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