Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Lost in Translation

Michelle Krusiec and Alex Moggridge in Chinglish.
By Kelly L. Miller

Chinglish, David Henry Hwang’s uproarious new comedy about cultural miscommunication begins with a PowerPoint presentation. In it, American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh tries to explain the challenges of doing business in China.

To illustrate the language barrier, he shows photos of terribly mangled Chinese-to-English translations—or “Chinglish,” as it’s commonly called:

“To Take Notice of Safe: The Slippery Are Very Crafty.”
PROPER TRANSLATION: Slippery Slopes Ahead

“Financial Affairs Is Everywhere Long.”
PROPER TRANSLATION: Chief Financial Officer

“F*#k the Certain Price of Goods.”
PROPER TRANSLATION: Dry Goods Pricing Department

Cavanaugh explains: “The first rule of doing business in China is also the last. Assuming you are an American. Because, if you are American, it is also safe to assume that you do not speak a single f*$#ing foreign language.  If you take away nothing else from our talk today, remember this. Write it down.

When doing business in China, always bring your own translator.”

And with that, the play flashes back three years prior to Daniel’s first trip to China—and the provincial city of Guiyang—where he has just hired British “business consultant” Peter Timms to translate and help him land a lucrative deal making English signs for a new cultural center. Peter arranges a meeting with Guiyang’s Cultural Minister Cai Guoliang, confident that Cai owes him a favor. But first, Peter says, Daniel will have to take ample time to build “Guanxi,” or quality relationships, since “business in China is built on relationships.”

Minister Cai's offce.  Set design by David Korins.
Their first meeting with Minister Cai begins with promise, but quickly disintegrates into a series of mistranslations and cultural miscommunications, and Daniel soon learns from Cai’s Vice Minister Xi Yan—an attractive female lieutenant—that nothing in Chinese business or personal relationships is ever quite what it seems.

It turns out that Peter is an English teacher, masquerading as a business consultant—and that political corruption may render the business deal impossible. But an unexpected romantic alliance inspires Daniel to keep trying and eventually reveal the truth of his own business past.

David Henry Hwang estimates that at least a quarter of Chinglish is actually spoken in Mandarin; in fact, every character in the play besides Daniel Cavanaugh speaks Chinese. A self-described “first-generation Chinese-American baby boomer born and raised in Los Angeles,” Hwang was interested in writing a bilingual play—even though he’s not actually bilingual. He studied Mandarin for a few years in college, but worked with Hong Kong-based playwright and translator Candace Mui Ngam Chong.

Hwang says he was inspired to write Chinglish by a trip he took to Shanghai: “On one visit, I was taken to a brand new cultural center [there], which was gorgeous except for the ridiculously translated signs. For instance, the handicapped restrooms said, ‘Deformed Man’s Toilet.’ I began to think of using these signs as a jumping-off point to write a play about doing business in China today, one which would tackle the issue of language. In most of our plays and movies, when an American character goes to, say, Brazil, everyone speaks English – with a Brazilian accent. I imagined my Chinese characters having the dignity of their own language, with an American audience reading the translations through projected supertitles.”

David Henry Hwang and Leigh Silverman in rehearsal at
Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Critical acclaim for Chinglish has been widespread from Chicago to New York to Berkeley. SCR’s co-production with Berkeley Rep is helmed by Hwang’s longtime collaborator, director Leigh Silverman, who has been with the play since Broadway.

Chinglish first opened at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2010, winning a Jeff Award for Best New Play, before moving to Broadway in 2011. Time Magazine called Chinglish “one of the three best plays of the year!” The Chicago Sun-Times called it “one of the funniest plays in memory” with “sex, heartache, even a bit of song and dance,” saying “Chinglish manages the neat trick of being about issues, yet populated with real humans while being consistently funny.”

David Henry Hwang says that Chinglish “explores the many ways human beings misunderstand one another.” It is more than a comedy of errors about the superficial barriers of Chinese language and mistranslation. It is also a nuanced look at the Chinese-American cultural divide—and the universality of human business, life and love which transcends it.

Hwang's Plays and Awards


  • 2011 Jeff Award, Outstanding New Play (Goodman production)
  • #3, Top Ten Plays of 2011, Time magazine
Yellow Face
  • 2008 Obie Award
  • 2008 Pulitzer Prize Finalist
Golden Child
  • 1997 World Premiere at SCR
  • 1997 Obie Award
  • 1998 Tony nomination
M. Butterfly
  • 1997 Tony Award for Best Play
  • 1998 Pulitzer Prize finalist
The Dance and the Railroad
  • 1982 Drama Desk Award nomination
Family Devotions
  • 1982 Drama Desk Award nomination
FOB (Fresh off the Boat)
  • 1981 Obie Award
The Return of David Henry Hwang

With Chinglish, South Coast Repertory welcomes home an old friend, playwright David Henry Hwang. Associate Artistic Director John Glore says “SCR’s relationship with David Henry Hwang dates back to a commission we awarded him about 20 years ago, and we co-produced the world premiere of one of his most successful plays, Golden Child (with the Public Theater in 1996). So it’s great to have David’s work back on our stage, especially when the work is as smart, funny and timely as Chinglish.”

Hwang’s Golden Child, with Jodi Long, Stan Egi,
Tsai Chin and Liana Pai in 1997.
Hwang is one of the most lauded modern American playwrights working today. In a career that spans over three decades, he’s garnered the Tony Award for Best Play for M. Butterfly and three Obie Awards for his plays FOB, Golden Child and Yellow Face.  His Broadway musicals include the books for Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida (co-author), Flower Drum Song, and Disney’s Tarzan.  He is America’s most-produced living opera librettist, having written four works with composer Philip Glass, as well as Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar (two 2007 Grammys), Unsuk Chin’s Alice In Wonderland, and Bright Sheng’s The Silver River.  Hwang also penned the feature films M. Butterfly, Golden Gate and Possession (co-writer), and co-wrote the song “Solo” with composer/performer Prince

Hwang recently was awarded the $200,000 Steinberg Award for playwriting, the most generous prize in theatre. He is currently the Residency One Playwright at New York’s Signature Theatre, which is producing a season of his plays in 2012-13, including revivals of Golden Child and The Dance and the Railroad—and the premiere of his newest work, Kung Fu, about martial arts legend Bruce Lee.

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