Bridging the Language Gap Onstage

In The Four Immigrants, the four main characters arrive in America speaking primarily Japanese, with a limited knowledge of English. Although they quickly pick up the language, we still need a way to show this language barrier and the characters’ overcoming of it onstage. In a book or movie, when dealing with different languages, it’s easy to include a translation or subtitles to make sure your reader or audience understands everything. In fact, when the original Japanese manga was translated from Henry Kiyama’s Manga Yonin Shosei to The Four Immigrants Manga, translator Frederik L. Schodt had to come up with his own way of dealing with this shift. The Four Immigrants playwright Min Kahng explains, “The original book was mostly in Japanese, and only had moments of English spoken when the main characters were interacting with Americans. So when it came time for Fred to translate it, he used a printed typeface for the Japanese portions of the comic strip, and he left the broken English in Henry Kiyama’s handwriting.”

But how does a playwright tackle this issue, making sure that the language shifts are clear, while continually drawing the audience in?


Sharon Rietkerk and Megan McGinnis in Triangle. Photo Kevin Berne.

It’s a challenge we’ve seen multiple times over the last several years. In Triangle (TW 2015), sisters Chaya and Sarah speak their first language (Yiddish) to each other at home, while they’re learning English with the New Yorkers around them. Director Meredith McDonough chose to differentiate between these two by having their “English” be broken and accented, while their “Yiddish” lines, although actually English onstage, are spoken fluently, in their regular, un-accented voices.

In The Loudest Man on Earth (TW 2013), the main character, Jordan, is a Deaf man who speaks only American Sign Language. His love interest, Haylee, speaks a bit of ASL at the beginning of the play, but becomes more fluent by the end. Although Haylee speaks out loud when she signs (a common practice—the combination of ASL and facial expressions/mouth movements while talking helps with communication), when Jordan’s speaking, we generally don’t have the benefit of accompanying verbal translation. In fact, there are scenes throughout the play where Jordan stands onstage, alone, and tells a story from his past, using only ASL and Visual Vernacular to get his point across. Although a great majority of our audience didn’t speak ASL, it wasn’t difficult to follow Jordan’s emotions, and find yourself immersed in the story.

loudest man


The Loudest Man on Earth was a risk, because we deliberately didn’t have a translation of what was being said. Playwright Catherine Rush intended for there to be moments of ASL that the hearing audience wouldn’t necessarily understand, and moments of spoken English that a Deaf audience wouldn’t necessarily understand. And in the middle, Jordan and Haylee bridged the two to create a story that all could connect with.

On a nationwide scale, in 2009, Broadway brought us a new version of West Side Story, which sought to become truer to life with its bilingual cast. The Sharks sang and spoke in Spanish, translated by then-up-and-coming Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Guardian said in its review of the show that the Spanish “helps to retain the artistic energy of the musical…When Chino tells Maria that Tony has killed her brother Bernardo, the original ‘He killed your brother!’ becomes the grittier ‘¡Ése cabrón mató a tu hermano!’ (‘That bastard killed your brother!’).” Although two songs (“I Feel Pretty” and “America”) had the translations printed in the playbill, for the most part the audience was left to gather the story and intentions from the acting, even if they couldn’t speak the language.



Karen Olivo (as Anita) and the cast of Broadway’s 2009 West Side Story

Back at TheatreWorks, in our 2016 New Works Festival, we presented the first full reading of the latest draft of Min Kahng’s The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga. Min chose to have his four main characters speak English onstage, with the conceit that they were actually speaking Japanese. “But,” he says, “the problem with that was how to let the audience know that when they were hearing the main characters speak, it was Japanese. Originally I had this whole vaudeville conceit where these four ‘presenters’ came out, and they just explained it to the audience. But, like any good musical theatre solution, the new fix comes from a song. The characters sing quickly, You may comprehend the words they say with startling ease / You’ll have to pretend they’re really speaking Japanese. By solving the problem that way, we clarify it in five seconds, in a way where the audience is in on the joke.”

To offset against that, the English-speaking characters onstage speak in a fast and fluent broken English, to demonstrate the way that characters unfamiliar with the language would pick out the words they know to try to piece together the meaning. These characters lose their broken English over time as the four immigrants become fluent themselves.

They say that the easier something is to read (or to watch), the more time and effort must have gone into writing it. The complications of having different languages spoken onstage, while keeping the entire show understandable and engaging to the audience, is a difficult challenge, but one that many writers and directors are rising to meet. Min says, “I’ve seen enough musicals and plays now that are doing this with outsider or immigrant stories, that it doesn’t seem so much of a leap for audiences to take anymore.” From where we’re standing, the more immigrant or outsider stories being told, and the more the audience is asked to stretch their experience and imaginations, the better!

The Four Immigrants 2_Kevin Berne

Hansel Tan, Sean Fenton, Phil Wong, and James Seol as the Four Immigrants. Photo Kevin Berne.

For more information on The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga, visit


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