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…

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.

DSC02890

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.

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.

???????????????????????????????
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.

Goodnight Sai Gon

Some nights there is no sleep to be found in my restless city; sometimes it is the heat and humidity, occasionally it is the flashing neon lights. But usually it is the noise. Most of the sounds are familiar to me now, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the power to keep me from falling asleep. The sleeplessness gives my mind time to wander and compose childhood inspired verses.

Goodnight motorbikes, goodnight cars,

Goodnight tourists drinking in bars.

Traffic

.

Goodnight rats, goodnight bats,

Goodnight street children asleep on mats.

.

Goodnight boys sweeping the street,

Goodnight yowling cats in heat.

Cat

.

Goodnight woman selling her bread,

Goodnight monks praying for the dead.

Funeral

.

Goodnight mosquito in my ear,

Goodnight men drunk on beer.

.

Goodnight roosters trained to fight,

Goodnight workers at the building site,

why do you work so late at night?

Cocks

.

Goodnight geckos that go ‘cheep,’

Goodnight taxis that constantly beep.

.

Goodnight karaoke in the air,

Goodnight Sai Gon noises everywhere.

Shuffling

I both love and resent to the wet season. I enjoy the cool change the afternoon rains bring after the oppressive humidity of the late morning and the way the water washes the city clean and dampens down the pollution. But with these good tidings come the daily flooding of several districts and being periodically soaked to the skin regardless of how many umbrellas and rain coats you carry around. Seriously, I partake in an involuntary, impromptu wet t-shirt competition every evening when I’m working home.

Ever damn afternoon
Ever damn afternoon

As I spent a great deal of my childhood on the East Coast of Australia, my version of wet weather gear was shorts, thongs (flip flops) and a t-shirt. The temperature was never that cold, you wore less clothing so you would dry out quicker. This antipodean thinking was easily transplanted in Sai Gon, where the temperature even warmer than Australia and the drying out happened quicker.

But the one thing I couldn’t reconcile was the layer of mud I was covered in all my waking hours. From my feet to above my knees I was speckled with globules of muck. I even knew what was causing most of the splashes – my thongs where flicking mud onto the backs of my legs. Sure, I tried wearing closed shoes but that resulted in waterlogged feet and shoes that wouldn’t dry out.

I couldn’t figure it out. I avoided puddles and tried to walk around the muddiest parts of the street but nothing worked. I started keeping the moist napkins from restaurants in my bag to clean myself off after I’d been out.

Even more vexing was the fact that so many Saigonese people were wearing the same style of footwear as me and managed to stay beautifully clean. I couldn’t figure it out until one day I was drinking coffee on the street and was watching the vendor shuffling around her part of the footpath. I’d noticed that many people seem to drag their feet a little when they pottered about and that’s when it hit me – everyone shuffles because if they don’t lift their heels too much, the back of their shoes don’t flick water back onto their legs. I shuffled home that day and arrived five times cleaner than usual. Such a clever and easy solution; why didn’t I look to local know-how before?

No progress yet on how to ride a motorcycle in the rain without it feeling like a 40km/h cold shower.

Sleep for lunch

If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Sai Gon is the city that never sleeps in. The place wakes at dawn, people are out on the street; working, cooking, shouting.

This is not to say that people go to bed early, in fact, I’ve been awake in this city at all strikes of the clock and there is rarely a time when there is noticeable reduction in the number of people out on the street. I’m not just talking about the tourist areas, in the actual residential areas too. There is always someone on the street selling drinks and food, demolishing buildings, parking motorcycles… just being outside.

You’ll see adults, children, and babies up and around at all hours during the weekdays. I’m not a parent, but I know what a godless, thankless task it is to get a sleepy child fed, dressed and out the door to school. Why would so many parents here, choose to inflict that waking nightmare on themselves? And why would they want to be exhausted themselves?

I played with the idea that there might have been some sort of night and day shifts. The city being so populated, maybe people job-shared, house-shared, or bed-shared, swapping everything with another person on a 12 hourly basis*, which I’ll admit now was pretty ignorant.

In fact, they’re all the same people; they just work extremely long hours. A street seller will wake up early, push their cart around the streets all day and go to bed late. This is the only way they can earn enough money to live. Taxi drivers, parking attendants, construction workers, etc. all work similar mind-numbing, punishingly long hours. The children are up with their parents or grandparents because there isn’t anyone else at home to look after them.

These people are exhausted and to make up for the lack of sleep during the night, they take naps during the day. They’d steal a bit of sleep during the day to offset their sleep-debt from the night before. You see people napping everywhere; curled up under their food stall, in hammocks strung from poles or trees, at their desk, laid out on seat and handlebars of their motorcycle taxis… I mean it – everywhere.**

Other reasons for lunch time napping are;

  • the oppressive, southern Vietnamese heat that melts brains and muscles;
  • two cups of rice for lunch can push even the strongest of us into a carb coma; and
  • they can be damn refreshing, and help reset your brain for a long afternoon.

I can’t say that everyone in Sai Gon has an afternoon nap; it seems to occur on a needs basis. If you’re tired, then have a little sleepy. If not, then don’t. There is no judgement either way. From my own experience; I work in an office building with regular business hours and just after lunch, the computer screens and lights go off and some people slide back in their chairs and close their eyes. Other people go out, go for a walk or get a coffee and a cigarette. I quite like this enforced quiet time with no emails, no phone calls, and no meetings. Like the best things, you look forward to it and it doesn’t last long.

*If anyone is interested in entering into this sort of agreement with me, please contact. Be aware that as you would have to speak and act exactly the same as me during your shift, you will be required to undergo extensive training; brainwashing if you will.

**You’ll notice this post doesn’t have any examples of sleeping people; this is for a couple of reasons;

  • I’m all about people’s privacy and I wouldn’t want some stranger taking a photo of me slumped over at my desk at work, let alone sharing it with the rest of the World.
  • I think that people are so vulnerable when they’re sleeping and it would be too much of a violation. I’m happy to infringe the privacy of this dog though…
Sleeping dog
Belly out to catch a cool breeze.