that footfalls do not necessarily need to be rhythmic, it is precisely the sound of footfalls that gives rhythm to the play, with the only movement in the piece provided by the sole character May pacing back and forth, sometimes even counting: “[Pause. M resumes pacing. Four lengths. After first length, synchronous with steps.] One two three four five six seven wheel one two three four five six seven wheel”[1] (“Footfalls” 239).

In 2016, the Hunan Literature and Art House published, for the first time, a comprehensive eight-volume collection of the works of Samuel Beckett; the collection includes works from those well known in China, such as Waiting for Godot, 等待戈多 Děngdài gēduō, (1965), to works only this publishing house had officially published once before, including the short play Footfalls, 脚步声Jiăobù shēng.[2] This massive undertaking follows a complicated and slow appearance of Beckett in China, beleaguered by political agendas and governmental control throughout its roughly 50-year history—and Western scholars have harshly criticized the translations and reception of Beckett that resulted. While these criticisms have continued, this study focuses on how the structures and characteristics of the Chinese language can attain and even embrace meaning in Beckett’s work—in this case, rhythmic meaning. Critical focus thus shifts from what is lost—and arguably impossible to ever attain—in failing to exactly mirror formal elements of Beckett’s original English, to what is gained when the question is not how Chinese can somehow emulate Beckett’s original language, but how formal elements of the Chinese language can convey meaning in Beckett’s work—in other words, how the Chinese language can embrace Beckett.

Of all of Beckett’s works that have been translated into Chinese, Footfalls (1976) especially emphasizes the process of translating rhythm. Beckett experiments as much with form as with content in many of his works, Footfalls plays particularly with the interaction of form and content, visuality and aurality, and rhythm in sound and in words. The Grove Companion quite concisely explains the distinctive use of sound and rhythm in the mere half-hour-long play:

Footfalls, featuring an aged pacing woman in tattered nightwear, is divided into four parts, each separated by chimes, which grow fainter in each sounding. [Samuel Beckett] intended a musical conception, and his opening to the Royal Court production featured the sound of footfalls in the aftermath of the chimes…[his] intention was to dramatize deterioration with visual and aural diminuendo” (Ackerley 201).

The play is indeed a piece of music, as scholars have noted since its first performance in 1976 (Worth, “Review”). But why is it seen and heard as “musical”? Set to a rhythm of four chimes, nine footsteps back and forth, and an array of syllabic and phrasal repetitions, it is a musical score full of rhythmic interplay and syncopation, rests, and recurring thematic phrases; it is an orchestration of numerous elements. In fact, in Beckett’s own manuscript notes, he draws the play first and foremost as a musical score, with horizontal lines labeled with letters (A, B, C, D…) and black circles resting at intermittent points on the lines, each representing a spoken line coordinated with a footfall (The Theatrical Notebooks 298-9) (see figure 1). The notes for “pacing” specify numbers and lengths, and he uses words such as “diminuendo” to describe the progression of the chimes (303).

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Figure 1: Beckett’s musical conception of Footfalls from The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett: The Shorter Plays (298-9)

It is the intricacy between rhythmic accord and syncopation and between regularity and deterioration in both form and content that makes this play a particular example of form—and form’s interaction with narrative—being just as, if not more important than, the narrative content.

Footfalls, void of context and even of much linear narrative, makes us all the more aware of every rhythm, of every relationship, and the meaning they convey:

“…by being deprived of so much we were made to concentrate hard on what we had; words, cadences, the relation of things heard to things seen: we were brought to a state of hyper-sensitivity which made possible perception of an order rare in theatre…We did in a way need to listen as to music, to catch the fine nuances of sound that carried so much dramatic meaning; changes of timbre, the length of a silence, the weight of a footfall” (Worth, “Review Article”).

Beckett’s minimalist tendencies seemingly give us little to work with—a stage in darkness save a rectangle of light, and the main role, May, pacing while talking to her unseen mother—but they actually create a void in which every word, every sound, and every rhythm suddenly becomes conspicuous and full of meaning, whatever language those rhythms are in. Meaning is not only derived from rhythms, but in this case, is actually dependent on it.

And since ideally content and form work together as complements, preserving that balance across languages presents particular difficulties, especially when considering the delicate intertwining of narrative and rhythm in Footfalls. Admittedly, the issue of translation in Beckett’s works is always complicated. Beckett himself confessed that his works are “a mess,” and that “mess” is even more apparent when they are translated even between European languages (Brater 133). Moreover, Beckett’s own history as a bilingual writer raises questions about “the very act and purpose of translation itself” in his works (130) because his own translations often made significant changes in content and form. Thus Beckett’s work is particularly difficult to translate into any language—even to linguistically similar languages such as French, where formal elements like rhythm can often be preserved or even enhanced. [3]  How, then, does one approach translation of a work with such a delicate balance and intertwining of form and meaning? Translation itself is a game of “trying to preserve fidelity to a variety of things at once: meaning, rhythm, rhyme, register, and holistic life of a phrase” (Link 26-27). In Beckett’s Footfalls, each of these elements—especially rhythm—is in an especially precarious position.

While translating between related languages is already difficult, in a genealogically distinct language from English, such as Chinese, the situation is even trickier; differences in grammar and tonality set the two apart more so than, say, English and French. And while this implies difficulty in translating rhythm patterns of spoken theater such as Footfalls, Chinese’s “distinct rhythmic flexibility” (Link 37) also opens up possibilities and liberties even more boundless than the ones Beckett took in his own translations between English and French.

This paper aims to formally analyze rhythmic aspects of the Chinese translation of Footfalls by Liu Aiying (刘爱英), one of the few editions officially in print after a slow and gradual appearance of Beckett in Chinese theater over the past 50 years.[4] In 脚步声 Jiăobù shēng, Liu Aiying’s translation of Footfalls, a work in which rhythmic meaning takes on as much, if not more, significance than the narrative content’s meaning alone, particular rhythmic structure and tendencies of Chinese both limit and expand rhythmic meaning. In order to contextualize the importance of this translation of Footfalls into Chinese, I will first provide a brief summary of modern drama in China as well as Beckett’s reception in China. Then, as a framework for analyzing the relevant rhythmic elements of Chinese in脚步声, I will foreground some basic structures of Chinese rhythmic patterns from scholars such as Perry Link and Cao Jianfen, which will serve as reference throughout the course of this paper. Finally, I will turn to the play and its translation. Specifically, I will do so through textual analysis of four levels of rhythm that are crucial in Footfalls and thus脚步声, from macro- to micro-scale: 1) Overall musicality and framework, 2) the pacing and steps throughout the dialogue and how they interact with language, 3) the repetition of linguistic phrases and rhythms, or echoes, and 4) syllabic-level alliteration, stress, and momentum. Although the scope of this paper is largely confined to textual[5] analysis of a single translation, in conclusion, I will provide brief analysis of an earlier, performed but unpublished translation (1988) by Stan Lai (賴聲川) in Taiwan in order to provide a counterpoint for artistic liberty in translation as it relates to rhythm.

Although there exists no dearth of translation studies, and balancing form and meaning has likewise long been an issue, this particular study aims to focus on how the “untranslatable”—unavoidable linguistic constraints in form—shapes meaning across language. This phenomenon is by no means limited to Beckett’s works, but Footfalls provides an ideal case study: its short, but rich text employs complex interactions between rhythm and meaning even in English alone, and is relatively young in its translations in China—allowing for vastly different translations and artistic liberties.

In studying these translations, it is easy to criticize the ways in which they fail to mirror all of the artful nuances of the original—an impossible task for any translator. What this study aims to do, however, is to emphasize not solely what is lost, what is gained when Beckett’s work is translated into Chinese.

Beckett in China — The Historical Backdrop

The translation used in this study is by Liu Aiying from the new collection of Beckett’s works in Chinese published in 2016, a tremendous feat when one considers the problematic, complicated, and—although relatively short—slow history of Beckett’s dissemination into China; problematic because the first translation of Beckett was for the purpose of government propaganda, complicated because the effects of that first translation are still influencing critical response today, and slow because it is only very recently that many of his lesser-known works have been officially published or performed. In order to understand this context, we must begin at the crucial change in modern Chinese drama itself.

Modern Chinese drama stems from a history of conflict, not just of politics and culture, but also of the very form of theater itself. At the crossroads between the traditional operatic drama and spoken drama, literally “old drama” (旧剧jiùjù) and “new drama” (新剧xīnjù) respectively, the impetus for a change in form lies within politics; as Xiaomei Chen writes in the introduction to The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Drama, this new theater “imitated Western modern drama in reaction against its own traditions…thereby placing new drama squarely in the construction of a new Chinese national identity” (3).  In the early twentieth century, China’s “modern spoken drama” began to form as a genre, centering from the beginning around socially and politically engaged topics as “an argument against Confucian tradition…” (3) Before 1900, any Chinese drama was musical drama, and thus the shift to “new drama” focused on a more realist portrayal was a significant change; in many ways Beckett actually echoes the musical drama, with its focus on form and aural elements over realism.[6]

China’s own modern drama would continue to grow and change in content and form, and with it came an increase in translations of Western drama. This history, however, is complicated due to heavy censorship and the Cultural Revolution; in 1962, the Central Committee of the Communist Party issues “Issues Concerning the Current Status of Literature and Arts” in which they decided to lift the ban on much Western drama and literature, but only for the purpose of studying such works to “expose them only as negative examples” (Lin 415). They were translated by Party-approved translators and distributed to scholars solely for the purpose of exposing them as examples of decadent Western bourgeoisie writing, and among the works translated for the first time was Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (Original French, 1952) in 1965 by Shi Xianrong. This translation, however, was marked as one of the “internal publications” or “yellow books” because of its problematic content and was inaccessible to ordinary readers. (415) Even after the Cultural Revolution and a few more of Beckett’s works were published in compilations designated as “Foreign Literature” (Endgame (1981), Happy Days (1981)), the criticism of his works in China continued to be largely negative, “lament[ing] the hopeless tone underlying Beckett’s plays and [aligning] the deplorable human conditions in his plays to those in the Western world” (416). One critic even went so far as to say that Waiting for Godot “is opaque and even harmful to prevent the people from knowing and reforming the world,” echoing the highly politicized purpose theater had developed in China (417).

Many Western analyses of Beckett in China see this negative outlook solely as a flaw in China’s reception of Beckett and as a “dire misunderstanding” (415), which is problematic not only in assuming that these critics represent China, but also in privileging Western ingrained knowledge of Beckett as the “proper” reception.[7] For example, in “The Chinese Response to Samuel Beckett,” Lidan Lin and Helong Zhang write that these Chinese criticisms of Beckett “show that while these critics took note of obvious elements of the play, they missed its more nuanced positive implications that point to Beckett’s new universal humanism…[which is] to miss the important implications in the play” (417). Even more jarring is Lie Jianxi and Mike Ingham’s chapter in International Reception of Samuel Beckett in which they state that [there] “is no excuse for the Chinese critical shallowness” and that “had the Chinese directors been adequately knowledgeable in [Western critical] respects…they would not have been so simplistic in their approaches to Godot” (138). This is problematic not only in its arrogant assumptions that there is a proper “understanding” and thus “misunderstanding” of Beckett’s work based upon Western critical knowledge, but also in its ironic ignorance of the bare bones of humanity that Beckett lays out in his drama—implying that there is something in his works that touches us all as human beings, not through extensive critical studying but through experience of the plays themselves. Critics have even belittled Chinese productions of Beckett as mere “vehicles” for “aesthetic and ideological agendas” (137).

Furthermore, academics have particularly criticized aspects of translation of rhythm in Beckett. Lie and Ingham give an example of such a conflict in a translation of Godot, in which the “music-hall patter” in an exchange between Vladimir and Estragon depends on the ordering and connotation of the words “pantomime,” “music-hall,” and “circus.” In the original Chinese translation, these words not only lose their “low-brow” connotation (哑剧yǎjù, 马戏团mǎxì tuán, 音乐厅yīnyuè tīng), but also change their placement in the dialogue because of syntactical differences in Chinese, thus changing the rhythm and pattern. (Lie 139) It is possible that these words were chosen because they are more reminiscent of Western entertainment concepts (in keeping with a Western play). If the order of the words in each sentence could have been arranged to preserve the relationship and transitions between them, or arranged within Chinese syntactical constraints with a consciousness of the rhythmic meaning the author wants to convey, a different effect might be achieved. These kinds of differences play an even more important role in Footfalls and Beckett’s other short plays, where rhythm and patterns constitute the pieces themselves.

It is true that Chinese directors, in their study and performance of Beckett’s dramatic works, have often politicized the plays, but in lieu of Western-centric assumptions and in acknowledgement of the highly politicized history of theater in China, rather than assume “misunderstanding,” I propose using the politicization and specific conditions of translation of Beckett’s work to inform a study not only of how China uses Beckett but also of what Chinese usage of Beckett can tell us about Beckett’s work: in this case, how Chinese language itself conveys and even enhances rhythmic meaning on its own terms—not just in attempted imitation of the original work’s linguistic elements.

The translation of Footfalls studied in this paper is new, and farther away in time from much of the politicized work criticized in the past 50 years, but some aspects are bound to have continuing effect, even up to this 2016 translation, not the least of which is the language itself. Given the drastic shift in the 20th century from classical to modern, vernacular Chinese, it is surprising that some elements have heartily persisted; Edward Gunn, in a review of Link’s book, affirms that rhythm is one of them: “…features of modern Chinese—rhythm and metaphor—[…] have remained relatively or completely unaffected by change” (354).  In acknowledging the cultural and political implications of rhythms in the Chinese language, as Link elaborates on at length, we can use these implications to better inform our study of the work itself. Rather than viewing changes in rhythm solely as a flaw in translation, these so-called “missteps” can teach us about Chinese culture and context. They can also tell us equally as much about the original text itself and how it lends itself to be translated and used—just as linguistic rhythms in Chinese, as opposed to adherence to English linguistic rhythms, can give depth and meaning to Footfalls.

Intrinsic Rhythm Patterns in Chinese — The basics

Translating rhythms across any language presents difficulties, but the rhythms of Chinese make it hard to translate anything “directly” from English as one might from French, forcing us to examine the rhythmic differences in inherent Chinese. Syllables and stress patterns create distinctive rhythmic pattern differences across languages, which as Perry Link argues in An Anatomy of Chinese, derive not only from human inclinations toward certain rhythm patterns but also from language itself; in other words, rhythm in language is not just universal, but also specific to language and culture: “That the rhythms emerge from the syllabic patterns of the language, and not just from its meanings, is evident when one compares English translations of the same lines…” (25).

In order to understand the basic rhythmic tendencies identified in spoken and written Chinese, we must first identify what these patterns are. There are rhythmic preferences—both intentional and not—in the Chinese language, but the question remains: “Do rhythms have meanings?” While their standalone meaning is debatable, a place to start is the function of rhythms, and ultimately how such functions can lead to meaning. (82) Link discusses a few main functions of rhythm, and, for the purposes of this paper, the most important among them are 1) signaling human language, or humanity, as opposed to mechanical language, 2) making distinctions between various meanings of the same phrase, 3) coordinating human activity, and 4) aiding both personal and community or cultural memory (83-84). Furthermore, other scholars, such as Wayne Schlepp and Cao Jianfen, do more fully address the more complicated oral aspects of rhythm in the Chinese language, and also find patterns in syllables and stress.

The rest of this paper will mainly address textual rhythm, keeping in mind known spoken linguistic patterns and rhythms, but not assuming to encompass the variety and differentiations that come with the oral tradition. Theater is indeed part of an oral tradition, but this paper intends to first provide a textual foundation for further study. Thus, I will limit my analysis to the text rather than videos of performances. Performance, at any rate, straddles the line between oral and written art—it is meant to be heard and seen, but is nonetheless written as a script.

Regardless of these limitations, scholars do agree that basic metric features of the Chinese language lend itself to rhythms; In “A Note on the Function of Tone Patterns in Chinese Verse,” Wayne Schlepp discusses how the accents, syllables, and stresses work within the metric patterns of Chinese, in this case the “/ x o / x o / …” pattern which forms in pairs of syllables: “It is the abundance of verse from all periods with just such an arrangement of beats that allows one to assume the priority of a stress based [sic] meter over one based upon tones. This metric system allows a variety of rhythms to be imposed upon it” (607). In other words, the Chinese metric system is a conduit for rhythm based upon beats in conjunction with tones—the shortness of a fourth tone may produce a very different rhythm than the elongated first tone. Whether that makes Chinese “unique” is another complicated question, but this does show that the linguistic properties convey rhythms along with tones, and thus it is useful to examine the language’s rhythm even in only linguistic structural form.

Furthermore, there are specific rhythmic tendencies that occur both intentionally and unintentionally in Chinese literature, politics, and everyday language alike—脚步声 being no exception. In “The Rhythm of Mandarin Chinese,” Cao Jianfen conducts a linguistic study of rhythm in spoken Chinese, but introduces her study by explaining just how complicated the definition of rhythm is:

As a part of the prosody of a language, speech rhythm is not easy to define, because it usually interacts with other prosodic constituents in speech flow. One can define it from different points of view. Consequently, the existing definitions of rhythm are manifold and controversial. Functionally, rhythmic organization is a chunking strategy concerned with both speech production and perception. (53).

While I acknowledge the complicated nature of defining rhythm, or the purposes of this paper, I will use this “chunking strategy” as a basis, looking at how syntax and grammar both detract from and enhance meaning in 脚步声. I will analyze instances of overall phrasal parallelism, 2+2 morpheme pairings, and other language patterns such as general four-character units, among them成语 chéngyǔ, all of which span literature, politics, and everyday language in Chinese. To use one of Link’s examples, the following phrase serves as a model of the patterns I will be looking at in 脚步声: “一花一草接生命,一枝一叶总关情,” or as he translates it, “every flower and every blade of grass is life, care for every branch and leaf” (35). Here, the parallelism between phrases, both of 7-morpheme 七言 qīyán, match each other with the alternating “一” as well as the 2-2-3 groupings and end-rhyme of 命mìng and 情qíng. In addition, while the actual number of syllables is 7, the pause at the end of each七言phrase almost imply an 8th syllable, in keeping with more general patterns of balance and pairings of 2+2 and 4 syllables. Breakdowns such as this one are crucial to how Chinese language rhythms both confine and expand the meaning and function of rhythm in 脚步声

Music and Composition — Extralinguistic and linguistic elements at play in translation of Footfalls

 Beckett, a man of many mediums, in addition to writing plays also experimented in radio, television, and film throughout the course of his lifetime. Although he never wrote music in the conventional sense, many of his works have distinct musical and rhythmic patterns. In fact, in 1976 when he was working on rehearsals for Footfalls, he was also engaged in productions of Words and Music (Worth 133), a radio play for which his cousin wrote the score (Doran). Certain aspects of Footfalls in particular hold a musical quality; the previously discussed musical nature of the performance and stage directions, or the “score,” surely set it up to be read that way. But individual musical and aural elements—sounds—in the piece create a rhythm that drives Footfalls as a musical composition. The four chimes separate the piece into movements, each successive chime “a little fainter” (Footfalls 240), or in the musical term Beckett writes in his notes, they are a “diminuendo” (The Theatrical Notebooks 303). In his personal notes, however, he actually includes an entire list underneath the underlined heading of “diminuendo,” including the chimes, the “fade-ups,” the “3 pacings,” “voices,” and even “M’s semblance (more tattered)?”.

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Figure 2: Layers of “Diminuendo” in Footfalls from The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett: The Shorter Plays (302-3)

Diminuendo is defined as “decrescendo” (“Diminuendo”) which in turn is “a gradual decrease in volume of a musical passage”[8] (“Decrescendo), but Beckett’s short list complicates that definition by adding many layers of diminuendo: sound (chimes), visual (lighting), speed (pacing), linguistic (voices), and character (“semblance”).

Here Beckett touches on a nuance not usually made explicit: that the rhythm in this piece—the diminuendo—is created not only through sound effects like chimes, but also through other means, the most important for the purposes of this paper being the linguistic rhythm. Extralinguistic rhythm structures take on meaning just as the phrases of music might, as Katharine Worth observed when she reviewed the first performance of Footfalls: “We did in a way need to listen as to music, to catch the fine nuances of sound that carried so much dramatic meaning; changes of timbre, the length of a silence, the weight of a footfall” (“Review Article”).

But is linguistic rhythm meaningful? Although words themselves obviously contain meaning, do their rhythm also convey meaning on its own, independent of content meaning? Link uses function as base to understand rhythmic meaning, but some scholars argue that rhythm is meaningful in itself; Haun Saussy, in The Ethnography of Rhythm: Orality and Its Technologies, argues that Shijing poems use balance and rhythm not just in conjunction with content but as content in itself:

Rhythm does not simply organize content; it becomes the content…Rhythm, the part of poetry that is least tied to words, representations, ideas or meanings, “was all”: and we see how far this “all” can go, as a duple rhythm, is the axis on which the construction of stanzas, the formation of couples, the alternation of seasons, the distinction of clans, and the categories of nature revolve. (32)

Here, rhythm is not just something that adds to meaning or provides it with form, but is actually the axis upon which meaning revolves. In the same way, Beckett uses linguistic rhythm as the crux of Footfalls, whether it is the interplay between physical pacing and linguistic pacing or the explicitly written-in pauses in the language that happen over 100 times in the mere five-page play. Worth confirms Beckett’s rhythmic meaning in her book, Samuel Beckett’s Theatre: Life Journeys: “There’s an extra glow…when the comic rhythm wonderfully opens up to fine shades of deeper feeling without losing a shred of its essential buoyancy” (141). Rhythm opens up another layer of meaning for Beckett that is just as meaningful as, if not more meaningful than, the content’s meaning.

This nuanced difference between extralinguistic and linguistic rhythm actually plays a specific role in translation: extralinguistic rhythms like chimes and some linguistic rhythms like explicitly directed pauses can be translated directly, with the same pitch, sound, and timing, but other linguistic rhythms are essentially impossible to translate directly, such as syllabic and tonal nuances. Perry Link does ask the question: Is Chinese particularly and comparatively rhythmic? (37) While the answer is inconclusive, because it is nearly impossible to prove that rhythm in Chinese is inherently part of Chinese culture, and not based in universal tendencies or derived from other places, it remains that Chinese does have specific rhythm patterns that help create meaning, and thus rhythm becomes an essential part of translation—especially in a rhythmic composition like Footfalls.

Nine steps — Dialogue between words and movements

Nearly any play’s dialogue could fulfill what Link lists as the third function of rhythm, coordinating action, because that is precisely what a play does—use words and actions combined to tell a story, one coordinating the other in various forms and interactions—but Footfalls especially makes use of this function. 刘爱英 Liu Aiying‘s Chinese translation, in preserving meaning, sacrifices some movement-dialogue rhythmic interplay, but it also emphasizes other rhythmic aspects through more distinct parallelism.  Link writes, “A considerable range of the conscious use of rhythm in human life has to do with helping people coordinate their activity” (Link 83)—importantly, this is a conscious use of rhythm to in language to interact with movement.

Footfalls, based on the framework of nine steps, makes good use of this conscious rhythm purpose, not only with direct references to the number nine in dialogue, such as the mother being 90 years old, but also syllabically. After May’s first obsessive pacing in the opening, she literally counts as she paces: “[Pause. M resumes pacing. Four lengths. After first length, synchronous with steps.] One two three four five…”[9] But after this, she “halts.” (239) At a standstill, the dialogue begins, and culminates in a discussion about their ages before she then resumes pacing.

M: Straighten your pillows? [Pause.] Change your drawsheet? [Pause.] Pass you the bedpan? [Pause.] The warming pan? [Pause.] Dress your sores? [Pause.] Sponge you down? [Pause.] Moisten your poor lips? [Pause.] Pray with you? [Pause.] For you? [Pause.] Again. [Pause.]

V: Yes, but it is too soon.


M: What age am I now?

V: And I? [Pause. No louder.] And I?

M: Ninety.

V: So much?

M: Eighty-nine, ninety. (240)

In this short section where she remains physically still, the dialogue takes over the rhythm of the steps syllabically. Whereas the dialogue and steps interact explicitly, and direct one another when May counts her steps and walks while she speaks, here the dialogue actually replaces the rhythm. If we look once more at the same section with a syllabic breakdown, we see that May’s speech in her first lines adds up neatly into 9 syllables, and the following dialogue does as well:

M: Straighten your pillows? (5) [Pause.] Change your drawsheet? (4) [Pause.] Pass you the bedpan? (5) [Pause.] The warming pan?  (4) [Pause.] Dress your sores? (3)[Pause.] Sponge you down? (3) [Pause.] Moisten your poor lips? (4)[Pause.] Pray with you? (3) [Pause.] For you? (2) [Pause.] Again. (2) [Pause.]

V: Yes, but it is too soon.


M: What age am I now? (5)

V: And I? (2) [Pause. No louder.] And I? (2)

M: Ninety. (2)

V: So much? (2)

M: Eighty-nine, ninety. (5) (240) (italicized numbers in parentheses added)

 May’s first lines pair up as follows, if separated by the pauses as distinct rhythmic units: 5+4, 5+4, and then a bit more complexly as “Dress your sores?” and “Sponge you down,” pair with “Pray with you?” in 3+3+3 and “Moisten your poor lips?” pairs with “For you?” and “Again” as 5+2+2. The subsequent dialogue is similar, with 5+2+2, and then the inverse 2+2+5—much as if she has walked forward and walked back, canceling out progress in a never-ending “do, undo” pattern just as she does with her paces back and forth.

The Chinese translation, in order to retain meaning, sacrifices this pacing-dialogue rhythmic interplay. In Liu Aiying’s translation, the meaning of each phrase preserves the literal meaning, with no drastic changes in vocabulary or connotation. But while the overall structure remains the same in Chinese—May paces, counts her steps as she paces, and then halts, staying still as she has the following dialogue with her mother:

M: 给你整理一下枕头吗?(停顿。)给你换一下垫单吗?(停顿。)给你拿一下便盆吗?(停顿。)暖床炉呢?(停顿。)给你那几个疮上敷药吗?(停顿。)给你擦擦澡?(停顿。)给你润湿一下那可冷的嘴唇?(停顿。)跟你一起祈祷?(停顿。)为你?(停顿。)再一次。









While it is less useful here to show the syllable-count in-text, the syllables in the English and Chinese line up as follows for May’s first line, again separated by the written pauses:

English:  5   4   5   4   3   3   5   3   2   2

Chinese: 9   8   8   4  10  5  12  6   2   3

 As is apparent, the Chinese translation does not seem to have taken into account a particular rhythm pattern, thus losing the continuity of the rhythm; in the original, even when the pacing stops, the dialogue continues the rhythm of 9 paces through syllables, but in the Chinese, the pacing simply halts, to begin once more when she physically resumes pacing.

The Chinese translation of this section, however, does illuminate and emphasize other aspects of rhythmic meaning in this section, particularly using parallelism to underline May’s desperateness to do something amidst her constant walk going nowhere and circling speech. This section highlights May wanting to move forward—to do something for her mother other than pace outside her door going over the same topics; she wants to break the cycle of there and back, do and undo, by straightening the pillow or getting the bedpan. While it is not at all strange to use the structure “给你。。。吗?” gěi nǐ…ma?, Liu Aiying also could have translated a bit more directly, writing “整理你的枕头吗?” Zhěnglǐ nǐ de zhěntou ma?, in order to preserve parallelism with phrases such as,  “给你拿一下便盆吗?” Gěi nǐ ná yīxià biànpén ma?, in which the “给你。。。吗?” structure is a more direct translation, each phrase is structured this way. In the simple act of surrounding each menial task with “for you” and the character indicating a question, Liu Aiying manages to drill the phrase into the audience’s consciousness, each time emphasizing May’s desire to do something for her mother. It also creates a rhythm of its own as the phrases continue, each varying in the middle but retaining the ever important “for you…?”

In addition, the frequent pairings of two-syllable verbs with two-syllable nouns (2+2, or in this case 2[+2]+2 with the repetition of 一下 as well), an exceptionally commonplace grammar pattern within Chinese, only adds to the desperate and repetitious search for something to do, such as “整理一下枕头” Zhěnglǐ yīxià zhěntou in “给你整理一下枕头吗?” Gěi nǐ zhěnglǐ yīxià zhěntou ma? This example is the first among a series with this 2[+2]+2 pattern with stress on the second syllable of each pair. With this kind of repetitive two-syllable pairing, “monotony easily develops” regardless of which beat the stress is on (Schlepp 607). The section becomes almost like a list, only underlining further May’s desperation as the list runs out and she must resort to something other than a menial caretaker task (and a grammar structure other than this pattern as well): “跟你一起祈祷?(停顿。)为你?” Gēn nǐ yīqǐ qídǎo?(Tíngdùn.) Wèi nǐ?. 给你 gěi nǐ becomes “跟你” gēn and then”为你” wèi nǐ, and the question becomes even more rhetorical as “吗” ma disappears as well. These slight and inconspicuous changes—arguably there simply to faithfully convey meaning within the constraints of Chinese grammar—actually give this section more desperateness through the rhythm of parallelism. While the audience may lose something crucial, namely the continuation of the 9-step rhythm through dialogue, the Chinese translation also expands meaning as well—regardless if either the sacrifice or the gain were intentional or not.

 Echoes of “it all” — Repetition of key phrases

While the musical, extralinguistic rhythms are, for the most part, translated directly from the original to Chinese, specific phrases repeated throughout the text create a rhythm through language that becomes problematic in translation. The voices themselves interact with the extralinguistic rhythms and each other: “As such, these multi-tonal, multi-sited voices exert a hypnotic power which Katharine Worth describes in the context of Footfalls: ‘One voice picks up another or turns into another with dreamlike ease; they spread out irresistibly as the echoes from the chime spread out[…]. A ghostly unity has been achieved’” (Bryden 122). Just as the chimes echo, so too do key phrases that alternate between May and her mother.

The most striking example of this echoing happens at the end of each section, or movement, right before the chimes:

V: I’m afraid so. [Pause. M resumes pacing. After first turn at L.] May. [Pause. No louder.] May.

M: [Pacing.] Yes, Mother.

V: Will you never have done? [Pause.] Will you never have done…revolving it all?

M: [Halting.] It?

V: It all. [Pause.] In your poor mind. [Pause.] It all. [Pause.] It all.

[M resumes pacing. Five seconds. Fade out on strip.

      All in darkness. Steps cease.


      Chimes a little fainter. Pause for echoes.

      Fade up to a little less on strip. Rest in darkness.

M discovered facing front at R.

Pause.]      (“Footfalls” 240-241)

This ending is repeated four times, with “it all” being repeated multiple times within each ending. The phrase alone “acquire[s] by repetition a hypnotic and even analgesic power, to hang lingeringly in the air, hinting at its own future reanimation as the light faces. Circularity thus transcends the rectilinearity of May’s pacing” (Bryden 188). Thus, in this case, the dialogue not only interacts with her movements, but also serves to “transcend” them—to transcend her unproductive pacing back and forth with a circular “motion” of words, which although it gives her varying direction, still leaves her in a repeating loop. And May feels that painful futility through her dialogue alongside the other rhythmic elements of the play—the pacing and the chimes:

“…she fades away on the thought of all the pain, on the words, ‘it all’ which close each sequence. There is a suggestion here of suffering not confined to the two of them; it widens out in the mind, as the echoes spread out from the chime. Widens and fades, for by the third sequence everything is beginning to fade, the chime is fainter, so too the footfalls, a point Beckett laid great stress on in rehearsals, one of those many minute refinements of sound this, on which so much depends” (Worth, “Review”).

The rhythmic interplay in this section in particular is complex—not only because the repeated phrase evokes a circular motion that overlays her linear one, but also because it accompanies and interacts with other extralinguistic rhythms.

The exact methods of interplay, then, play a significant role in the rhythm of this section. The phrase itself evokes circular motion as well as interacts with the forward, linear motion of May’s pacing, but more subtly, intra-phrase rhythm also evokes this balance. The repetition of “Will you never have done?” with a pause in between, and “…revolving it all?” set up a circular, repetitive rhythm; the direct repetition, the idea of “revolving” imply an endless, circular motion. Furthermore, the ellipses before “revolving it all” and the question mark after suggest that this will never be done—and appropriately, the phrase repeats itself until the very end of the piece, the last words almost exactly like the end of the first section. May tells the story of Amy and her mother, Mrs. Winter, as a way to tell her own, ending the story with herself speaking the same words her mother spoke to her:

[M:] Will you never have done? [Pause.] Will you never have done…revolving it all? [Pause.] It? [Pause.] It all. [Pause.] In your poor mind. [Pause.] It all. [Pause.] It all.                        (243)

May continues to revolve until the very last words, and although the phrase “it all” with a period suggests a sort of finality, we know this is not the end, as every section ends this way: she halts her pacing, this question comes, remains unanswered, and she begins pacing once again.

But why does “it all” have an air of finality? Perhaps it is less finality than affirmation, especially in the last section of the play; “it all” answers the question “It?”, and this fourth and final section ends “it all.” May’s voice takes on many: Amy—her anagrammatic “other”—and Mrs. Winter, her mother’s “other.” Although we can infer that the dialogue happens much the same way as it did between May and her mother in the first sections, May is the only one telling the story, and thus there is only one voice. May becomes both Amy and Mrs. Winter, and begins to ask herself questions and answer them herself, too. The two stories echo each other not just in the end but throughout the entire piece: “The Mother’s ‘Not enough’ should sound exactly like the “Not there?’ of Mrs. Winter in Amy’s story” (Grove Companion 201). The two stories become one, questions and answers become intertwined, and May’s storytelling becomes a conduit for her own searching and questioning.

Similarly, “it all,” syllabically, takes on a forward motion—one of answering and of moving forward, especially emphasized with “it all” as the last words of the entire play. The two-syllable phrase is spoken with an unstressed-stressed syllabic pattern, taking on the pace almost of galloping or racing ahead. “It all” also takes over after May halts, and thus it takes over the rhythm of the physical movement; the repetition “it all” replaces the repetition of her pacing, but the new rhythm is not the even, aimless pacing back and forth but rather an uneven paired rhythm created by the stress pattern.

The Chinese translation, however, loses both the rhythm in the content (“revolving”) and the rhythm of the language and syllables (“it all”):

V:恐怕就是。(停顿。M接着踱步。在L第一次转身之后。) 梅。(停顿。声音不要加大。) 梅。

M:(踱步。) 你说吧,母亲。









停顿。)    (Beckett, Samuel and Stan Lai 280-281)

The two main rhythmic repeated phrases—“revolving it all” and simply “it all”—become complicated in translation. The former retains its meaning but loses its sense of circular movement: “Will you never have done…revolving it all?” becomes “你能不能永远别在费心……别为那一切纠结呢?” Nǐ néng bùnéng yǒngyuǎn bié zài fèixīn……bié wèi nà yīqiè jiūjié ne? This roughly translates as “Will you never not trouble[10] with it…not become entangled with it all?” The “entangled” implies to constantly think and consider something without finding the meaning.[11] It seems as though the meaning has largely been retained here; much in the way that “revolving” in the English in this context implies May going repeatedly over “it all” in her head, the implications of 纠结jiūjié, or entangled (“纠 jiū”), are relatively the same—going over and over “it all,” never finding an answer. (Gong) This translation, however, loses the sense of rotation and of circular, hopeless, repeated motion in favor of a more complicated “entangling” movement. Although this loss is not directly of linguistic rhythm, the loss in meaning then contributes to the loss of interaction between meaning and rhythm. In the original, the aforementioned tension between the revolving, unproductive motion Mother (and then May) speaks of and the forward, linear motion of “it all” that takes over her linear pacing demonstrate May’s struggle between moving forward and continuing “revolving it all.”

What becomes, then, of “it all”? “那一切” nà yīqiè also retains the same meaning: “everything” or “it all” (“一切 yīqiè”). It loses its implication of linear movement because the stress pattern now emphasizes the first syllable and also, although perhaps a little less, the last syllable; there is more of an arc to the phrase (STRESSED – unstressed – STRESSED) as opposed to a linear, forward motion (unstressed – STRESSED). That is not to say, however, that there is no rhythmic interaction simply because these particular aspects are lost. As discussed in the previous section, there are moments within the text in which the 9-step pacing halts, only to be resumed by rhythm in language. While the original doesn’t make an explicit transition in this section as it does in the previous, interestingly enough, the Chinese does. The construction of the three-syllable phrase 那一切 nà yīqiè repeated three times at the end of each section, in between the “停住” tīngzhù (halt) and the “M 接着踱步” jiēzhe duóbù (M resumes pacing), fills in the nine steps missing when she halts, strengthening the interplay of physical rhythm with linguistic rhythm.

Although this is an interesting additional emphasis on rhythmic interplay between language and movement—beyond its loss of intra-linguistic interplay—the move of the translator to use three syllables seems counterintuitive to natural Chinese rhythmic tendencies: “…the metric system fundamental to Chinese is as follows (x being downbeat, o upbeat…): / x o / x o / x o / . . . etc.” (Schlepp 607). As is true with the 2+2 pattern in the original example in the previous section, 脚步声 is no exception to this commonly used Chinese grammatical structure. So while the nine-syllable interplay with 梅 méi’s pacing may contribute to rhythmic meaning, it is unclear whether this is directly because of the constraints of the Chinese language. Nevertheless, there are some interesting further rhythmic emphases in the Chinese translation, even though it is clear that constraints of the language paired with a loyalty to content and direct translation of meaning do detract from the original rhythmic meaning in this section.

Counting speech — Syllabic analysis: Individual patterns of 2+2 and chengyu

Much in the same way that the title 脚步声provides insight into the role rhythm and sound play in Footfalls, many crucial individual phrases play key roles in both rhythm and meaning. The title itself, as previously mentioned, evokes more explicitly ideas of sound and pacing, but it also the alliteration and 2-syllable structure of “footfalls.” Just as “it all” comes to propel the piece forward, ending each section and transitioning it to the next, “footfalls” has a similar 2-syllable rhythmic structure that evokes a step forward, and even shares the “all” sound at the end of the phrase. While 脚步声 may not share these same qualities due to the combining of three morphemes rather than two to encompass the entire meaning of the word, it does provide notable insight into the work itself. This, however, is not by any means the only choice of translation, as we will see in the next section regarding Stan Lai’s 1988 translation. This section, however, focuses on these small but significant moments throughout the text where small changes can make a big difference—from four-syllable phrases like Chinese 成语 chéngyǔ[12] to individual characters’ names.

May’s appearance plays a significant role throughout the piece, both physically in her costume and her own descriptions of Amy’s clothing; in the Chinese, a specific chengyu phrase makes the description more powerful but also loses some of the rhythm of the original. The original describes Amy’s tattered appearance at length:

[M:…] [Pause.] The semblance. [Pause. Resumes pacing. After two lengths halts facing front at R. Pause.] The semblance. Faint, though by no means invisible, in a certain light. [Pause.] Given the right light. [Pause.] Grey rather than white, a pale shade of grey. [Pause.] Tattered. [Pause.] A tangle of tatters. [Pause.]     (“Footfalls” 242)

The pause, the resumption of pacing, and then the halt give this particular passage emphasis, and the following alliteration and parallelism of rhyming and syllables give it a particular rhythm. The alliteration of the t’s, sharp and pattering like footsteps, help orchestrate the rhythmic interplay once the footsteps cease; “faint,” “light,” “right light,” and “white” all end with the hard t, and the latter three rhyme to draw emphasis to this pattern. The alliteration continues with “tattered” and “tangle of tatters,” drawing attention to Amy’s worn-down appearance. Finally, there is a pattern of rhyming five-syllable lines, beginning with “…in a certain light” until “rather than white” with another five-syllable line, though not in rhyme, with “a pale shade of grey.” Again, as with the “list” May creates when begging her mother for something to do, or “it all,” a repetitive, tiring rhythm takes over the phrasing, especially when the pacing halts.

The Chinese translation, although it is nearly impossible to maintain the exact methods of alliteration, rhyme, and syllabic repetition, does retain much of the same rhythmic meaning through slightly different means:

[M:…](停顿。)外形。模糊不清,虽然绝不是看不见,在某种光线下。(停顿。)光线好的话。(停顿。)灰色的而不是白色的,一种偏淡的灰色。(停顿。)衣衫褴褛。(停顿。)      (Beckett, Samuel and Stan Lai 283-4)

The most obvious difference with the original is the lack of stage directions that emphasize the importance of this passage in the first place: “Pause. Resumes pacing. After two lengths halts facing front at R. Pause” (Footfalls 242). While it is unclear why this has been taken out, the actual dialogue still retains important rhythmic elements that convey rhythmic meaning; the footsteps might not cease, but rhythmic interplay continues. In place of the “t” alliteration and “-ight” rhyme, the five-syllable patterns “某种光线下” mǒu zhǒng guāngxiàn xià and “光线好的话” guāngxiàn hǎo dehuà both end in near-rhymes with xià and huà. Then, “灰色的而不是白色的,一种偏淡的灰色” huīsè de ér bùshì báisè de, yī zhǒng piān dàn de huīsè creates an automatic repetition based upon the fundamental color and adjective constructions in Chinese: adding “色” to a color-word morpheme to use colors for description, and using “的” de to indicate descriptors, such as saying something is white, or “白色shì báisè de. This creates a natural rhyme and rhythm which generates a repetitive, tiring effect much as the English does:

“灰色的而不是白色的,一种偏淡huīsè de ér bùshì báisè de, yī zhǒng piān dàn de huī (emphasis added).

Finally, the original alliterative phrase “tattered…a tangle of tatters” becomes the single, four-syllable chengyu phrase”衣衫褴褛” yīshān lánlǚ, which means “shabbily dressed,” or “in rags” (Song). Liu Aiying omits the pause in between “tattered” and “a tangle of tatters” in favor of a single phrase that conveys the same meaning. And as a chengyu phrase, it is quite possible that these four characters convey even more meaning and depth—a picture of May’s raggedy appearance. Chengyu are short, most often four-character idiomatic phrases that convey broader and universal—at least to Chinese speakers—meaning (“成语 chéngyǔ”). In this case, the picture of someone shabbily dressed would immediately enter into mind. The alliteration and patter of the “t” sounds, however, is lost, but the four-syllable chengyu phrase has another rhythm to it that draws attention to May’s shabby appearance; the structure of the characters in a 2+2 morpheme pairing balance the phrase nicely, as the Chinese language often tends to do: as Link writes, Chinese morphemes pair together easily, “and often produce balance as well” (Link 37). 2+2 balancing appears throughout the text, with phrases such as “来来回回” láilái huíhuí (283) being especially potent for “walk, up and down…” (“Footfalls” 242).

While Liu Aiying’s use of chengyu, a distinctive Chinese language phenomenon, draws attention to May’s appearance and gives a syllabically balanced form to it, it is still unclear whether this truly adds rhythmic meaning, or if the rhythmic meaning is even the same. Because Beckett constantly endeavored to strip down language to a minimum while still conveying the maximum meaning, the efficiency of the phrase is perhaps appropriate. But Footfalls is also about distance, with each successive section fading a little more and “gradually depart[ing] from time” (Cohn 55-56)—her dress even becoming a little shabbier in his manuscripts: “(more tattered) ?” (­The Theatrical Notebooks 303). And while “tattered” is not necessarily a phrase we would in everyday life, and the rhythm of “tangle of tatters” likewise unusual, the comfortable and acknowledged meaning and rhythm of衣衫褴褛 might stray from that distance and coldness in spite of its efficiency. Regardless of the gains and losses (if one can even make that distinction), however, it represents an important point at which the Chinese language embraces Beckett as its own, giving shape and rhythm to the piece in a Chinese context.

Another logical place to look for meaningful differences in translation is with the characters’ names; most often, names cannot be directly translated and thus lose or unintentionally take on meanings. In Liu Aiying’s translation, he privileges sound and rhythm over any sort of “meaning” in the names. May—梅 méi—is a fairly obvious translation because the spoken word sounds the same[13], and梅 is a common morpheme for women’s names (“Méi 梅”). Here, Liu Aiying chooses to preserve the sound and rhythm, and preserves the rather unremarkable nature of the name.[14] Mother and 母亲 mùqīn are similarly apt translations, especially since Mother takes on a cold, distant role throughout the original play, with May constantly seeking approval without her mother’s acquiescence (Dwan). 母亲, as opposed to 妈 or妈妈māma, holds true to that distance.

With May’s parallel-world story in the last section, however, the anagrammatic “Amy” and telling “Mrs. Winter” prove themselves more difficult in translation. Amy becomes 艾米 àimĭ, similar enough to the more tonally perfect anagrammatic relationship in the original. Again, Liu Aiying privileges sound and rhythm here, as well as the meaning that derives from creating an “anagrammatic other” (Ackerley 202) through whom May can tell her own story. And while it makes sense to privilege the form of a name if there isn’t an inherent meaning to the name, sometimes the names themselves clearly have meanings or connotations. Mrs. Winter becomes 温特夫人 Wēntè fūren, which privileges the sound and rhythm once more in keeping with “winter,” and uses an even more formal and distant address than the “Mrs.” in the original; 夫人 fūren is a very formal “Mrs.” (“夫人”).  The actual meaning of “winter,” however, is lost, as well as the cold, icy connotations it brings along with it. Translation is always a give and take between form and meaning, and in this translation, form takes precedence.

Luòjiǎo shēng: A brief study of Stan Lai’s translation in Taiwan (1988)

This brief addendum serves to provide analysis of an alternate translation; Stan Lai’s translation of Footfalls, Luòjiǎo shēng, differs from Liu Aiying’s in fundamental ways: 1) it was translated much earlier for a performance directed by the translator himself in 1988[15], 2) it was translated in Taiwan, which had less direct influence from Beckett’s reception in mainland China and provides its own culture and language style, and 3) it was never published officially in print—only performed. This section does not aim to give a holistic or complete analysis, but rather to provide an artistic and linguistic translation counterpart to the previous study. It is for this reason the analysis of will be limited to those sections discussed earlier and how they differ. Lai’s translation strays from formal syntactical constructions and often leans toward more literal translations of the original. His translation, however, was for performance rather than publication, so a less “formal” translation might be a more natural choice. Regardless, it provides an alternative example of how the Chinese language can convey rhythmic meaning in Beckett without mere imitation of the original.

The first passage previously addressed, concerning May’s pleas to straighten her mother’s pillow, get her bedpan, etc., presents various grammatical and syntactical changes in structure:










 脚步声 (2016)

 M: 给你整理一下枕头吗?(停顿。)给你换一下垫单吗?(停顿。)给你拿一下便盆吗?(停顿。)暖床炉呢?(停顿。)给你那几个疮上敷药吗?(停顿。)给你擦擦澡?(停顿。)给你润湿一下那可冷的嘴唇?(停顿。)跟你一起祈祷?(停顿。)为你?(停顿。)再一次。









The first difference from the 2016 translation, in following with the previous study of this section, is Lai’s choice of structure around each of May’s pleadings; instead of “给你…吗?” Lai varies the sentence structures. The first two are “幫妳mu。。。?” bāng , and the next “。。。給妳?” gěi nǐ, in which 給 is used as a verb meaning “give you the bedpan?” rather than just “for you” as in Liu Aiying’s translation (拿is the verb).

The next two are also “幫妳mu。。。?” and then “讓妳。。。?” rang . There is no 嗎 ma indicating a question, as there is in Liu Aiying’s translation, and thus the questions are conveyed through tone and context only. Across the translations, “和[跟]你一起禱告?(頓。)為你?(頓。)再一次 ?(頓。)” Hé [gēn] nǐ yīqǐ dǎogào?(Dùn.) Wèi nǐ? (Dùn.) Zài yīcì?(Dùn.) is almost identical, save for “和” instead of “跟” gēn and a question mark after “再一次” zài yícì instead of a period.

What effect, then, do these small differences in syntax have on the rhythm of the passage? As with Liu Aiying’s translation, Lai’s does not appear to preserve the rhythmic interplay between the movements and the dialogue as in the original, as the syllables are in a seemingly random pattern:

English:            5   4   5   4   3   3   5   3   2   2

脚步声 (2016): 9   8   8   4  10  5  12  6   2   3

(1988): 6   5   5   2   4   5  11  6   2   3

Lai’s translation keeps each utterance relatively short, with all of them being as short or shorter than Liu Aiying’s translation. This is perhaps more in keeping with the original, which has short, choppy phrases that leave out any extraneous words (e.g. “Straighten your pillows” (240) instead of “Can I straighten your pillows for you?”). The number of syllables in each phrase is notably closer to that of the original, meaning that in length and abruptness there may be rhythmic similarities, but there seems to be no grammatical or syntactical pattern otherwise. Lai’s translation is less constrained by both strict 2+2 combinations (two-syllable verbs with two-syllable nouns) and parallelism. While both still make appearances, phrases such as “幫妳換床單?” Bāng nǐ huàn chuángdān? and “滴尿盆給妳?” Dī niào pén gěi nǐ? seem to disregard both rules throughout the succession of pleas. Furthermore, 嗎 ma is also absent, taking out the constant explicit question word, and perhaps even making the questions more rhetorical. As a result, this more free construction is less repetitive and tiresome—something which, as we see in Liu Aiying’s translation, could possible be helpful in conveying rhythmic meaning in this passage.

In the next passage, repetition of key phrases, most notably “it all,” set a pace throughout the piece at the end of each section; in Stan Lai’s translation, “那一切” nà yīqiè remains the translation of choice, but other, smaller variations convey rhythm:














(頓。)    (4)

脚步声 (2016)

V:恐怕就是。(停顿。M接着踱步。在L第一次转身之后。) 梅。(停顿。声音不要加大。) 梅。

M:(踱步。) 你说吧,母亲。









停顿。)        (280-281)

“那一切”, just as in Liu Aiying’s translation, provides a fitting nine-syllable pickup to the next section, in which she resumes her nine-step pacing. Lai chooses another translation of “revolving” as “反覆” fǎnfù, which means “over and over again” or “repeatedly” (“反覆 fǎnfù) as opposed to Liu Aiying’s 费心 fèixīn. The translation loses the interplay between the forward motion of the rhythm (“it all”) and the circular motion of “revolving,” which emphasize her desire to move forward but constant turning back; both, however, still convey the sense that May goes over everything again and again in her head—something that a single word in English could not convey as well.

Finally, in looking at some of the most important individual syllabic speech patterns, Stan Lai’s translation retains the rhyme and rhythm that Liu Aiying’s does, although in different places:


[梅:…] (頓。)哪個像她的樣子。



脚步声 (2016)

[M:…](停顿。)外形。模糊不清,虽然绝不是看不见,在某种光线下。(停顿。)光线好的话。(停顿。)灰色的而不是白色的,一种偏淡的灰色。(停顿。)衣衫褴褛。(停顿。)      (283-4)

Similarly Liu Aiying’s translation, the original “t” alliteration and “-ight” rhyme turn to a repetition of “之下“ zhīxià at the end of two of the phrases. Furthermore, the repeated phrase “哪個像她的樣子” Nàgè xiàng tā de yàngzi has near rhymes with xiàng and yang in addition to a succession of fourth tones. This passage also creates a natural rhyme and rhythm through the inherent grammar of forming color names: “灰色的,不是白色的,淡淡的灰色。(頓。)破爛的。(頓。)一糰破爛”Huīsè de, bùshì báisè de, dàndàn de huīsè. (dùn.) Pòlàn de .(dùn.) Yī tuán pòlàn. “Sè” and “dè” create a tiring repetition, which is furthered with “pòlàn.” Just as her appearance is worn and tattered, so too does the language become worn.

In the same line of looking at important syllabic patterns, Stan Lai also chooses to translate the names in a similar way, privileging the sound and rhythm over direct translation, although he does so in a less formal tone: the same 梅méi for May, a slightly different 阿咪 āmī for Amy, and溫特太太 Wēntè tàitài for Mrs. Winter—also privileging the sound and harshness of wēntè over the cold and icy implications of the equivalent of “winter.” The key difference, however, is with 太太tàitài and the familiarity of the address as opposed to 夫人 fūrén,as discussed in the previous section. This familiarity recurs in May’s address to her mother: the intimate and natural 媽 as opposed to the distant and unnatural 母亲 mùqīn.

While this small addendum is by no means comprehensive look at Stan Lai’s translation, much of the language in each of these passages seems to be less constrained by “balanced” forms of syntax and grammar, such as parallelism and 2+2 pairings, and in many ways is more faithful to the original. Where Liu Aiying might choose parallelism and repetitive, more natural repeated structures like “给你。。。吗?” gěi nǐma?, Stan Lai chooses to adhere to the original’s short, choppy, varied phrases; where Liu Aiying might choose to use chengyu to efficiently encompass meaning using a Chinese language phenomenon, Stan Lai chooses to translate the English more directly and refrain from using a specifically Chinese structure like chengyu. Even in the very similar phrasing but different word choice for “walk, up and down…” (Footfalls 242), Lai’s “上下,上下” shàngxià shàngxià (5) is more literally translated than Liu Aiying’s “来来回回” láilái huíhuí (283).

And while it is impossible to know why—whether it is a product solely of artistic choice, of the nearly 40-year gap between the translations, of the political and academic discourse surrounding Beckett in China versus Taiwan, or of inherent Chinese and Taiwanese cultural and linguistic differences—the alternate translations nonetheless provide ground for comparison and debate surrounding faithful translation of rhythm from English to Chinese. The differences between the two serve as an example of how different aspects of the Chinese language can convey rhythmic meaning, but also highlights to what degree a translation for “official” publication and a translation for performance may utilize formal Chinese linguistic structures; in this case, the intention of performance does play a role in how the Chinese language sculpts rhythmic meaning in the play—that is, how Lai chooses to translate more informally for the stage. Either way, however, rhythmic meaning most often derives from rhythmic constructions inherent in Chinese—rhyme patterns, repetitive grammar structures, etc.—, emphasizing how much meaning is preserved and gained through the Chinese language itself.


From our very first encounter with Chinese translations of Footfalls—the title itself—the importance of rhythm is clear even in the discrepancy between Liu Aiying’s and Stan Lai’s translations: 脚步声Jiăobù shēng and Luòjiǎo shēng respectively, the former directly translating “footfalls” and the latter a more unintuitive translation of, roughly, “the sound of steps falling.” Inherent Chinese grammatical and syntactical structures and tendencies clearly play a role in how the rhythm of this piece changes through translation; and while much rhythm is lost—perhaps crucial rhythm and rhythmic meaning according to many Western Beckett scholars—much is gained as well. Both what is lost and what is gained also serve as tools for us to better understand not only Footfalls itself, but also the English and Chinese languages as well as the process of translation of rhythm across the two.

Translation has long been studied, and so too has the balance between form and meaning in translation, but this particular study of Beckett’s Footfalls provides a look into how rhythm in linguistic constraints shapes meaning and perception across language. Footfalls, being so full of rhythmic meaning and so particular in its rhythms, linguistic and nonlinguistic alike, provides a rich text through which to study such a complex interaction—even acknowledging its mere five-page length. While this analysis is not claiming to be a complete analysis of how rhythm works through translation in Footfalls, it does provide groundwork for further study to be done. How do these rhythms play out in performance? How do pacing of language, length of pauses, and tonal variation change the rhythms written out on the page?

As Beckett continues to penetrate and grow in popularity in Mainland China as well as Taiwan and Hong Kong, more and varied translations of his works will undoubtedly be written, published, and performed. How much will these works adhere to the original, and how much will they allow Chinese language tendencies to embrace Beckett—just as Liu Aiying prefers chengyu to express Beckett’s rhythm and meaning? Distinctive rhythmic qualities of Chinese have in many ways persevered through generations, “relatively or completely unaffected by change” (Gunn 354). Thus, it seems more likely that rather than Chinese accepting the English rhythms of Beckett’s writing, much of Beckett’s rhythmic meaning would more likely be conveyed through the inherent rhythmic structures of Chinese—a study of which we could benefit from in translations of Beckett and beyond.

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—-. “反覆 fǎnfù.” 121. Ibid.

—-. “费心 fèixīn.” 127. Ibid.

—-. “夫人fūrén.” Def. 1. 133. Ibid.

—-. “纠 jiū.”Def. 1. 240. Ibid.

—-. “一切 yīqiè.” 527. Ibid.

—-. “脚步 jiăobù.” 223. Ibid.

—-. “声shēng.” 399. Ibid.

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[1] Originally written in English, the copies published in English have retained the “mistake” Beckett later changed on stage: May paces nine steps instead of seven, and most translations have accounted for this particular change, including the Chinese translation.

[2] The only officially published translation of Footfalls was by the Hunan Literature and Art house ten years earlier, in Selected Works of Samuel Beckett (2006) (Lin 420).

[3] Beckett actually translated almost all of his own works either from English to French or French to English, and in this case translated the original English to French as Pas (1977), an interesting play on the French word meaning “footsteps” but also “no,” or “not” (“Samuel Beckett: A Celebration”). In this, and in many of his own translations, he made significant changes in content and form.

[4] See section heading “Beckett in China—The Historical Backdrop.”

[5] While I acknowledge fully that performance studies are a crucial aspect of such analysis of sound and rhythm, the scope of this paper as it stands is confined to textual analysis. This textual analysis is intended to stand not only on its own, but also as a foundation for studies of performative aspects of translation as they appear on stage rather than on the page.

[6] In fact, Beckett’s often compared contemporary in modern drama, Bertolt Brecht, took much inspiration from Chinese musical drama: “…Brecht appropriated Chinese plots for his dramas and drew on traditional Chinese operatic principles to formulate his dramatic theories” (Bai 1).

[7] Furthermore, the mission of Chinese arts and literature at the time was radically different than that of the West: Mao Zedong’s Yan’an talks in 1942 expressed literature’s role as “a component part of the whole revolutionary machine,” necessitating it to be uplifting and accessible to the masses (Mao 2)—a role Beckett obviously did not fit. It makes sense that even later critics of Beckett in China would lament the seemingly depressing nature of Beckett’s works.

[8] Emphasis added.

[9] May actually only counts up to seven here, which is because Beckett’s original script had May pacing only seven steps back and forth, which he changed to nine once rehearsals began (Gontarski 272). Although the number of steps in this edition is corrected to nine (many editions still incorrectly use seven), this part of the text has not been changed. Interestingly enough, the Chinese translation of this does in fact correct for the nine steps even though it was translated from the 1976 original version (used here); thus, the change was a conscious one on the part of the translator.

[10] “Trouble” here, if looking at the two morphemes separately, literally means “waste heart,” or waste/cost oneself effort and care on something (“费心 fèixīn).

[11] Email to author from Princeton University Lecturer in Chinese, Gong Wei.

[12] From here onwards referred to simply as chengyu—it is often referred to by its Romanized pinyin as opposed to a translation in English.

[13] While the pronunciation is the same, the specific tones in Chinese could possibly provide an interesting change in rhythm and sound—in this case, a rising second tone.

[14] Although, in a way, 梅 méi as a single morpheme is significant, since most Chinese names would consist of a surname and a given name used together in speech. In keeping only梅, Liu Aiying, in a way, also preserves the “foreign” nature of the name.

[15]was performed as part of a compilation of six short plays in the Shihlin District of Taipei, where audiences could wander  around a courtyard to watch different parts of different performances at different times:“此劇在台北士林區中影文化城中的一間四合院,演出六個貝克特(Samuel Beckett)的短劇:《來去》(Come and Go)、《無言劇II》(Act without Words Ⅱ)、《戲》(Play)、《俄亥俄即興》(Ohio Impromptu)、《什麼哪裡》(What Where)、《落腳聲》(Footfalls)。這些戲的演出,散布在四合院各個不同的空間:包括四合院的三個廂房、一個涼亭、以及許多迴廊。從日落時間進場(約6:30),觀眾分批入場,由導遊帶隊,以活動遊覽的方式,依不同組別觀看不同場景的演出。演出有室內也有室外,第一批觀眾看完戶外的《來去》和《無言劇II》後,進入室內;第二批觀眾接著進入四合院觀看演出,在規劃下,四合院中有六組觀眾同時觀看不同位置的演出”(“Luòjiǎo sheng”).