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.

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Snakehead is a type of fish, I don’t know how it could ‘Freat Election.’
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Did the mangium handling fry the fish or did the fried fish handle the mangium?
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‘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.

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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…

Eggs

In Sai Gon you can eat eggs from many types of birds, at many stages of development. This is a list of some notable methods.

Chick or duckling fetus – the firm tourist favourite. This isn’t as bad as everyone makes out, tastes like egg yolk mostly. Try to get younger fetuses, there is less chance of having to crunch through the embryonic bones.  Don’t eat the rubbery, hard bit; you will chew on it for a long time until you finally choke it down or spit it out.

egg chicken
Chicken fetus gets no points for presentation.

Unlaid eggs – Quick biology lesson; hens’ reproductive tracts create what we call ‘yolks’ which float down to the ovaduct, where they form their shell. Then fully formed, the egg waits at the end of its ovaduct, to be pushed out or ‘laid.’ Hens are full of yolks of different maturity and sizes, all waiting their turn to travel through the ovaduct.

No chicken dies of old age in Viet Nam; they are either slaughtered young for tender meat or left to lay eggs… and then slaughtered when they stop laying. These older birds that have been laying for a while have tougher meat, so they generally made into soup. So, it is in soup restaurants that you’ll find the most unlaid eggs. In your soup will float these unlaid eggs that range from the size of fully developed yolk to pea-sized; they look and taste like rich, subtle egg yolk. They seem to be one of those ‘waste not, want not’ foods; they come free with the chicken carcass anyway, so why not throw them in…?

Unlaid eggs
I’ll bet you didn’t think there were this many unlaid eggs in chicken.

Quail Eggs – so far I’ve eaten as many eggs from Quails as I have from Chickens. As they are prohibitively expensive in my home country; they are quite the treat for me. I love that they are bite sized and each morsel has just the right yolk to white ratio. One thing that bothers me is that I never actually see the Quails that lay them. Given that I saw at least 10 Chickens each day, I would have thought I would have seen at least one Quail by now.

Egg coffee – (Cà Phê Trứng) A Ha Noi specialty, which is very hard to find in Sai Gon, but worth the search. If you can’t find it my beloved Sai Gon, then travel to Ha Hoi and get it there. It is made from beaten raw egg yolk, condensed milk, a strong, hot shot of Viet Nam’s chocolatey Robusta coffee and the tears of the Lord’s sweetest Angels. I can’t be sure about the last ingredient, but I know the result is certainly velvety, rich and very moreish.

Egg coffee
Egg Coffee.

Egg soda (Soda Sữa Hột Gà)  – raw yolk beaten with condensed milk and soda water over ice, a variation on my adored Egg Coffee. I knew I was onto a winner when my Vietnamese colleague thought it sounded terrible and I was crazy for ordering it. It was surprisingly inoffensive, even more surprising was the total absence of violent food poisoning. It tasted how I thought it would – fuzzy, sweet and egg yolky, like egg custard mixed with soda water. A real testament to Vietnamese culinary inventiveness.

Màu xanh lá cây – The Colour Green

Green was Viet Nam’s first colour. Before the people, the culture, the languages, the cities; there was a green covered land. Alive and bright with the vegetation and botantic scents. It was a colour of renewal and regrowth.

That changed soon enough and the colour green came to symbolise more.

Two hundred Vietnamese solders and I visited Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum one day. I might have stood out slightly.

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A vibrant green of a banana (chuối) plantation, nestled in a mountain valley. The landscape was as beautiful and serene as I was hot and sweaty. The ideal growing conditions for bananas are not the ideal conditions for a hike.

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Getting covered in vines and moss is just part of getting older for Viet Nam’s ancient buildings.

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Rice waiting to be harvested. I was waiting for the rain and cool change promised by the clouds.

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I ordered this drink because it was called Cóc* and I childish thought it would be funny to order. The joke was on me. It was just terrible, undrinkable. The radioactive green colour should have been my first warning.

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Eventually the vegetation will take what was once their’s. There are already some temples that are succumbing.

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I couldn’t resist getting a little artsy.

*This is a drink called Nước Cóc. Nước means ‘water’ or ‘juice,’ while Cóc means ‘frog.’ A Cóc is also a small green fruit that is the same size, shape and colour as a tree frog. This drink was made with fake Cóc, as always, real Cóc is best.

Banal cruelty

Every society and culture has different ideas about an animal’s purpose and treatment. In Viet Nam, a dog’s purpose can range from a treasured family member* to a source of meat. Eating dogs is slowly being unpopular, but there is still an average of 5 million dogs killed for their meat every year.** Dog meat is a more commonly eaten in the north, so I rarely see it here in the south. That isn’t to say that I haven’t seen dog carcasses in the markets; their fur burnt off, their blacked lips stretching their mouths into a permanent growl…

But this isn’t the cruelty I’m writing about. This is about the dogs that live, but are being left. Alone. All day. All night.

Dogs are pack animals; the entirety of their happiness hangs on being with others. When dogs are left by themselves they don’t think, “Terrific, now I can work on writing my novel…” No, their whole world stops when they are left. For them, being isolated is a punishment.

Below is a little Phú Quốc Ridgeback pup chained up on a Saigonese street. I don’t go near strange dogs, they tend to be a little on the bitey-side, but this one looks so dejected that I couldn’t walk past. I whistled at him. He flicked his ears, but otherwise didn’t move at all. I approached him slowly and carefully, holding my hand out for him to sniff. Nothing. A quick scratch behind the ears. Nothing still.

Whatever spirit this pup possessed, had since fled the foot long chain and left behind a sad, lonely little creature.

Phu Quoc Ridgeback pup, far from the island paradise that created it.
Phu Quoc Ridgeback pup, far from the island paradise that created it.

A little pup with an obvious eye infection and limp, chained up outside its house. It was panting and covered in its own saliva. I gave it some water in my bag, it was thirsty and drank more than I expected.

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This is an example of a guard dog chained to a front gate. I don’t think they deter thieves, as much as they make some noise if people come to the door. I see dogs left like this all the time outside homes and businesses.

DSC02874
Tight chain. No water. No shelter.

These dogs are obviously given food and water, but in all my time in Sai Gon, I’ve only seen a handful of dogs being exercised on a leash. Most dogs walk around the streets by themselves or don’t walk at all. When I’ve asked, people say that they chain up their dogs so they don’t run onto the street or get snatched by dog thieves who sell them to the dog meat trade.

This is reasonable, I suppose. But just because you are protecting a dog from a potential, terrible situation doesn’t mean that you can’t provide adequate care and attention. To say that there are dogs that are treated worse does not mean that dogs shouldn’t be treated better. Being neglected is also harmful.

Pet shop
Pet shop

*There are some really terrific pet owners in Viet Nam look after their animals beautifully and provide them with food, water, shelter, leadership, exercise, grooming, training, veterinary care, companionship and protection. I also understand that not all owners live in ideal situations, but they still do the best they can for their animals. Looking after animals is a lifelong commitment, which can be difficult, time consuming and expensive. But it can also be one of the most rewarding and loving relationships you will experience.

**I understand that meat comes from living creatures that are slaughtered, but while there are regulations for slaughtering cattle, sheep and poultry, there are none for dogs. It is common for dogs to be bludgeoned, burned, hung, or stabbed to death; in full view of a cage of terrifying dogs waiting their turn. There are dozens of examples of it online if you don’t want to sleep peacefully again.

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!

Weighty issues

Travel guides usually include a charming story about some foreigner going to Viet Nam, the locals look them over and promptly proclaiming them fat. The foreigner takes great offense until they are told that being fat is wonderful and a considered great compliment. ‘Just one of numerous, hilarious cultural misunderstandings you can expect in Viet Nam.’

This is bullshit.

Well I should say that this story is bullshit now. It was a compliment in the past; for many years, the average Viet person struggled to get enough nutrition. Only the wealthy and connected could afford to get plump and everyone else stayed thin. So yes, for a long time being a little husky was considered a good thing, but not now and certainly not in Sai Gon. People in Sai Gon, especially the youth, have been soaking in a heady mix of K-pop, Hollywood movies and Vogue magazine. Being lean is most assuredly ‘in.’ So unless you are somewhere particularly rural, poor or isolated being called fat isn’t the admiring comment it used to be.

Don’t get me wrong, foreigners will still probably be called ‘fat’ quite often. I was talking to a Vietnamese friend of mine about a mutual acquaintance and the conversation pretty much went down like this; “I know (that person), she is fat…oh yes, so fat.” The person in question is a little on the heavy side and my friend employed typical Vietnamese forthrightness and just told it how it was.

Now, this acquaintance doesn’t actually have the silhouette of a walrus with an underactive thyroid, far from it! But that is the tyranny of comparison. Vietnamese people are small in proportion; even the slimmest, western foreigner will usually look large  standing next to them. Hell, even the clothes manikins can’t zip up the Vietnamese-sized jeans they are modelling.

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Maybe go up a size?

I should note that plump babies and children are still considered a very good thing in Sai Gon and everywhere else in Viet Nam. Parents want really chubby babies and there is much hand-wringing when a kiddy doesn’t have a good couple of rolls on their thighs.