Language barriers and mistranslations are fertile ground for comedy. Chinese translations of English seem to be particularly vulnerable to gaffes, possibly due to a shortage of fluent English speakers and a corresponding over-reliance on translation software.
As an aside, it should be noted that English speakers have their own problems when it comes to translating Chinese characters. Also, at least our Eastern brethren’s translation failures seem to be confined to signs and menus as opposed to permanent tattoos. You can always change a sign!
Be that as it may, however, China has become somewhat famous for signs written in hilariously garbled English. It was partially these bad translations that inspired Tony-award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang’s new Broadway play Chinglish. The play centers around an American businessman trying to land a lucrative contract in China, without being able to speak the language. As Hwang explained in an article for Broadway.com,
“On a trip in 2005, I was taken to a brand-new cultural center in the ultra-modern city of Shanghai, where my father was born and raised. The facility was amazing—Brazilian wood, Italian marble, German design. And then there were these ridiculously translated signs: For instance, the handicapped restrooms read, “Deformed Man’s Toilet.”
Many Chinese people feel that the existence of so many poorly translated signs is an embarrassment. In fact, the Chinese government has made a point of trying to clean up the mistranslations in cities where international events are being held, like the Olympics in Beijing and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. However, while Mr. Hwang may be touching a sore spot, he is not out to make fun of the Chinese.
In fact, the play is written and performed in two languages, with the Americans speaking English and the Chinese characters speaking Mandarin. English subtitles keep American audiences from getting lost.
Mr. Hwang told the Wall Street Journal that underneath the humor, the play examines how hard it can be to communicate across cultures:
“As our play tries to show, however, even when you literally understand the words, sometimes you might as well be speaking a different language, because underlying cultural assumptions and practices may vary dramatically between the two cultures.”