Several years ago, my girlfriend, Morgan, and I traveled to Vietnam. It was a fantastic trip, full of endless intrigue and exotic beauty, and it filled us with wonder and happiness. Towards the end of our stay in Hanoi, we decided to spend a day at the Ho Chi Minh Museum, a “must-see” according to every guidebook we read. “Limited English translation” the books boasted, easing our fears that we wouldn’t be able to understand any of the descriptions of the various exhibits.
Little did we realize that the phrase “limited English translation” might reflect the limited abilities of those responsible for the translations. As we made our way through the museum (a massive stone structure built on Soviet testosterone and brimming with interesting historical artifacts), we started to convulse with laughter. The descriptions of the exhibits were hysterical. They made little to no sense. And since the subject matter being described was substantial and serious, the linguistic contrast made the results fantastically absurd.
This gap between very different languages, and by extension, different cultures, is a subject that our esteemed colleague David Henry Hwang mines to full effect in his latest play Chinglish. We watch an American businessman travel to China to score a lucrative contract. The people he encounters may understand every word he is saying or not a single word. When translated, every sentence seems hopelessly mangled. The result is a story that is both laugh-out-loud funny and a subtle description of the minefield of misunderstanding and manipulation that appears when people of different cultures attempt to do business with each other. What begins as a pure farce turns into a treacherously amusing study of humanity, and the “common ground” that we assume links us all together begins to shrink until it practically disappears.
Director Leigh Silverman, who has a rich history of working with David, returns to Berkeley Rep (after expertly directing In the Wake for us two years ago) with a distinguished group of designers and actors. After the run here in Berkeley, the show moves to our friends at South Coast Rep and finally to Hong Kong, where the response should be fascinating. Can you imagine? I wish I could stand in the lobby and ask people questions flanked by an army of translators and armed with a recorder. The transcription might have the makings of a great sequel.
We kick off the new season with a story that seems straight out of the headlines, yet David Henry Hwang wrote Chinglish long before the fall of Chinese Politburo member Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai. Just another example of life following art. What seemed unimaginable becomes inevitable.
It is such a treat to bring this distinguished playwright and his brilliant Broadway hit to our stage—and to bring this timely new play to you. I am very pleased to tell you that, following a run in Costa Mesa with our co-producing partners at South Coast Rep, we will be sharing this show with other audiences as well. Our production will travel to Asia where it will be part of the prestigious Hong Kong Arts Festival. We are very proud to serve as ambassadors of the American theatre with this funny, audacious play about the limitations of language and cultural understanding in our global age.
As we send Chinglish overseas, we will in turn welcome other artists and stories from around the globe as part of our exhilarating new season. We’ll travel the world together, so fasten your seat belts and enjoy the ride.
by David Henry Hwang
In my play Chinglish, which had a well-reviewed run on Broadway, a Midwestern American businessman travels to the inland Chinese city of Guiyang in hopes of landing a contract for his firm, only to become enmeshed in multiple misunderstandings, from language to love. The play, a comedy, seemed to strike audiences as one small step toward greater cultural understanding.
Chinese nationals with whom I spoke after the show, however, sometimes raised one quibble about my script, which includes an extramarital affair between the American businessman and the wife of a Communist Party official. This, they said, might make for good drama, but couldn’t actually happen in China. Such a woman would never enter into a close relationship with a foreign man.
Against that backdrop, the dramatic fall of former Chinese Politburo member Bo Xilai has been particularly fascinating. The scandal is set in the inland Chinese city of Chongqing, where Bo rose to become a party leader, with a cast of characters that includes his wife, Gu Kailai, who is being investigated in the mysterious death of British businessman Neil Heywood. Bo, meanwhile, has been stripped of his government post. As the story broke, I began receiving email from journalists and China experts who had seen my show. “Chinglish à la Agatha Christie!” wrote one. “Chinglish as a murder mystery!” suggested another.
It’s true that the Bo story has taken similarities between art and life to a whole new level. The play features a British consultant who arranges for the son of a Chinese official to be admitted to an English university. Neil Heywood got Bo’s son into England’s Harrow School. In Chinglish, an official is arrested on corruption charges, which serve as a pretext for a behind-the-scenes power struggle. Similarly, the downfall of Bo and his wife is widely regarded as a bid to remove him from office in advance of a major Chinese leadership transition.
More than two decades ago, I wrote another play, M. Butterfly, inspired by the true story of a French diplomat’s 20-year affair with a Chinese citizen, who turned out to be (A) a spy and (B) a man in drag. In those days, Western nations dominated the world. A European man involved with a Chinese woman could still live the fantasy of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, in which a richer and more powerful Western male dominates a stereotypically submissive and self-sacrificing Asian female.
Today, recession-battered Westerners seeking a foothold in booming China must assimilate to its customs and ways of doing business. I experienced this firsthand starting in 2005, when I began traveling there regularly. As a Chinese-American born in Los Angeles, I was raised with few customs from my parents’ homeland. Yet China had become interested in Broadway musicals, and I happen to be the only even-nominally Chinese person who has ever written a Broadway show, so I found myself there discussing proposals for productions. These ideas ultimately amounted to nothing, but provided me with an amazing opportunity to learn about China today.
Though I took a couple of years of Mandarin in college, I basically speak only English. Like any monolingual American, I needed an interpreter for my Chinese meetings. On one trip, I was taken to a brand-new cultural center, which featured gorgeous Brazilian wood, Italian marble, state-of-the-art Japanese sound systems. The lone flaw was the signage, which had been translated into laughable English, commonly known as “Chinglish.” The handicapped restrooms, for instance, were labeled “Deformed Man’s Toilet.” I began imagining a play about doing business in China that would deal with the issue of language. Roughly one-quarter of the dialogue in Chinglish is in Mandarin, with English translations projected onto a screen for non-Chinese speakers.
Just as the English supertitles allow Western audiences to understand what would otherwise remain mysterious, I wanted the story to illuminate differences between Chinese and American cultural assumptions. Though I’d often heard stories about foreign firms and deals gone wrong, I still had more to learn. An early draft of my play, for instance, included a scene where a British consultant visits a disgraced Chinese official in prison. Our show’s cultural advisers spoke with numerous experts before deciding that such a scenario would be impossible; no such visit would ever be allowed. So I rewrote it.
In today’s China, unlike that of M. Butterfly, a Western man involved with an Asian woman might well end up as the submissive partner. So has any news outlet suggested a sexual relationship between Madame Gu and Neil Heywood? Not in China. Between the lines, however, one can read implications: Madame Gu grew “too close” to a foreign businessman, leading to his murder, she suffered from “bouts of depression,” she apparently asked those in her “inner circle” to “divorce their spouses” and swear allegiance to her and her husband. Still, to my knowledge, no article in China has explicitly suggested a romantic affair.
The story in Hong Kong, however is different. There, on April 12, the Apple Daily published a piece headlined:
CUCKOLDED BO ORDERED THE KILLING.
GU KAILAI RUMORED TO BE
ROMANTICALLY INVOLVED WITH
MURDERED BRITISH BUSINESSMAN.
It read: “There are rumors that Heywood was murdered because he knew the secrets about the Bo family fortune and had an affair with Mrs. Bo. There are even rumors that Bo was angered he was cuckolded so he ordered the killing…Some reports claim that two days after the death of Neil Heywood, Gu Kailai and Heywood’s widow met at a Chongqing cafe with military police guarding the entrance and clearing out all other customers. According to these reports, people could hear Gu weeping, and in the end, Heywood’s widow agreed to forgo an autopsy. The official report would declare excessive alcohol as the cause of death, and the body would be cremated.”
That piece came two days after a government announcement that Madame Gu was under investigation for the “intentional homicide” of Heywood, and that Bo had been stripped of his party roles. The Apple Daily version of events may be sensationalized fiction. But it at least made explicit the suspicions of many people.
Still, it’s unlikely we’ll ever learn the true facts of this case. For Chinese officials, obsessed with “face,” the real scandal is that ordinary Chinese, even foreigners, have seen the inner workings of the nation’s ruling elite. Chinglish uses power struggles, plot twists and translated supertitles to make transparent what is normally hidden to outsiders. In the real China, though truth may be as strange as fiction, it is almost always less transparent.
David Henry Hwang is a Tony Award-winning playwright. He has been nominated twice for a Pulitzer Prize. This piece first appeared in the April 23, 2012 issue of Newsweek, and is reprinted with permission from the author.
by Neena Ardnt
“I like your smile, but unlike you put your shoes on my face,” reads a sign situated near a lawn in China. “The little grass is sleeping. Please don’t disturb it,” reads another similarly placed sign. “Your careful step keeps tiny grass invariably green,” reads a third. All three are attempting to communicate the same message, which in America is crisply rendered as “Keep off the grass.”
Signs like these are a common sight in China, where tourists puzzle and giggle over the mistranslations commonly known as “Chinglish.” English-speakers are directed to “slip carefully” (“don’t slip”) and to use the “deformed man’s toilet” (“handicapped restroom”). They are informed that “the civilized and tidy circumstance is a kind of enjoyment” (“don’t litter”). Any native speaker of English can snicker at these malapropisms, but most don’t know enough about Chinese language or culture to understand the factors that result in Chinglish signage.
In fact, as the character Daniel points out in Chinglish, “If you are American, it is safe to assume that you do not speak a single *&%^ing foreign language.” Though most Americans are exposed to foreign languages during their school years, few attain proficiency. And many monolinguals, who acquired their native language in infancy and haven’t had a good reason to think about language since, operate under what linguists call the naïve lexical hypothesis: that is, they assume that differences between languages lie solely in their vocabulary, and that each word in a given language has an equivalent word in all other languages. Both Chinglish (the linguistic phenomenon) and Chinglish (David Henry Hwang’s play) are humorous but potent reminders that there’s no such thing as a direct translation and that language is usually more slippery than we expect. Translators would do well to heed the Chinglish warning: “slip carefully.”
An English speaker learning Mandarin Chinese will rapidly discover that it differs from English not only in its sound system, but also in its structure. Those who learned a Germanic or Romance language in high school will recall the arduous task of conjugating verbs in past, present and future tenses. Mandarin learners need not study up on verb tenses because Mandarin doesn’t use them; it relies instead on other cues within a sentence to indicate if something has already happened, is happening presently, is expected to happen in the future or if the speaker is using the verb as a command. Adding an ending to a verb (such as -d or -ed to indicate past tense in English) would be an unfamiliar concept for a Mandarin speaker. This illuminates, for the English speaker, how someone might create a sign that reads, “Be sloppily dressed excuse me for not receiving,” when a more apt translation might be, “Entrance may be denied to underdressed customers.” While “be sloppily dressed” sounds like a command to English speakers, a native Mandarin speaking translator could easily misunderstand the relative subtleties involved in using verbs in English.
Another significant structural difference between the two languages concerns plurals. In Mandarin, it is rare to combine morphemes—units of meaning—to create more complex words. The English word dogs contains two morphemes—dog, which means furry quadruped, usually friendly, and -s, which means that there are two or more of them. While English denotes plurality by adding -s, Mandarin often goes without denoting it at all—the listener must either infer it from contextual clues, or proceed without knowing whether her neighbor is talking about his single dog or his 50 dogs. If a speaker needs to make this distinction clear, he or she can use words like some or many, or can indicate a specific number, but this is often unnecessary. This explains why a person might create a sign that says, “Don’t forget to carry your thing,” when he is attempting to prevent foreigners from leaving their personal belongings behind: in English, we draw a (key) distinction between “your thing” and “your things,” but a Mandarin speaker could be hard-pressed to see the difference.
Of course, good translation between the two languages is possible, and the real causes of Chinglish signage are carelessness and poor knowledge of English. Some companies assign translation duties to the employee whose knowledge of English is best—but the “best” English speaker in a company may possess only partial proficiency. Unwilling to defy or disappoint her superiors by revealing her lack of ability, this employee will attempt the translation—with mixed results. In some cases, companies rely on online translators, which tend to create literal, dictionary-based translations that don’t take into account connotations or multiple definitions of words. Nor do such translators consider how each language uses metaphors and idioms differently. It may make sense, to the Chinese mind, to say that undisturbed grass is “sleeping,” but English doesn’t normally utilize that metaphor, and an adept human translator would find a more familiar phrase. (The opposite scenario—English idioms sounding odd or unintelligible in Chinese—can also be true. A literal translation of phrases like “bad egg” or “nest egg” would surely prove either disastrous or amusing.)
In David Henry Hwang’s play, as in real life, many Chinese people are ashamed of Chinglish and aim to eradicate it. Certainly tourists would benefit from clearer signage, but would also miss out on windows into the Chinese language—which, though often comical, are thought-provoking insights into a culture that so often remains elusive and mysterious to westerners.
This piece originally appeared in the program for the Goodman Theatre’s 2011 production of Chinglish.
A few weeks before Chinglish premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2011, David Henry Hwang spoke with the Goodman’s Neena Arndt about his writing process and the timeliness of the play.
You’re working with a translator, Candace Chong, to create the Mandarin text for Chinglish. Is this the first time that you’ve worked closely with a translator on a show?
Yes, and I’m really enjoying this experience; it enables me to write a little more deeply about China without actually knowing Chinese. And to write a bilingual play without being bilingual.
In Chinglish, there’s a bilingual character, Peter, who’s been in China for 20 years and knows the country very well. Peter is from England, but says he feels more at home in China—unfortunately, his Chinese colleagues don’t always accept him as one of their own. In writing that character, what issues about cultural identity were you aiming to explore?
I’ve spent a good portion of my career writing about the dilemma of identity as it relates to Asian Americans. I’m a Chinese American, and when I’m in China, they certainly don’t consider me Chinese. And in America, there are some questions about Asians and to what extent we are either perpetual foreigners or “regular” Americans. The more I’ve gotten a chance to travel and meet people in different parts of the world, the more I realize that this is not a dilemma that is unique to Asian Americans. Especially as the world grows smaller and there’s more transnationalism and more people relocating across borders, this sense of dislocation and insecurity about identity applies to a lot of people. And I think Peter was an opportunity for me to explore these sorts of feelings of identity confusion but with the shoe on the other foot. Having spent some time with the ex-pat community in China, I would say it is more difficult for someone like Peter to be accepted as a Chinese person in China than it is for a Chinese American to be accepted as an American.
One of the other major themes of the play is the difference between the American ideal of marriage, which dictates that marriage should be based on romantic love and open communication, and the Chinese ideal of marriage, which relies on different values altogether. Can you speak about that cultural difference?
In a way I would say it’s not even an America versus China difference, as much as it is a new-world versus old-world difference. If you talk to people from Europe, they have a much more practical notion of what marriage is supposed to be—that it’s essentially an institution. It’s a partnership; the romance is going to fade and you don’t necessarily go from one marriage to another trying to chase romance. I think that’s something that older cultures, like China’s, tend to realize more. The emphasis on romance as an integral part of marriage is a relatively new idea in China. Whereas in America, I feel that romance is sort of our secular religion. Like, “All you need is love.” As our attachment to traditional religion has diminished, I feel as if what’s taken its place is this humanistic religion of romantic love, which is what all our songs and movies are about. In the Middle Ages all art was to glorify God, and now, all our art—at least all our popular art—is to glorify romantic love.
Art, and the value of art, is another subject that you address in the play. Some of the characters are building a cultural center in a provincial Chinese city and there’s discussion about what kind of performances will go on there.
Yes. Many regional capitals now have big cultural centers, which were constructed as monuments of civic pride. Cities are left with the question, “What are we supposed to do with this now that we’ve got it? What goes into the cultural center?” Certainly, traditional work—Chinese opera and traditional Chinese music—is one possibility. But on the other hand, China is moving rapidly into a market-dominated economy. And the dilemma in the play has to do with a bureaucrat who is very interested in preserving the traditional forms, which aren’t going to make the most money (the same is true in our culture). And so there’s a lot of pressure for him to use the cultural center in a way that’s going to be more market-friendly.
Why isn’t Chinese opera market-friendly?
Chinese opera is a total theatre form that involves acrobatics and singing; it has been the high art form of Chinese theatre for 400 or 500 years. There are still a lot of people who practice it with excitement and are innovating in the form. But, much like Western opera, it’s somewhat esoteric. It’s not as accessible and not as popular as pop music and American movies. That brings up a question: if something cannot make money, is it valuable? So what do we put in the cultural center? That’s one of the questions of the play. And it’s the same question that we struggle with in Western culture in terms of how we value or don’t value the arts.
Another problem the characters face with the cultural center is making sure that all the signs are translated into English properly—which is often not the case in China.
Yes. And those mistranslations have been very much in the news—particularly in China. As they were gearing up for the Olympics there was a desire to get rid of all the Chinglish. And then there started to be a certain number of counterarticles written about how Chinglish is actually very interesting and we should preserve it. So that was in the air during a lot of the time that I’d been going over. And then as I started to think about writing a play about doing business in China, I went to a brand-new cultural center. It was made out of beautiful Italian woods and had a Japanese sound system—but all I noticed were the mistranslated signs and how ridiculous they were. It seemed like it would be fun to use that as the jumping-off point for a play about doing business in China.
This piece originally appeared in the program for the Goodman Theatre’s 2011 production of Chinglish.