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.

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.

McPork

When Viet Nam’s first McDonald’s opened in Sai Gon last year; it attracted a bit of international press. Global reactions ranged from disbelief that there wasn’t dozens of them already, to horror that one of the last strongholds against American corporate greed was being crushed beneath the ubiquitous Golden Arches. But really, nothing about the arrival of McDonald’s should have been surprising.

Suddenly remembering my childhood fear of clowns and am regretting this whole post.
Suddenly remembering my childhood fear of clowns and am regretting this whole post.

For one thing, Vietnamese people love trying to kill themselves with sugar and transfat as much as the next person. And they’ve been doing it with lots of international fast food chains; including KFC, Pizza Hut, Popeyes, Starbucks, Dominoes, Gloria Jeans and Lotteria. And Jollibees… Jollibees everywhere.

Vietnamese people are also generally interested in trying all the foods and drinks they see in American and Korean movies and television shows. I’ll admit to my own curiosity the first time I went to America; I ate more corn syrup than was nutritionally advisable and I was lucky to escape without developing Adult-onset Diabetes. So, of course people are going to want to try a Big Mac, when they’ve been hearing about them their whole lives.

McDonald’s have even come up with the McThịt (McPork), the first Vietnamese-style burger on the menu, to appeal to consumers who want to eat something with vague Vietnamese flavours at six times the cost of something they could find just down the street. The McThịt joins the ranks of bespoke menu items found in non-American McDonald’s including; the McFalafel in Lebanon, the McNürnburger in Germany, the McKřen in Czech Republic and McArabia Grilled Kofta in Egypt.

What might be surprising to the uninitiated are the circumstances of the opening of McDonald’s in Viet Nam. When McDonald’s looked around for the obligatory Vietnamese partner, they found the perfect person for the job in Nguyễn Bảo Hoàng, also known as Henry Nguyen. He and his family fled Sai Gon in the 1970s and settled in America. Nguyễn went to Harvard and returned to Viet Nam were he became the head of the Vietnam arm of investment fund IDG Ventures, having previously worked for Goldman Sachs. He even held a job slinging fries at McDonald’s as a teenager in America. And not that it matters; he just happens to be married to the daughter of Vietnam’s prime minister.

I can only offer a polite golf clap to McDonald’s for making a pragmatic choice in partner. Viet Nam’s laws and regulations can make it very difficult for foreign investors to crack the market and officials are more than able to delay or end investor’s plans unless someone with experience and connections is able to convince them otherwise.

Whether McDonald’s hiring of this prince among businessmen violates the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act isn’t for me to decide, that is for the US Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission to determine. Though, it has been said they frown on American corporations who hire people specifically to influence those in power, which definitely isn’t the case here.

Reassuringly, if the McDonald’s job doesn’t work out for Nguyễn, he is still has being the Head of Vietnam’s Pizza Hut to fall back on. And surely his wife’s salary as the Executive Director of Vietnam Capital Fund Management would be able to cover a few bills.

McDonald's Vietnamese Menu.
McDonald’s Vietnamese Menu.

Head of the table

There is a Vietnamese tradition that an important person or guest is given the head of the animal being served during a meal. I am very proud and honoured to say that I have been served the heads of many fish, chickens and ducks over my time in Viet Nam and I couldn’t be more grateful to all my very gracious hosts.

The thing is, for a long time I had exactly no idea what to do with all these animal heads in my bowl.

Was I supposed to eat them? There usually some cheek meat in the heads of some of the larger fish, but not on the smaller ones, or on the chickens. I’d tried nibbling the sides of the chicken heads but I didn’t get very much from my efforts.

Not much eatin'
Not much eatin’

Should I just admire them for a couple of moments and then set them aside? Honestly, those heads took up valuable real estate in my bowl, space that I could have filled with delicious rice noodles instead.

Then I finally figured out just what to do with these heads.

I sometimes have a problem when I sit down to a meal hosted by Vietnamese people, because I was raised with the idea that you should eat everything on your plate and my hosts were raised with the idea that you should fill your guests’ bowls when they are empty. You can’t even refuse these extra servings because that isn’t how this game is played. If you turn away from your empty bowl for a moment, you’ll turn back to see a lovingly hand-peeled prawn or another piece of tofu that you will feel compelled to put into your mouth. This leads my hosts and I into a vicious cycle of overfeeding and overeating, and I end up hobbling away from the table to find a safe place to undo the top button on my pants (who am I kidding? I take off my pants entirely).

Enter the animal head! I just keep it in my bowl and eat around it, when I’m full I just dress up the head with a bit of leftover rice and some vegetable so it looks like I have a full bowl of food that I just can’t eat. And there you have it – food decoy to stop the onslaught.

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.

The Tourist Tax

It is your first time in HCMC and you find yourself hungry after a long day of walking around parks and museums. Your stomach might still be adjusting to the local food and you want something safe and light to eat. Luckily a fruit seller wheels her cart over to you to have a look. There are so many unidentifiable fruit on offer, but then you spot some nice, harmless and reliable bananas. “How much for the bananas?” you ask, pointing at them. She pulls out three 20,000 dong notes and says something in Vietnamese. This is great, the art of Commerce punched through the language barrier and you understood each other. You hand over the cash and smile and wave as she leaves you with your fruit. It is only later that you discover that the same amount of fruit is usually sold for half the price. You probably feel a little cheated; the lingering taste of bananas turns to betrayal in your mouth…

That woman preyed on your ignorance and added the dreaded “Tourist Tax.” Additional charges given to people that don’t know the going rates for goods and services. But I want you to stop right there and cheer up my friend, you still just bought a whole bunch of bananas for about a dollar and a half! Even with the Tourist Tax, you still thought it was a pretty wonderful deal. The fruit seller just saw an opportunity to make a little extra money from someone that could part with it. And believe me, as a tourist or an ex-pat living in Viet Nam, you are always going to have more disposable income than that fruit seller. Even if you are one of those backpackers that lives on $5 a day and survives on that beef jerky you smuggled in from home, you are still in a better financial position. You are on holiday, you have options.

This is the fruit seller’s real life, she works seven days a week and she probably has children to feed. I don’t want you to get the impression that every transaction you make is going to have Tourist Tax included, it actually happens pretty rarely. Generally, people don’t increase their prices on a case by case basis. Just remember that when it does happen, try to understand someone else’s struggle, keep some perspective and quickly get back to enjoying your time in Viet Nam.

At this point in my stay in Viet Nam, Tourist Tax is something I recognise and know how to avoid; knowing the price of something or asking for the price in Vietnamese is a strong signal that I know what I’m doing and local prices are always offered. But as time moves on, I find myself not minding too much if I am charged a little extra; it is fine – I have extra, a lot extra.

Be aware that my definition of Tourist Tax is different to outright scams, of which there are many and you should look out for them. Scams seem like a good post topic; I’ll probably write about those later…