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.

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.