Language and Theatre

Language and Theatre Merge in “Chinglish”

Over my winter semester break, I had the opportunity to spend a weekend in New York City, catching up on my Broadway shows.

The last show I saw that weekend was Chinglish, a new work that originally began at the Goodman Theater in Chicago and later made the transition to Broadway. The play’s main plot follows an American businessman from the Mid-West (Ohio, to be exact) whose company makes signs. He is attempting to expand into the Chinese market by securing a contract to provide the signage for a new arts center. To assist him, he hires a British ex-pat consultant to provide translations, not only of the language, but of the business culture as well. The American businessman’s confusion over how to proceed in his meetings (and in his developing affair with a vice-chairwoman), all stem from misunderstandings of both the language and the cultural norms associated with everyday interactions.

The script included several scenes containing both spoken English and spoken Mandarin, with English subtitles for the spoken Mandarin projected onto the set above the action. Many of the most humorous moments of the play occurred when the audience (but not always the characters) were clued in to where the main conversational points were clearly being “lost in translation.”

As both a theatre person and a linguist, this play was fascinating. A statement made by the British ex-pat early on about how important it was to have someone who understands more than just the language was made abundantly clear again and again, in almost every scene.

One especially memorable moment comes when the American businessman (without his hired consultant) has revealed his connection to the Enron scandal with his new lover, the vice-chairwoman, who in return has set up a meeting with several government figures in a position to strike a deal with the businessman’s company.  Although he played a minor role in the scandal, he reveals that he knew many of the key players, all of whom are well known to the Chinese government employees. Rather than downplaying this role, the vice-chairwoman exaggerates it, knowing that the notoriety will result in a more favorable opinion of the both the individual and the company.

Unfortunately, the show has since closed on Broadway, despite wide critical acclaim  (including being named #3 Time Magazine’s 10 Best Plays and Musicals of 2011). But its message will hopefully continue long after the marquee has changed:

Language competency and cultural competency are not the same thing, and only by being aware of their interconnectedness can communication truly be called successful.

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