Chinese signs with unintentionally comical English translations -- crack me up no end. "Slip carefully." "You can enjoy the fresh air after finishing civilized urinating." These mangled translations are known as Chinglish (or Engrish), egregiously mistranslated Chinese with accidentally hilarious consequences. The documenting of such "found humor" is a pastime that has resulted in numerous blogs and books -- and now a play at Berkeley Rep.
Chinglish, written by David Henry Hwang, is really about communication and social protocol between Americans and Chinese. As an American Midwesterner learns the fine art guanxi and Chinese business etiquette, this slight comedy touches upon the theme of the shifting balance of power and the China/America top/bottom relationship. These are themes that were addressed ever so brilliantly and beautifully in M. Butterfly, Hwang's 1988 play about the love affair between an American diplomat and a Chinese opera diva, who is in fact a man masquerading as a woman.
Michelle Krusiec and Alex Moggridge
Alex Moggridge plays a fresh-faced American business man, representing the Ohio Signage Company who is angling for a big contract in a small Chinese city. Well aware of the pitfalls of Chinglish, he promises to save the town from embarrassment by getting the translations right. We learn that in Chairman Mao's efforts to simplify the tens of thousands of ancient Chinese characters, many characters have more than one meaning, often leading to speech that gets lost in translation.
And as we all know from Shakespeare and sit-coms, misunderstanding is the stuff on which comedy is made.