This summer, while traveling in China, I delivered a lecture at the Changshu Institute of Technology to an audience of students, language teachers, and translators. Speaking (through an interpreter) about the challenges of translators who serve as bridges between two languages, I noted that they are inevitably “traitors” to each. In the question-and-answer session that followed, a professor stood up and passionately attacked me for demeaning the status of translators in Chinese society.
I soon learned that the problem wasn’t just that my own translator had missed the nuances of my speech. The word “traitor” also carries a connotation in today’s China that is far more dangerous than in the West. My American sense of irony didn’t travel well either, while I had inadvertently trashed the Chinese understanding of honor. Yes, just my point.
Then the conversation began to make me think hard about my work on multilingual literature, first Yiddish and, for the last decade and a half, Spanglish. Spanglish is applauded among Latinos in the United States for its democratic and innovative qualities. I had assumed the fast-growing Chinglish, increasingly the language of tourism and, to a lesser extent business, was the same.
Latinos, the largest minority in the United States, are undergoing a process of mestizaje that amounts to forming a new civilization, neither Hispanic nor Anglo. While other immigrant groups (Jews, Germans, Italians) brought their native languages with them, those languages coexisted with English for only a relatively short time. Yiddish, for example, quickly died out, leaving behind only a few words and expressions.
Spanglish, much more a true mixture, has been in use for at least a century and a half. One hears it not only in metropolitan centers with large Latino populations, such as Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, and New York, but throughout the Southwest, in Florida, large portions of the Midwest, and elsewhere. It is shaped by people of all economic backgrounds through code-switching, automatic and simultaneous translation, and by means of inventive wordplay.
At the lecture, a student asked me why Spanglish is seen as politically empowering by Latinos in the United States. Another speaker wanted to know why Spanglish is seen as an emblem of creativity. Put the issue in context, I explained. English isn’t threatened by jargon. On the contrary, it builds on it. Then a scholar wondered if in my opinion Chinglish should be encouraged among Chinese youth.
The question wasn’t surprising, considering the overwhelming presence of American popular culture in China, as well as the embrace of English as the primary foreign language taught in Chinese schools. A new generation is coming of age switching between English and Chinese and, in doing so, is being caught in the crossfire. Chinglish is the symptom of the process of Westernization.
But for a nation whose language has remained astonishingly stable, indeed rigid, for centuries, today’s linguistic transformation is generating a deep social rift. The answer I gave is the same I offer everywhere. While I appreciate the mechanisms a standard language uses to protect its integrity, change is not only inevitable, but it is essential as people adapt to the world.
I also said, however, that while on the surface similar, Spanglish, Chinglish, and other “mixed tongues” respond to distinct cultural phenomena. For one thing, Chinglish doesn’t emerge from a confrontation between majority and minority groups. It is about making intelligible in one tongue what is uttered in another—and, needless to say, the abyss between standard Chinese and English is enormous.
Chinese characters are pictographs that contain all sorts of phonetic composites. Since the language is highly symbolic, a word acquires meaning depending on context and intonation. English is concrete. It uses an alphabet. The sound of certain letters depends on their position in a sentence.
A case of Chinglish I came across during my trip was in the user’s instructions inside a package of medication for skin irritation I bought at a drugstore in Beijing. The medicine’s special feature, the instructions stated, “Can let user contain abundant time to make the usage of more varieties.” And in a section “Usage elucidation,” I was told, “For the keeping this product of personal clean suggestion use a time.” Wait, what?
Spanglish might also appear chaotic, although it is easier for me to understand because I grew up in Mexico. “Vacunar la carpeta,” for instance, means to vacuum the carpet, although in Spanish, the sentence actually says, “To give the carpet an injection.” A street sign I often read in Holyoke, Mass., tells me: “Se proibe janguiar,” which, misspellings and all, means “No hanging out.” There is a flow.
At this point in the lecture, I realized there were two distinct sides in the auditorium: the students, who perceived me as a champion of Chinglish since I welcome its mistakes as a sign of improvisational joie de vivre, and some members of an older guard who saw my opinions as anathema.
From my experience, Chinese students tend to be quite formal on occasions such as a public lecture. That day it was different, exhilarating. The lesson I learned? It is time to stop ridiculing Chinglish and to study its patterns and the freedom it announces. For better or worse, it is the future of China.
Ilan Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His latest books are a new translation of Juan Rulfo’s The Plain in Flames (University of Texas Press, with Harold Augenbraum) and, due out in October, the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic Books, with Steve Sheinkin).