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.

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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…

Personal space

 

People all over the world have a different understanding of personal space; British personal space tends to extend wider than it does for an Indian person for example. Our ideas about personal space are engrained in us early on and it can be disconcerting when we move to a new society where they’re different. Viet Nam is one of those places where personal space is a little bit smaller than the cultures I grew up in, so I took me some time to adjust. I remember having a conversation with a person that started in the middle of the room and was shocked when I suddenly found myself backed up against a table in the corner. Over the course of the long conversation, I had inadvertently shuffled away from them and they, wanting to maintain chatting distance, followed me.

Vietnamese culture also more open to the concept of ‘friendly skinship,’ the idea that the closer you are to a person, the more you’ll touch them and touch reinforces the relationship.

This skinship doesn’t cross genders; women will only walk arm in arm with other women and men will only sit pressed up against each other. I’ll often see young men and boys sitting on each other’s laps if there aren’t enough chairs to go around, girls will do the same. There is nothing sexual about all this touching, just sociable.

I’m not going to lie, it took me a little to get used to sitting with female Vietnamese friends and having them hold or rub my arm for most of the conversation. This is just a way of being companionable and shouldn’t be worried about.

Like most things, it only feels weird the first couple of times and I have to say that all the touching really does work. You do feel emotionally closer to the people that physically embrace you.

This isn’t to say that all touching occurs in a friendly, established relationship… I’ve definitely been felt up by complete strangers more in a year in Viet Nam than a full decade living in other countries. And all the perpetrators were women. Someone squeezed behind me in a small shop and patted my bottom the whole way past and then went back again. I’m on the transfer bus at an airport and the woman next to me is going in for a quick snuggle with a bit of side boob squeezing… while her friend took pictures. I put a stop to this pretty quickly, but often these tussles happen quickly like a hit and run and you’re left to replay it in your mind.

I think most of these encounters have a foundation in curiosity; my body is different from most the women around me and the desire to know what it feels like might be too strong to resist. At least this is how I chose to see it and I can live with that.

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!

Màu Xanh – The Colour Blue

Blue is one of the more subtle colours in Viet Nam. It is not the colour of splendid imperial palaces or monuments to faith; rather the tone of nature, calm domesticity and simple pleasures.

Blue skies during the monsoon are a welcome relief from the rain, but also the signal of punishing heat during the dry season. You’ll see shades of blue from the azure waters of the coast and the blue-grey haze over the Central Highland mountains.

20131225 Vietnam trip 119
Blue boats

There are the blue-tinted scents and flavours of home; the soft blue smoke that snakes from beneath soup pots, warm purple taro and buttery blue duck eggs. Indigo and cobalt are the colours of household doors and walls, tiles under foot, and traditional pottery.

Taro
Taro soup
blue
Blue house interior
blue
Flooring tiles
blue
Blue doorway
blue
Blue decoration on family tomb
blue
Fragments of ancient pottery used to decorate family tomb
blue
Pottery as wall decoration in restaurant

Uneasy Rider

WARNING – the last image in this post is a picture of a Vietnamese safe driving poster. It is graphic images of traffic accidents meant to deter dangerous driving and riding. Don’t scroll to the very end if you want to avoid it.

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I’ve noticed that people tend to behave differently when they leave their countries of origin to holiday or work overseas. Someone who would never consider riding a motorcycle back home because it is too dangerous, suddenly find themselves renting a bike when they travel to Viet Nam. I’ve seen some horrifyingly stupid behaviour from foreigners on the roads and I’d wish they’d ask themselves some of these questions before they hit the streets.

Do you know how to ride a motorbike?

If you don’t, then Sai Gon really isn’t the place to learn, not many places in Viet Nam are.

Do you have a valid license?

Pfffft, of course you don’t! But you probably should…

Non-Vietnamese citizens are only permitted to drive in Vietnam if they hold a temporary Vietnamese driver’s licence. To convert a foreign driving licence into a temporary Vietnamese driver’s licence, the applicant must hold a valid Vietnamese residence permit of at least three month’s validity. Only full, condition-less license will be converted, not learners or provisional licenses. You’ll have to hand over translations of your licensing documents and certified copies of the originals. If you don’t have these, you’ll have to take a driving test (riding in figure eights around some traffic cones) and sitting a written exam… in Vietnamese.

Viet Nam started the process to recognise International Driving Permits in January 2015, but legislative changes take a long time to enact so you’ll have to research this for yourself. Also, there are far fewer licensing requirements if you ride an electric bike or motorcycle with a 50cc or less engine. These small bikes will feel like you’re riding a hairdryer, but it isn’t like you’re going anywhere fast in Viet Nam anyway.

Police can confiscate your motorcycle if they find you without a license, though this is rare. It is more likely you will be fined. There is a fixed fine amount that you pay at the police station, but if you pay the fine directly to the person that pulled you over, the amount is usually lower… read into that what you like.

Given all this, many foreigners ride without a license, which isn’t an endorsement. It seems that riding unlicensed isn’t uncommon for the local population too. Vietnamese Government records show that there are currently 3.5 million valid driver’s licenses; that means only 3.8 percent of the population holds a driver’s license of any kind. Consider that when deciding to get on the road yourself.

Does your travel insurance still cover you if you ride unlicensed?

All travel insurances have conditions that void your cover if you break them. Conditions often include riding a motorcycle without a license or even riding a motorcycle at all. Always check your insurance’s terms and conditions.

Do you have access to a good helmet?

I brought my helmet over from Australia and it is simultaneously the joy and bane of my life. On one hand it is built to Australian safety standards, so I’m reasonably certain that it will do its best to protect my squishy brain and my beautiful, beautiful face should I be involved in a serious accident. On the other hand it is enormous compared to Vietnamese helmets and it won’t fit inside my bike’s internal storage (it won’t fit inside any bike’s storage, I’ve checked.) This means that I have to carry this huge helmet around with me, leaving it with my bike isn’t an option because the parking attendants move motorbikes and the helmets fall to the ground routinely. It would also get stolen – actually it would probably be stolen before anyone had a chance to drop it. Any helmet that you are given when you hire a motorcycle isn’t going to offer much protection – you may as well wear a plastic ice cream container on your head. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen people do that.

An example of the quality of some helmets here.
An example of the quality of some helmets here… stop laughing.

Do you understand Vietnamese traffic?

No, you don’t.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been riding motorcycles in your home country for the last twenty years; Vietnamese traffic is a different animal entirely. Past riding experience is really essential to being safe on the roads, but the traffic here is next level crazy and you will not have time to learn what is happening on the first day of your two week holiday. There is a pecking order based on size, buses and trucks always have right of way. Flashing headlights and hand signals don’t mean what you think they do. Traffic lights, one-way streets, pedestrian crossings; mere suggestions. In spite of all this, there is a recognisable rhythm and patterns. You only able to read through the chaos after many hours riding pillion or when you are no longer transfixed by the disorder of a busy intersection.

If looking at this makes you feel suicidal or homicidal, maybe Sai Gon traffic is not for you.
If looking at this makes you feel suicidal or homicidal, maybe Sai Gon traffic is not for you.

Do you know there will be unexpected road hazards?

I’m not just talking about other riders on the road, I’m referring to any number of strange dangers on the road. Chickens and dogs often wander around the streets. I once had a wobble when my bike’s tyres hit some ice on the road, in Summer, in Sai Gon, at noon. A drink seller had tipped ice out of a container onto the road – I wasn’t expecting that.

My colleague had an accident when a street vendor’s mobile food stall dropped some tofu on the road; given that tofu doesn’t have a great deal of traction, her wheels spun out and she went sliding. Would you expect street tofu? DEFINITELY NOT, NO ONE EXPECTS STREET TOFU!

Do you know what to do when you have an accident?

You’ll notice I didn’t say ‘if you have an accident,’ this is because if you ride on Vietnamese roads for long enough, it is guaranteed that you will hit someone or something or they will hit you. There have been countless times that I’ve been cut off, bumped from behind or come inches from colliding with someone. There have been three separate occasions that I’ve had to swerve around a bike carrying a family of four that has come to a dead stop in the middle of the road because one of the kids has lost a shoe…

Of course there are degrees of accident seriousness; from a slight knock, to a three inch obituary in your local paper – hopefully they don’t use that high school picture of you when you were going through that ‘awkward phase.’

If the accident only caused damage to property, then money is probably going to change hands and as a wealthy foreigner you’re almost certainly going to do the paying. If you’re involved in an accident that injures or kills someone, then your life is going to get very challenging in many different ways.

Do you still want to ride a motorcycle?

Yeah, probably.

I understand that after all this many people will still want to take to the roads themselves; just be informed of the risks and make an informed decision. Riding a motorcycle here is dangerous and foreigners do make up a portion of Viet Nam’s five figure road mortality rate.

At least take some advice;

  • Be careful, don’t go fast, don’t drink and ride (there are enough people doing that already).
  • Wear the best helmet you can find.
  • Ride the best bike for you. Make sure the breaks and lights work. If you don’t know how to change gears, then get an automatic. Generally a smaller bike and engine is the better for inexperienced people, under 50cc is preferable.
  • Avoid riding on highways if you can help it. The trucks don’t really care if you’re mowed down as long as they don’t have to stop.
  • Wear more than just shorts and a sleeveless shirt – something like jeans will only protect you if you come off in an accident for a couple of centimetres before the road shreds them, and then your skin gets cheesegrated. Jeans will stop you from getting burned on someone else’s exhaust pipe, though. The burn takes a long time to heal, it will scar you and it is a terrible tourist cliché.
You'll have a souvenir like this forever.
You’ll have a souvenir like this forever.

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Vietnamese road safety warnings do not pull their punches.
Vietnamese road safety warnings do not pull their punches.

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.