Word-Plays

By Dalia Wolfson12th Grade, Hunter College High School Several years ago, a funny little game named “translation party” went viral: if one followed the prompt, “Start an English phrase,” and clicked “Find Equilibrium,” the game generated a Japanese equivalent. The output was often wordy cabbage – as if someone had stripped away the leaves of grammar and left stuff of nonsense at the core. Oftentimes, plays about language fall into a similar trap. It’s easy to get quick laughs by putting words that are simply wrong into characters’ mouths; any mistranslation blog is raw material. It is infinitely harder, however, to forego the puns and plumb the causes of miscommunication, such as generational gaps, cultural differences or estrangement. As wordsmiths, playwrights gravitate towards verbal games. It's understandably tempting to develop words more than characters: fooling around with a sentence is much easier than fleshing out a relationship. A prime example of this is The Language Archives, a show about the failing marriage of a linguist and his wife. Its dialogue focused so much on variations of, “But, darling, we speak a different language,” that the whole play devolved into tedious refrains. Chinglish (currently running on Broadway) takes a more nuanced approach to language. There’s more to the mistranslation in this dramedy in which an American businessman and Chinese vice-secretary struggle to reach commonality. There’s a search for the meaning of words, not just the sounds themselves. Last year’s Flipzoids also battled with the passage of language through generations of a Filipino family, where words were not only a communicative medium but an unappreciated heritage. As a polyglot and logophile, I sigh heavily when words become a joke. I’m reminded of Love’s Labour’s Lost, initially Shakespeare’s romp through the most tongue-twisting, lip-flapping concoctions of language possible. But by Act 5, the male lovers are dismissed by their maidens for their long-windedness, and required to wait a twelvemonth to reform their speech until it rings pure. In the last scene, Rosaline explains that cheap wit is worthless: “Why, that’s the way to choke a gibing spirit, Whose influence is begot of that loose grace Which shallow laughing hearers give to fools” Rather, as Rosaline says, the crux is this: “With the entire fierce endeavor of your wit/ To enforce the pained impotent to smile.” Namely, the beauty of wordplay is the ability to refine intentions, to clarify relationships, to translate emotions until they’re clear as day. I just plugged “This is the end” into Translation Party, but the translated phrase is the same…which probably means that I’ve said what needs to be said, hopefully as clearly as it can be written.