A new play is opening tonight on Broadway, and it's a treat for language lovers. It's called "Chinglish," and it was written by David Henry Hwang, who won a Tony Award for "M. Butterfly." I had a chance to talk to Hwang about his comic exploration of the perils of cross-linguistic misunderstanding.
In the play, an American businessman named David comes to China to try to work out a contract for English signage as a way to save his family's company. He falls for a headstrong woman named Xi, who is the vice-minister of culture in the provincial capital where David is doing business. As with "M. Butterfly," no one is quite what they seem, and cross-cultural misunderstandings lead to some hilarious results. After seeing the play in previews, I spoke to Hwang, a first-generation Chinese American who studied Mandarin in college, about how the play came together.
Your initial spark for the play was seeing poorly translated signs at a cultural center in Shanghai in 2005. Did you continue to collect examples of Chinglish on subsequent trips to China, or did you look online for examples that you could use?
It's hard to avoid. Prior to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2010 Expo in Shanghai they tried to clean it up. So there's less of it now in those cities, but if you go outside of Shanghai and Beijing there's still lots of it. And of course there's a lot of collector interest in Chinglish signs that appear on a variety of websites, some devoted specifically to the subject and some not. So it's not that hard to come across.
You have the character Daniel in the opening walk through some notoriously bad Chinglish examples, but then you also have Vice-Minister Xi discuss the controversy over the misuse of Chinese characters on a magazine cover from the Max Planck Institute.
Yes, on the one hand the Chinglish signs are very funny, and are useful as a metaphor. But, you know, we don't even try to translate signs in this country and I thought it was necessary to try to be a little even-handed about this. I can't remember where I first came across the Max Planck story. But it seemed like a particularly egregious example of Westerners trying to appropriate Chinese, and a total fail.
And it's not just some celebrity getting a tattoo with incorrect Chinese characters.
Right, these are people who should have known better.
So you wanted to show the language barrier from both sides of the cultural divide?
I think that I'm trying to be even-handed, and it's actually more fun to do it from both sides of the cultural divide. And we explicate or deconstruct words like "love" and the slipperiness of that between cultures, and then a word like qingyi [a mature bond of affection between husband and wife], where there's really no way to translate that simply in English. So the notion of words that can't be translated is related to words that have different connotations and different implications in different cultures.
Your father had a consultancy helping American businesses in China?
For the last ten years of his life he got into the Chinese consultancy biz, so that I would hear a lot of these stories. And I also have a lot of other relatives who are successful businesspeople over there. So I feel like I've grown up around this material, although I'd never really explored it in my work.
Since you don't speak Mandarin yourself, how did you overcome the language barrier in writing the script?
I worked with a translator, Candace Mui-Ngam Chong, who's a prominent Hong Kong-based playwright who also writes in Mandarin. And then for instance with qingyi, I got to that point in the play, and I said, "Candace, I want a term that has to do with love and marriage that is not translatable." So I asked her for what I wanted. And similarly, I asked her, "I want four or five variations on how 'I love you' could get screwed up if you're using the wrong tones."
That's a great moment for the audience when the translations of David's attempts to say "I love you" are being projected.
Yeah, it's pretty fun. And I think it's also fun because to a Western ear, he's saying the right words.
The dialogue is at least a quarter Mandarin. Did you have any concern that that might be too much for a Broadway audience?
It seems to me from watching the preview audiences that everybody seems pretty happy and is having a good time, so I think we've gotten the proportion right. But you don't really know. We'll see what the reviewers have to say, and we'll see if people decide to buy tickets.
The use of surtitles to project the translations of Mandarin dialogue is an ingenious piece of technology.
The technology is actually more complicated than one would think. The trick is that the titles have to be projected with a light intensity that is sufficiently great to overcome the stage lights, which are often quite bright. So you need this projector that if you replace a light bulb, it's $13,000. And then they're on a computer system, and there's all this software that's relatively new. It's all relatively new technology.
And it has to be timed just right.
That's a human operator — we have a woman who's been with us all through rehearsals. Because the surtitles are really a character. And the timing has to be just right to get the comedy as much as the actors.
If the surtitles aren't working, then you don't have a play?
If the surtitles aren't working, we have to stop the show. There was a performance in Chicago where I think the projectionist actually tripped over the cord and unplugged the computer or something, and the whole system went down, and we had to stop the show. Now we have a backup computer and a backup projector.
In the marketing for the play, both on the website and in YouTube videos, people are encouraged to guess what Chinglish signs are supposed to mean. Is that a hook to draw people into the play who might not otherwise be interested?
I think it's a kind of a hook. I wasn't really very involved in the development of that, but on the other hand I think it's a cute idea. Similarly with the TV spots, the concept seems right, because it's hard to introduce people to what the show is about. You can say it's about an American businessman doing business in China. But the central metaphor and dramatic device of the Chinglish and the translations, that's something that people haven't seen before, not only on a Broadway stage but probably American theater in general. So, to get across the impression that it's not going to be laborious to experience, that it's actually going to be fun to read these titles, and to know more as an audience member than the characters know in the play, that's what I think the ads are intended to convey.
Were you ever concerned that using the funny Chinglish phrases for marketing might belittle the subject matter at all? There's a danger that it's simply understood as mockery.
I think it's a fine line, I agree with you. It worries me slightly. I feel there is a potential trap there, except that I feel like the mistranslations are really a kind of gateway drug into the play. And in terms of trying to market the play to a Broadway audience, which is a more general mainstream audience than say an off-Broadway audience, I'm willing to accept that it's useful, and that if it attracts them to see the play, then they'll actually get the meaning behind these things that might seem kind of superficially ridiculous.
(You can read more of my interview with Hwang on New York Magazine's Vulture blog.)
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer