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Beyond translation

'Chinglish,' a new play about China, deftly tackles tricky cultural terrain.

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Yet in all his years in theater, Hwang had never seen the theme of language barriers explored in a play. Nevertheless, it was familiar territory for him. "Having grown up with immigrant parents and relatives, I've spent most of my life dealing with trying to communicate across language barriers," he explains in an interview in New York.

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Invited to help start Broadway in China

Hwang was born and raised in Los Angeles by Chinese immigrant parents who are also Christian evangelists. His religious views diverged from theirs when he began college at Stanford in the 1970s. The strong Christian beliefs of his parents and relatives created for him another exercise in cross-cultural communication.

Until recently Hwang had been to China only once on a family trip in 1993. But in 2005, Chinese cultural officials invited him to China to brainstorm about developing their own Broadway-style works. Broadway in China has yet to materialize, but for Hwang, the trips to China sparked the idea for "Chinglish."

He drew first on his own experience navigating China. Hwang's cultural advisers commanded him to "always bring your own translator." In "Chinglish" the audience witnesses what happens when someone doesn't: A hapless Chinese interpreter mangles communication between Daniel, the Ohio businessman, and Minister Cai, a Chinese government official. Daniel says that his "hands are tied," which is innocently translated into he's "in bondage."

Hwang interviewed many for-eign­ers who have lived and worked in China and consulted with cultural ad-visers and translators to develop the play, performed in English and Mandarin with clever supertitles. To lend more authenticity, the team took note of small details, such as the books and trinkets on the shelves of actual Chinese officials, and incorporated them into the play's set.

Even when masked with comedy, the resulting characters, situations, and dialogue ring true. "I recognized all the characters in the play," says Matt Pottinger, an American who saw the play in New York. Mr. Pottinger worked in Beijing for eight years from the late 1990s as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and Reuters and now advises businesspeople in China.

"It reminded me of the early days in China when foreign investment started to take off," Pottinger says. "You had these quirky Westerners showing up in China – the American businessman showing up to make it, but he doesn't know what he's getting into."

The sense of naive ambition reminded Pottinger of a friend "who showed up in Beijing with a hot dog stand he shipped from New Orleans. He got the stand set up and on the first day, the [Public Security Bureau] confiscated it."

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