Monday, October 31, 2011

Talking Chinglish

What would you think if you saw a sign saying "Fuck the certain price of goods"? You probably wouldn't guess that it's a translation of a Chinese sign reading "Dry Goods Pricing Department." This is the jumping off point for Chinglish. Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), an American, sees an opportunity for his company to manufacture signs in Guiyang, China, given that the translations are so often embarrassingly incorrect. Peter Timms (Stephen Pucci), an Englishman fluent in Mandarin is Daniel's consultant. They meet with Minister Cai Guoliang (Larry Lei Zhang) and Vice Minister Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim). In David Henry Hwang's comedy, nobody is exactly who they seem to be.

Hwang and director Leigh Silverman spoke about the play at a digital press event. The characters in Chinglish communicate in both English and Mandarin, and one of the most effective elements of the play is the easy-to-follow translations. Silverman said: "Something that was very important for me as the director was to figure out how we were going to use translation in the play because it's thematically important because our American businessman is selling signage. So the idea of signs and translation and language is very important and I really feel like language and communication is a character in the play. I wanted to figure out how to effortlessly give the audience the chance to understand everything that was happening in the play while also literally watching the action of the play so that it didn't feel like opera. It didn't feel like you had to look outside of the frame. It felt like it was part of the fabric and essentially the DNA of the play were these translations. I think what we learned in Chicago when we did it at the Goodman was in fact the translation portion of it engaged the audience in a way that I think we hadn't expected because literally the audience is the only character who understands everything that's happening, so it gives the audience complete satisfaction in a way to know everything that's being said. Figuring that piece of it out was really crucial in terms of delivering what I feel is the comedy of the play and the fun of the play and the brilliance of the play."

When we saw Chinglish, my friend Emily wondered why the English dialogue wasn't translated into Chinese. At the press event, Silverman said that they are considering options for what they can do with the supertitles, especially if the show tours.

One of the most surprising stories to come out of the press event came from Hwang. In a comic highlight of the play, Angela Lin hilariously plays a very bad translator (I wanted more of her in the play). In another scene, Johnny Wu plays an equally incompetent translator. While this may seem like an exaggeration, Hwang revealed that he had a similar experience when he and Silverman visited Guiyang: "One thing that I really noted from the trip was the quality of interpretation in Guiyang of the interpreters was not particularly high. I was supposed to give a speech to local artists and cultural officials called Artists in the Age of Commerce, in other words, how does an artist operate in a capitalist culture, and they assigned as my translator this very sweet guy, but his only qualification was that he'd lived in London in for a year. He had no capacity to translate any of the ideas that I was talking about and he knew it too and was kind of terrified the whole time. We finally got someone on our team to do the translation and then let him read it, so it all kind of worked out. I feel like I'm actually rather generous to the quality of translators in Guiyang in the play."

Photo credit: Michael McCabe

2 comments:

Tobin Vance said...

You can see examples of this kind of mis-translation all over the internet. The fact that someone has written a play about it is very funny, as well as telling.
I was able to get tickets for The Book of Mormon over the summer, and there are LOTS of examples of this very thing, with hilarious results! There is a song that's all about giving God the finger that's very catchy, and very reminiscent of "The Lion King". "Avenue Q" is another example.
There are many Broadway shows in production right now where this is the case. I find it very refreshing.

Queni said...

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