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Girl, Interpreted: The joys and pains of bilingualism

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Shu-Ling Chua discusses the themes and motivations behind writer/director Grace Feng Fang Juan’s Girl, Interpreted (莉莉译东西), Australia’s first bilingual Mandarin and English comedy series. 

Even in 2020, there is still the expectation that migrants must speak only English if they are to successfully ‘assimilate’ into Australian society. This erasure is ongoing and pervasive; importantly, it fails to acknowledge that linguistic diversity has always been part of this land’s history. According to AIATSIS, over 250 languages were spoken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples prior to colonisation. Language plays a critical role in passing on cultural knowledge and building a sense of identity and belonging. Just ask the characters of Girl, Interpreted, a new bilingual comedy web series by Melbourne-based writer/director Grace Feng Fang Juan, which offers a refreshing glimpse into the daily lives of Chinese-Australians, particularly those marginalised due to language barriers. 

Girl, Interpreted follows the exploits of Lillian (played by Jenny Zhou; previous credits include the Netflix series Chosen), a nervous Mandarin interpreter caught between words and cultures in Melbourne. Her assignments range from translating for an elderly patient about to undergo a prostate examination, to assisting in a police negotiation. Humorous scenes play on the gaps between, and within, languages, and subtitles add to the sense of being in on an inside joke; only Lillian and viewers truly grasp the full situation. In one instance, during an ‘in conversation’ event with artist Ouyang (Frances Wang), Lillian interprets from English to Chinese, “We will interrogate Trauma in the Womb’s thematic framework and its discourse in a post-colonial context” – only to be met with the artist’s blank look. In another episode, Lillian is hired to interpret for the vivacious Strawberry Crush (Andrea Solonge) as she live-streams in Chinese for the first time while gorging on “Old Mama’s spicy-hole chicken wings”. Lillian dubbing the star 烂草莓 lan cao mei [“Broken Strawberry”] doesn’t exactly help endear the Aussie vlogger to her lukewarm audience.

The joys and pains of living “in between”

Girl, Interpreted was inspired by Feng’s own experiences. She grew up in Guangdong, China, and moved to Melbourne in 2006 to study film and television production at RMIT University. After graduating, she worked as a Mandarin and Cantonese interpreter. While she felt frustratingly removed from the screen industry, the experience provided her with a wealth of material – “lots of confrontation, cultural clashes, misunderstandings, and sometimes experiencing racism firsthand”. 

When Feng started writing Girl, Interpreted, she envisioned a TV series about a group of interpreters. “Lillian has an Indonesian interpreter friend and they hang out, talking crap about agencies and complaining about their customers,” she laughs. “Like Seinfeld.” Over time, this was pared back to focus on Lillian, with each five-minute episode focusing on a different assignment. After years of patiently revising the screenplay, Feng decided to take the project more seriously. “What kept me going was a tiny, vague flame, saying: ‘You do have a voice. You do have a story to tell and it deserves to be seen by others.’” In 2018, she participated in the Victorian and National Talent Camp, facilitated by AFTRS and Film Victoria, where she met Nikki Tran (web series FRESH!) and Stuart Menzies (ABC’s The Cry). Tran and Menzies would respectively become producer and executive producer of Girl, Interpreted. The series initially received funding for a pilot episode, then additional funds from Screen Australia to complete all five episodes in the following year.

Director Grace Feng Fang Juan on the set of Girl, Interpreted (photograph by Rhys Sherring)

Director Grace Feng Fang Juan on the set of Girl, Interpreted (photograph by Rhys Sherring)

A key challenge was translating personal experiences into relatable on-screen moments. “I know the scenario very well. [The challenge is] how to paint the comedy flavour throughout the episode,” Feng notes. “I don’t want to make slapstick comedy just for the sake of laughs. I want the humour element to be relevant to the story, and it has to do with language.” To achieve this, she practised writing scenes without dialogue and worked with Tran and script editors to make the writing more compact and dramatic. “English is not my first language and this show is about language-switching,” she says. “It was good to get a native English speaker’s perspective on whether the jokes land or not.”

“I don’t want to make slapstick comedy just for the sake of laughs. I want the humour element to be relevant to the story, and it has to do with language.”

More than just a comedy

In addition to its comedic elements Girl, Interpreted does not shy from darker themes like domestic violence. The episode ‘Straight Man Cancer’ was written in response to the trope 霸道总裁 ba dao zong cai. “Like the Mr Grey character in Fifty Shades of Grey, ba dao zong cai is a CEO and aggressive. He’s arrogant, dominant and of very high socioeconomic status but suddenly picks on someone ordinary,” says Feng. “It’s quite a popular genre in China. Everyone wants to be that person who is 壁咚 bi dong by him.” The definition of bi dong is cleverly woven in, with Lillian explaining to the police: “It’s when a man uses his bare hands to smash a wall to corner a woman. It’s meant to be romantic in some cultures.”

The series also introduces viewers to the underappreciated profession of Interpreting, which requires an understanding of context and other cues. “The most common misconception is that if you’re a bilingual person, then you can be an interpreter,” Feng says. “You need to learn the craft of how to render one language to another. It requires a specialised technique and time, like any profession.”

Importantly, the series challenges the dominance of English in Western societies, as well as Mandarin above other Chinese dialects. For the episode ‘Urologist’, which features the Teochew dialect, Feng worked with Simeon Yang (who plays elderly patient Mr Zhao Wen) to develop his lines. Much effort was placed on finding actors who could speak the dialect, and the crew was predominantly people of colour. Feng herself switched between Cantonese, Mandarin and English, depending on who she was directing.

“I want to give a voice to those ‘in-between’ cultures in Girl, Interpreted,” says Feng. “And do so in a way that authentically captures the diversity of experiences within Chinese-Australian community, to add to the depth of inclusive representation on our screens.” Beyond its humour, the series will hopefully signal more multilingual screen stories to come.

Girl, Interpreted (莉莉译东西) is available to watch on YouTube and Chinese platforms Tencent and iQiyi for Mandarin-speaking audiences.

Details can be found on Facebook and Instagram.

Shu-Ling Chua is a Melbourne-based writer and critic. Her work has appeared in Peril Magazine, Lindsay, Meanjin, Triangle House Review, The Saturday Paper and elsewhere.