Saturday, October 10, 2015

Chinglish



Hesitated before booking seats to Pangdemonium's adaptation of David Henry Hwang's comedy 'Chinglish'. The playwright specializes in American-Asian identity and gender politics in contemporary drama. The 2011 premiere directed by Leigh Silverman debuted in Chicago then on Broadway to much acclaim. He's also known for his 1988 hilarious 'M. Butterfly' (inspired by, but not quite reflecting the same themes as Puccini's opera 'Madama Butterfly').

'Chinglish'. Malapropisms and mangled translations. Of American-Chinese miscommunication and misunderstandings from everything about sex to business negotiations. I didn't feel like sinking into the subject of US and China's perceptions of each other, much less think about cultural differences. Like those ridiculously translated English signs in China? They're incredibly terrible. Often, it's not just bad English. It's more of a matter of shoddy work and a refusal to pay for proper translation and opting to use terribly inaccurate online translators. Once I realized that, I stopped laughing too loudly about the English I see in China. It wasn't that funny after a while. And in China, you don't need English at all.

Followed Xi Jinping's recent visit to the US with a large measure of interest. But I was completely distracted by the concurrent matters of Donald Trump's antics (good lawwwd, please don't vote him, America), Pope Francis and his prog rock album, and Putin's love-hate lines. 'Chinglish' the play has nothing to do with these per se. Its themes though, haven't changed since 2011, and probably before the playwright was even inspired to write it.

Pangdemonium put on a good show. Language differences, cultural stereotypes, assumptions, expectations versus realities, bad translators, and all that is lost in translation. The matter of accents, is another gigantic headache-inducing discussion altogether. How many of us hold second accents? Or third accents? We do. And not just Singlish.

The one point the play brought across- the importance of being at least effectively bilingual, to truly understand the nuances between both languages, as it is with any other language when translating or interpreting it. There're cultural references and inflections that the translator won't get if he/she isn't well versed enough. A good translator can't do it for every industry and should ideally specialize. There're industry terms and practices that simply sound weird if wrongly interpreted. Read enough subtitles at the movies and television shows, and you'll realize how shitty and lacking they are when the English is translated into other languages.

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