Premiering at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago before opening on Broadway in 2011, Chinglish, is a comedy by renowned playwright and librettist David Henry Hwang. An American signmaker trying to expand his business into China encounters a number of obvious and subtle complications, not the least of which is traversing the language difference. Hwang witnessed the challenge first-hand on one of his many trips to China. “During one visit, I toured a new arts center where everything was first-rate — except for the ridiculously translated English signs. It was at that moment I thought of writing this play.”
In 2015, Hwang attended the successful East West Players production of Chinglish in Los Angeles and was inspired to revise the play to better reflect current geopolitical realities. It was the revised and English-only script that arrived at San Francisco Playhouse despite the fact that a substantial amount of dialogue in the play is spoken in Chinese. A further complications was that the only extant translation for the Chinese dialogue was based on the original script.
Enter cultural consultant and translator Patrick Chew (趙錦洋) who was charged with bringing the text into alignment. Working in collaboration with Wynne Chan (陳嘉盈), associate director and casting consultant for the Playhouse production, Chew soon discovered that more than just some words had been lost in translation.
Most recently the internationalization manager at change.org, Chew initially claims to speak only two languages. “English and Fur’ner,” he says with a deadpan delivery. Pressed to elaborate, he reveals, “take a large chunk of what you think of as Asia, take a large chunk of what you think of as Europe, and some of the in-between, and that is in the double digits.”
His expertise includes working with regional dialects, and this was the next wrinkle he encountered. “I read the original version that included the Chinese dialogue and the first thing that I felt was that translator was not a native PRC [People’s Republic of China] Mandarin speaker. I thought, ‘This is not how people would talk in the People’s Republic.’ It sounded much more like a non-Mandarin speaking Mandarin, possibly Mandarin from either Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, or Singapore.”
Early in the process, Chew considered the specificity of Hwang setting the play in Cleveland and Guiyang in the Guizhou province in Southern China. “They’re in kind of second tier levels, not only at the city level, but also just the region, so, knowing that, I had to go through and change it into much more colloquial PRC speech that would be Mandarin.”
His work was complicated by the fact that rehearsals had already begun with the previous translation. ” A lot of the actors had already tried to either memorize from that script and were trying to get off book to focus on the other parts of the acting.” It required some negotiating, “Our two non-native, non-heritage speaking actors playing the non-Chinese roles had those original lines memorized already, so it was already kind of muscle memory to them.” Perfect never became the enemy of the good, and lots of creative compromise ensued.
The term “heritage speaker” connotes that the person has some facility with the language at hand due to family history and other exposure, but it is probably not their primary language. Only one person in the Chinglish cast was born in China, “and in the Northeast, not anywhere near where the play is set,” says Chew. “The rest are either American-born or emigrated to the United States. Most of them speak Taiwanese-style Mandarin and/or are of Cantonese heritage. Wynne, our assistant director, is Hong Kong Cantonese, who has learned how to speak Mandarin, but it’s Taiwanese style rather than Mainland style. Another person is, I believe, American born of Hong Kong, Cantonese, and Hakka parents, and speaks Cantonese, rather than Mandarin. The rest are Taiwanese Mandarin speakers.”
Chew offers a simple analogy for quantifying the differences between mainland Chinese – Beijing style – versus Taiwanese as “kind of like saying, British versus American or North American English, where you can see distinct differences in prosody, and in phonetics and phonology, as well as diction, lexicon, and more.”
The actual tracking of the play’s dialogue was, by necessity, much more detailed, involving spreadsheets with columns for the English lines, translation into Traditional Chinese, translation into Simplified Chinese, and transliteration into pin-yin, a phonetic system for converting written Chinese (hanzi) into Latin-based text allowing non-Chinese speakers to approximate proper pronunciation. “One of the challenges,” Chew acknowledges with a wry smile, “and I actually have found this to be a learning experience, is trying to manage [consistency] going back and forth in readings and rehearsals to polish things. We make changes in some but then, you know, did I remember to actually change it in the other two columns?”
Tone is an important part of all spoken Chinese and, as experienced in Chinglish, can positively or negatively impact communication. This gave Chew something akin to a panic attack after the first day of language rehearsal. ” At four o’clock in the morning, I’m lying in bed and thinking, ‘How am I going to get these actors into a mainland Chinese mindset and rhythm?’ I got up and started crafting something.”
By 11:00 he had compiled a package that would guide the production process. “There are two layers to consider. You have people who should be speaking Mandarin. You have people who should be speaking English with a Mandarin accent – that is Mandarin from mainland China. So, we have to start thinking about how we can make our actors speak what I call Beijing-lish, which seems to be a pretty apt term for it and then also get them to speak PRC Mandarin.”
Chew brings in more and more details, peeling back linguistic layers. His passion for language is scholarly, but without pedantry, and nerdily, infectiously joyful. Just don’t mention Google Translate. “Google Translate has its place,” he says in measure tones, “it just does not have its place here.”
Despite his delight in the subject, he is sanguine about the fact that for much of the audience, at least the non-Chinese audience, his efforts are going to be severely under appreciated.
“That’s okay,” he says with undeniable sincerity. “We are here in the Bay Area, with a large Chinese or Chinese-American population. [The attention to detail] will mean something to those who actually do know. When I worked on The Headlands at A.C.T. earlier this year I actually did end up sticking in more Hakka because it would be more pointed and bring out that flavor. They got a lot of audience feedback like ‘Oh, my gosh, thank you so much for including my people, my culture, my language.’ We’re taking it to an authenticity where, if you don’t know, then you’re just gonna say, ‘Okay, this is what it should be.’ If, however, you really are in the know and you can appreciate the details, then that, to me, is the cream on the top.”
– Robert Sokol (苏彬笔)