The thorny process of translating language and culture is the whole point of David Henry Hwang’s farce Chinglish, the Goodman’s world premiere (recently extended and headed for Broadway in the fall). No surprise, then, that there’s no less than three translators, each showing a different facet of Chinese society, and lots of dialogue in Mandarin, translated into English in supertitles, as Midwestern businessman Daniel Cavanaugh wheels and deals in the provincial city of Guiyang.
Christine Lin, 29, a native of the northwest suburbs who also works part-time as an engineer, plays the third and final translator. “Mine is pretty confident she’s doing well and feels, I think, important that she’s translating for the judge and the prosecutor,” says Lin. “She’s also very proud of her city!”
Stereotyping runs rampant on both sides, but as Lin points out, “It’s important to remember that this is a specific story about specific people.” And sometimes simply being able to recognize a name or news event—Enron, for instance—is what creates a connection. When Hwang was visiting China and talked about musicals, the one that people reacted to most favorably, he told the cast, was Enron (a Broadway flop). Lin says their response was, “Oh yeah, we’ve heard of that!”
The Enron scandal plays a crucial role in Lin’s translation scene. “Every night that scene is different,” she says, “based on the audience reaction. For instance, sometimes when Daniel says, ‘Andrew Fastow could have been Chinese—he was so smart and guarded and kind of sneaky,’ some audiences are like, ‘Oh NO! He did not just say that!’ They’re scared he offended us. And I love that part when the audience realizes that, no, we think that’s a really flattering thing to say. Sometimes we get laughs…. The rhythm is different every night, so it’s learning to surf on the audience reaction, which is fun.”
Lin—the only Chicago actor in a cast of seven—knew Mandarin going in. Both her parents grew up in Taiwan (though her dad was born in mainland China) and came to the States for grad school. “I grew up speaking it,” she says, “and my grandparents of course speak Chinese, and I went to Chinese school… every Sunday! I wasn’t crazy about it. I don’t read it very well, but listening to it, I learned. And there were a lot of people to help with pronunciation and making sure we said things correctly.” During auditions, Lin says, “There were people who spoke Chinese, but maybe more Cantonese and only knew a little Mandarin, or a different dialect. They really aren’t the same! If someone is speaking Cantonese, I can’t understand a thing.”
Goodman’s production—workshopped for a year in New York, according to Lin—is pretty high-powered. Director Leigh Silverman also staged the world premiere of Hwang’s Yellow Face in 2007. “Leigh is great, very protective of her actors in the work,” says Lin. “She has a clear vision even though there’s room to play. And I loved to watch her work with David, there’s so much respect and understanding even without words.”
The Broadway cast hasn’t been announced, but Lin says, “We all get along together really well. I would love to go!” The day before we talked, she says, she went out onstage and “it just felt like home.”