Adrift within metaphrase conversion (lost in translation)

And as many times that I’ve said that language is about communication, not perfection – there are sometimes that precession is necessary. Documents like International Legal Instruments, Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between countries, international work contracts and the like, need to go beyond literal, linguistic equivalence and be conceptually and cross-culturally equivalent in each of the countries and cultures. And let me tell you, this is god-damn hard.*

When you want to be really sure that document’s true meaning is conveyed, you do something called forward-translations and back-translations. Let’s say you want to translate an English document into Arabic. You give the document to the first translator, who should have good knowledge of English but their mother tongue is Arabic. They carefully translate the document from English to Arabic. The document is then translated back into English by another independent translator, whose mother tongue is English and who has no knowledge of the original document. If the original and secondary English documents match up in meaning and tone, then the Arabic translation must be good.

I was looking through one of these forward/back translations when I spotted my now, favourite translation error. The secondary English document was matching up well to the original, when I found a phrase that had no business in my beautifully worded contract; “air practice.”

Air practice…?

And then it clicked – it was supposed to be ‘pneumatic drill.’ An easy mistake to make if the first translator wasn’t very familiar with power tools and wasn’t paying close attention to the context of the document.

If professional translators could make a mistake like that, then imagine what happens when your only means of converting your language into another is Google Translate?

difficult children
I hope this isn’t a translation error; I like the idea of a charity for particularly wicked children.

Below is just two pages of one menu.

20131120 HCMC 001
Snakehead is a type of fish, I don’t know how it could ‘Freat Election.’
20131120 HCMC 002
Did the mangium handling fry the fish or did the fried fish handle the mangium?
20131120 HCMC 003
‘Trứng luộc’ means boiled eggs, don’t know about them attendance voting.

Don’t mistake me, I’m in no way making fun of the people that put this menu together. Translating a document from one language to another can be stupidly difficult and they had limited resources. I’m glad they made the effort. Selfishly, it also makes me feel a little better about the glaring language errors I make every day.

 

* While translation (changing one written language for another) is difficult, interpretation (changing one spoken language to another) is probably even harder. This is because interpretation is often simultaneous; interpreting a speech as it is being given, for example. Even UN interpretors who work at the very top of their profession, still have to work in teams of two and swap with their partner every 20 minutes. I’ve seen more than a couple of them stepping out of their soundproof booths a little sweaty and dazed.

Careless whisper

It was only recently that I heard Viet Nam’s national anthem and it was up until that point that I thought the anthem was probably George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper.’

Viet Nam loves Wham!’s music in a deep and enduring way – ‘Last Christmas’ plays all through November and December, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ is fun to dance to, but Careless Whisper is a perennial favourite. I don’t think a day goes past that I don’t catch the melody floating out of a car window or from a radio in a café. It is played everywhere, all the time.

I know every single lyric and am in the grip of a Stockholm Syndrome relationship with this song. I catch myself humming Careless Whisper in quiet moments; it has become the screensaver of my mind.

I was in a taxi rattling down Ha Ba Trung Street when it came on the radio, the driver joined in and naturally so did I. In those two and a half minutes I was harmonizing with a complete stranger and we were both completely into it. We arrived at my destination and I stayed in the car until we finished the chorus.

That isn’t to say that every Careless Whisper experience has been positive. In Viet Nam, being considered good at Karaoke isn’t so much based on singing ability, as much as sheer volume and enthusiasm… I’ve experienced some Careless Whisper renditions so loud and awful, I was half expecting the sound equipment to develop sentience and fight back against its torturers.

George Michael
“Tonight the music seems so loud…” I know George, it’s giving me a headache too. 

One of the items on my Viet Nam bucket list is to learn the Vietnamese version of Careless Whisper (included for your interest below), sing it at staff karaoke night and redeem myself for my appalling rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody at our work New Year’s Party. It doesn’t look too hard… right?

Careless Whisper

Mọi điều với anh sao quá mơ hồ

Nắm đôi tay bước lên sàn nhảy

Âm nhạc dường như đang tàn phai

Mọi điều trông thấy nơi hàng mi

Lại khiến anh nhớ về màn bạc

Mọi thứ thật buồn khi chia ly

Anh không bao giờ còn nhảy nữa

Nơi gót chân tội lỗi chẳng thể nào

Còn theo kịp vần điệu diết da

Dẫu anh vờ như chưa hề biết

Hẳn em đã không còn ngây ngô

Sẽ tốt hơn khi dối lừa bản thân

Để rồi gắng trở thành bạn em

Không màn đến những điều được trao

Anh sẽ không bao giờ nhảy nữa

Không còn nữa, được nhảy cùng em

Thời gian không thể nào trở lại

Lời vụng về nơi bạn tri âm

Gửi đến con tim và tâm hồn

Hững hờ có khi lại là tốt

Hơn cả sự thật lắm phủ phàng

Sau những điều em từng trông thấy

Mọi điều xen lẫn nỗi đắng cay

Giờ đây, anh sẽ ra sao đây

Khi con tim lấp đầy trống vắng?

Đêm nay tiếng nhạc mãi ngân vang

Hay lòng anh đang phải gào khóc

Anh chỉ muốn thầm nguyện ước sao

Không phải đứng trước đám đông này

Có thể điều đó sẽ tốt hơn

Khi những lời nói vô tình trao

Khiến ta tổn thương đến nhau

Đôi ta lẽ ra sống bên nhau

Những vũ điệu đam mê còn mãi

Nhưng giờ đây, ai nhảy cùng anh?

Xin em, hãy quay bước về bên

Giờ đây hẳn mọi điều đã hết

Chẳng thể nào nữa, phải không em

Như ngày xưa đôi ta có nhau…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Giờ đây em quay bước rời xa…

Anh đã làm điều gì sai sao?

Khiến em phải bỏ anh cô quạnh…

The Faux Américaine; the first among Viet Nam’s third culture kids

I met the Faux Américaine at a house party some time ago. I realise that the moniker I’ve given her is probably confusing, but it was just the thing that stuck in my mind when we first met. She seemed like a nice American expat that was just working for the short term in Viet Nam like the rest of us. And it was then over the few hours that I spoke with her, that every single one of my assumptions about her turned out to be false.

She has only been to America once for a holiday. She is the daughter of French parents. Her impeccable west coast American accent came from the American English teachers at the International Schools she attended.

She arrived in Viet Nam when she was weeks old in the late 1980s (a time when a limited number of foreigners from Europe lived in the country) and grew up in the loving arms of various local nannies and care-givers. So she speaks perfect, Southern Vietnamese dialect with a seamless accent, complete with street slang and all the saltiest swear words. The local Vietnamese people seem to think she is very strange and endlessly entertaining.

She told me that on the way to the party where we met, she couldn’t find the street the party was on and asked a man sitting outside his house. He just stares at her, so she repeated herself. He tells her to wait and ducks inside the house. Then he comes back out with his whole family; they all want to see the foreign woman her age that talks like a local. “Say something else!” a little boy asks her.

The Faux Américaine rides off. She gets a bit sick of being a sideshow.

She is so unusual not just because she is a adult foreigner that has lived all her life in Viet Nam, but also because Viet Nam was and is a migrant source country, not a migrant destination country. This means that there are more people leaving Viet Nam than people moving to Viet Nam. This has been gradually changing over the last few decades, with the strengthening of the Vietnamese economy and various other global factors. So there are small, but increasing numbers of foreign migrants* taking up residence and making a life for themselves in Viet Nam. As a result we are starting to see more third culture kids (TCKs)**. These are the children of foreigners that moved to another country, stay and raise a family. TCKs are raised in their parent’s language and culture in the home, but they also know and understand their local culture and language better than their parents could ever hope to. They often become bridges between countries. They’re the physical embodiment of a new global society and that is wonderful and exciting. This isn’t to say that life isn’t sometimes confusing and difficult for these kids. Childhood is often a time when the thing you want most is to blend in and sometimes being a TCK means that you really stand out.

I recently spotted a flaxen-haired little girl in the playground of a local school, playing badminton and yelling in Vietnamese with her little friends. So maybe it won’t be too long before The Faux Américaine is less of an oddity. But she’ll always be one of the first.

 

 

*The majority of migrant to Viet Nam come other Southeast Asian countries, also Europe, North America and the Antipodes.

**The first culture of children refers to the culture of the country from which the parents originated, the second culture refers to the culture in which the family currently resides, and the third culture refers to the amalgamation of these two cultures. The third culture is further reinforced with the interaction of the third culture individual with another expatriate community one would come to encounter.

Thanks for the definition Wiki! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_culture_kid

Improv

I stop by the supermarket on the way home from work.

My local supermarket is a fairly standard, western-style affair with air-conditioning and florescent lights. If I don’t look too closely, I feel as though I am back in my country for a few moments as I walk in the door. But as I stride past the aquariums overcrowded with live, gasping fish and rows of pigs’ feet, my nostalgia extinguishes.

I’ve run out of laundry detergent and walk over it find some. There are a bewildering array of options; I settle in and start running my eyes across the brightly coloured bags. A store employee notices that I’ve been staring at the laundry detergent for some time and decides that it must be because I don’t know what I’m looking at. With most products in the supermarket she’d be right but in this instance the pictures of sudsy clothes tumbling in washing machines on the bags leads me to make a deduction I was reasonably confident in. She gestures to the bags of laundry detergent and mimes washing clothes with her hands; I watch for a moment and admire her perfect use of non-verbal communication. I nod and begin to copy her. We wash our imaginary clothes together in aisle 5, smiling at each other in perfect accord. I’ve almost finished washing my make-believe underpants when she is finally satisfied that I understand the use of the products on the shelf and leaves me to my deliberation. I sniff several bags of laundry detergent until I find the one that will make my clothes smell like a wildflower meadow after rain and place it in my basket.

I remember that I’m down to one roll of toilet paper at home and head in the direction to get some more. I stop suddenly when I see my new friend next to the rolls. Probably best to skip that particular improv session; I’ll come back for them tomorrow.

This is not to say that I didn’t really appreciate that woman’s efforts to help me and everyone else that has gone above and beyond to aid this hapless stranger in a strange land. I’ve lost count of the number of times people communicated with me through stilted English and French, mime, pointing, drawing, and once, animal noises. Thank you for learning more of my language than I have of yours and for your patience in the face of my ignorance.

Thanks Saigon!
Thanks for all the peace signs, Sai Gon!

Why are you laughing?

I get laughed at a lot. Most days actually. And I’m fine with it for a couple of reasons;

1. I was gifted more than my share of self-confidence and I’m quite happy being the centre of attention. Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m somewhere between Muhammad Ali and Kanye West on the Narcissism Continuum, but I’m certainly not crippled by social anxiety.

2. I’m completely aware that I’m very different to everyone around me and that is humorous for some people. If my very presence can bring some amusement into someone’s day, I’m going to count that as a positive. Feast your eyes, friends, and giggle away.

3. I know that I mess things up all the time and the mistakes I make are pretty funny. My attempts at speaking Vietnamese alone are enough to send anyone into a paroxysm of laughter. And the time I slipped on a block of fallen silken tofu and fell into a basket of frogs at my local market would have looked hilarious to anyone watching and everyone was watching. (No frogs were injured and I’m sure they were gently released back into some lovely, clean waterways later that day).

4. I’ve lived in Viet Nam long enough to know that Vietnamese people are generally a jovial bunch and are as quick to laugh at themselves as they are at others. Can’t complain if I’m being treated the same as everyone else.

5. I’ve recently learned that the Vietnamese word for ‘smiling’ can be the same word as for ‘laughing.’ In English being ‘laughed at’ and being ‘smiled at’ convey very different experiences, but maybe if there is less distinction in the Vietnamese language, there is less distinction in the Vietnamese mindset. Being ‘laughed at’ in Vietnamese might be as tender and charming as being ‘smiled at’ in English.

6. I remember that some people are just arseholes that will laugh at you out of unkindness and I try not to let it break my stride. Arseholery is not specific to a nationality and you’ll meet unkind people wherever you go. Enter your favourite self-affirming quotes here.

7. I’m generally laughing at myself too.

Three Grandmothers or a turtle?

A short Vietnamese lesson.

ba means ‘three’

ba means ‘Dad’

bà means ‘Grandmother or Missus’

bà means ‘her’

ba ba means ‘turtle’

So what would I have if I was given ba ba ba?

Whatever your answer is; you’re probably wrong – it’s a beer, 333 beer actually.

333 Bia
333 Bia

Though I suppose I could have been given three of her Grandmothers; though it pretty unlikely.

The Vietnamese language sometimes needs context to be clear. So, if l worked in a marine sanctuary (or a restaurant) then ba ba ba really could mean three turtles.

The Vietnamese words for cream, ice cream and moisturiser are the same – kem. It would be obvious if I was asking for some kem to put on my face, but less so if I ordered some kem to go with a piece of cake.

But this is just the beginning of my Vietnamese language confusion.

At one point I thought that bánh meant bread, as in Bánh Mì a Vietnamese bread roll. Okay, that is easy.

Then I came across Bánh Xèo, a delicious savoury pancake stuffed with pork and bean sprouts. It isn’t a really bread, so I modified my definition of bánh to mean anything made from flour. My beloved Bánh Cuốn (steamed rice noodle rolls) are made from flour, so is Bánh Chuối (banana cake). Finally I figured it out and it all fit! I felt pretty proud of myself for having used my excellent powers of deduction so skilfully.

Bánh Cuốn (steamed rice noodle rolls)
Bánh Cuốn (steamed rice noodle rolls)
Bánh Chuối (banana cake)
Bánh Chuối (banana cake)

Then I learnt the words for motorcycle tyre – bánh xe… Huh? What?

Tyres are made from synthetic rubber, natural rubber, fabric and wire, not freaking flour.

Then what the hell does bánh mean?

All confidence in my reasoning skills having left me, I finally just asked someone what it means.

And it pretty much translates as something that is or was round in shape.

Okay then; I can live with that.

Actually, the double, triple, quadruple and octuple meanings of the same word are less bothersome to me than the tonal nature of Vietnamese. But I can tell you’re already reeling from this small insight into the multifariousness of Vietnamese words, so let’s go over tones another time.

Fun fact! Many people, locals and tourists alike, use motorcycle taxis or xe ôm to get around. Xe is a prefix word for a type of vehicle, as in xe gắn máy for motorcycle. In Vietnamese, ôm means a cuddle, so the direct translation isn’t ‘motorcycle taxis,’ it is ‘motorcycle hug.’ I think that is just a great way to put it.