Broadway's 'Chinglish' shows humor of lost in translation


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Admit it: you chuckle at emails that list goofy translations.

"Chinglish" at Broadway's Longacre Theatre has definitions mangled in translation as a main theme.

The first jokes are a photo projected on a screen that read "To take notice of safe/ The slippery are very crafty." This means slippery slopes ahead, Daniel Cavanaugh ( Gary Wilmes) tells the audience.

"Finance affairs is everything long." This means CEO he tells us.

The fourth wall is not breeched again until the very end, and the play is deeper than the imprecision of translations.

David Henry Hwang's play uses humor to examine the cultural gulf between Chinese and American societies.

It's a broad comedy, at times a little too broad. Daniel is an American, a bit at odds in Guiyang, a "small city of 4 million." He wants to land a contract for his family business, a sign company, but is clueless as to how to do business in China. He neither speaks the language nor understands the customs.

But Peter Timms ( Stephen Pucci) comes to his aid. A Brit, teaching English in China, Peter offers to be Daniel's business consultant. His Chinese sounds impressive -- especially to these Western ears, and none of the Chinese in audience took issue with his speeches. This figures, Pucci holds a BA in Mandarin from Leeds University.

His character, after 19 years in China, purports to understand the Chinese, but he does seem to have moments when he loses his struggle with self-control.

Not all is at seems. 

Daniel makes his pitch to the local officials with Peter helping him at the meeting. As Peter tries to explain his great-grandfather founded the company in 1925 in Cleveland, the translator says, "His village is insignificant but he does business in Chicago."

When the minister tells the translator he appreciates his "frank American style" the translator tells Daniel "he appreciates your rudeness."

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The minister's deputy, Xi Yan ( Jennifer Lim, "The Good Wife") is not easily swayed. She's professional, intelligent and beautiful. She pans Daniel in the meeting and is later dispatched to meet with Daniel, and is supposed to kill the deal.

That would, of course, make for a very brief play. Instead she wants to help the sap, explaining to him that he cannot trust the minister.

Initially, Daniel is wise enough to question why she would help him: Why would she risk her job and her marriage?

But their affair gets in the way of his thinking too clearly. There are secret machinations and when a new official is installed, he and his underlings are most impressed that Daniel was a salesman at Enron. They love that he knew the major players.

Daniel, however, is no major player; he's barely a minor one. But he can see when he is being played and is smart enough to keep his mouth shut.

The scene where Daniel tries to profess his love for Xi Yan is pretty funny as he tries to say "I love you" in Chinese and instead manages to say, among other gems: "Snail loves cow" and "Frog loves to pee."

When Mandarin is spoken, the English subtitles, or at least the important segments, flash across a large screen on stage. It works and the audience becomes accustomed to it, just as when watching a foreign movie.

Though some might want to think that business is so different in the United States, all one need do is look at the rule of greed. Language and customs may be different, but the struggle for power is pretty universal.
Photo/Video credit: Michael McCabe
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