"Chinglish" hits Broadway

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Tonight is the opening night for a new Broadway play called "Chinglish." I first heard "Chinglish" was coming to Broadway from, appropriately enough, Victor Mair, Language Log's resident expert on the tricky Mandarin-English translational divide. At first all I knew about it was the stylized logo for the show, with the title as Ch'ing·lish. (I thought the diacritic in the first syllable might be some sort of homage to the old Wade-Giles romanization of the aspirated voiceless alveopalatal affricate / t͡ɕʰ/ as ch', as in the Ch'ing Dynasty, now pinyinized as q. But I think it's also supposed to evoke the syllabic stress mark used for headwords in English dictionaries, since the syllable break has the conventional dictionary-style centered dot.) When I saw that the play was written by David Henry Hwang, who won a Tony Award for "M. Butterfly," I was hopeful. And now that I've seen the play and had a chance to interview Hwang about it, I can report that there is much about this funny, poignant play for Language Log fans to love.

I got to see the play in previews a couple of weeks ago, and I then had a wonderful conversation with Hwang, which I was able to spin into two separate Q&As published today: one for New York Magazine's Vulture blog and one for my Visual Thesaurus Word Routes column. You can read those to get yourself up to speed on how Hwang was first inspired to write the play after seeing Chinglish signs at a Shanghai cultural center in 2005, how he used the mistranslations of Chinglish as a conceptual jumping-off point to explore the failure of cross-cultural communication, and how he decided to make the play truly bilingual by having the Chinese characters speak Mandarin with English translations of their dialogue projected as surtitles. (This BBC News piece on the play also makes for good reading.) Here I'll just point out a couple of other items of interest for Language Log readers.

In the opening scene of "Chinglish," the American protagonist, Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes), is giving a presentation to fellow businessmen about overcoming the Chinese-English language barrier. Within the first few minutes, I was immediately relieved to hear Daniel give an excellent explanation of a topic that has come up on Language Log several times: the bizarre mistranslation of Mandarin gān "dry" (traditional 乾, simplified 干) into English as fuck. The example that Daniel discusses, in fact, is reproduced in Victor Mair's definitive analysis of the translation gaffe: "Fuck the Certain Price of Goods" on a sign over a dry goods price counter. Daniel patiently explains how the simplified character 干 conflates a few different traditional characters for words pronounced as gān/gàn, thus leading to the homography of words for dry and do, with the latter rendered by some popular translation software as the entirely inappropriate fuck. A very Mairian walkthrough.

After the opening scene, we flash back to Daniel's first experience in China, trying to do business in the provincial capital of Guiyang. Daniel is trying to save his family company, Ohio Signage, by landing a lucrative contract for English-language signs at Guiyang's cultural center. With the help of a grizzled English expat named Peter (Stephen Pucci), Daniel sets up a meeting with Guiyang's jovial minister of culture Cai Guoliang (Larry Lei Zhang) and his hard-nosed vice minister Xi Yan (Jennifer Lim). Daniel makes his pitch for the necessity of avoiding embarrassing Chinglish signs — like the example that David Henry Hwang saw in Shanghai that inspired the play in the first place: a handicapped bathroom labeled as "Deformed Man Toilet."

Though Minister Cai expresses interest, Vice-Minister Xi is less than impressed, pointing out that Westerners are just as capable of cross-linguistic embarrassments as the Chinese. The example she provides is another one that Language Log readers will appreciate: the controversial cover on a 2008 issue of MaxPlanckForschung, the journal of the Max Planck Institute, adorned with wildly inappropriate Chinese text. The text apparently came from an advertisement for a strip bar, promoting "beauties from the north" and "young housewives with figures that will turn you on." Again, Victor Mair provided the definitive guide (and a follow-up on tracking the culprit).

I won't spoil the rest of the story, which, as the coy ads for the play suggest, goes "from the boardroom to the bedroom," mining transcultural confusion along the way for both laughs and emotional resonance. As Hwang told me, the Chinglish follies are "just the gateway to talking about deeper misunderstandings that exist between the cultures": "Sometimes even when you know what someone's saying literally, they might as well be speaking a foreign language, because the underlying cultural assumptions can be so different." I did ask Hwang if he had come across the relevant Language Log posts on gān/fuck or the Max Planck fiasco when he was doing research for the play, and he couldn't remember what exactly he had read. (Granted, both the "Fuck the Certain Price of Goods" sign and the Max Planck cover have been widely circulated online.) Nonetheless, I feel justified in giving "Chinglish" the first-ever Language Log Seal of Approval for Linguistic Verisimilitude. May it inspire many more such productions, both theatrical and cinematic.


  1. q said,

    October 27, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

    Surely there's more to the whole Chinglish phenomenon than cultural misunderstandings. I find it fascinating, yet a little puzzling, that it's very rare to encounter these embarrassing Chinglish signs in Taiwan (same with Hong Kong and Singapore, though that's more explained by their British influence). Has anyone explored why this is?

  2. GAC said,

    October 27, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

    A second possible reason for the center-dot — it's often used to divide Western names that are transliterated into Chinese (which I can't illustrate here for technical reasons). Oddly, it is used to divide given name and surname, but no punctuation is used to set off transliterated names from the rest of the sentence.

  3. Dan Hemmens said,

    October 27, 2011 @ 6:10 pm

    Presumably a native speaker would be able to tell what was the rest of the sentence and what was a foreign name from context, whereas they'd need some marking to tell where the parts of a foreign name began and ended.

  4. Alexander said,

    October 28, 2011 @ 7:08 am

    Not velar stop. More like alveopalatal affricate.

    [(bgz) Ah, right. Not sure how that got in there — it's been fixed.]

  5. Ivan said,

    October 28, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    The NY Magazine piece quotes Hwang as saying his play "… would also tackle the issue of language, which I’d never seen any play or movie attempt to do." He would do well to study David Edgar's "Pentecost," a post-Soviet play about identity, language, and transnational politics wherein the issue of characters' language and mutual incomprehensibility is treated sincerely. Sizeable sections of the play are in Bulgarian, Turkish, Arabic, Russian, and Polish, which in my time was a fun challenge for a cast full of Georgetown undergraduates.

  6. Rod Johnson said,

    October 28, 2011 @ 10:56 am

    What's "the issue of language"? It would help a lot of us to know that.

  7. Joel said,

    October 28, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    Q (and others), I can't speak about the Taiwan issue (sounds like it's worth a deeper look), but if you're looking for another perspective, you might want to keep an eye out for Oliver Radtke's work. He's responsible for some of the popularizing of Chinglish signs in his books (see his website at http://www.chinglish.de), but his academic work is more nuanced in that it attempts to come up with a typology for these signs — like what differentiates a badly translated 'caution' sign from a made-up foreign-sounding brand name on a shop in a mall, and so on. I think he's working on his dissertation now. In the end I believe he argues that most people don't want, for whatever reason, to hire professional translators.

    Another anthropological perspective which I think explains a lot is Eric Henry's "Interpretations of “Chinglish”: Native Speakers, Language Learners and the Enregisterment of a Stigmatized Code" which was in an issue of Language and Society last year. He examines the way that essentially any 'weird' English from China can be called "Chinglish," but that this is really an ideological label.

    I can't speak for everyone who studies the sociolingusitics of English in China, but one thing that bugs me is the assumption that all English in China is typified by the careless, computerized (and funny) translations you see on signs. There's so much else going on with English there (here, I guess — I'm here now), and if anyone is interested in looking at some other perspectives on "China English," which a term usually used to describe Chinese English that isn't Chinglish (if you follow me), I can recommend anything done in the last few years by Xu Zhichang (more of a straight-up linguistic analysis), You Xiaoye (rhetorical analysis of online discourse), and He Deyuan (students' attitudes about the nationality of teachers and the desirability of learning different varieties of English).

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