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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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.

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.

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

Love in a time of Malaria

Sai Gon is for lovers.

You’ll see young couples sitting in parks, cuddling on the backs of motorcycles, holding hands while on two separate motorcycles (this is how I was almost clothes-lined riding down the street), generally just enjoying being in love and being together.

I happen to live just down the road from one of Sai Gon’s more popular date spots – Turtle Lake (Hồ Con Rùa).

Photograph by Gian Thanh Son
Turtle Lake from above, mosquitoes not pictured . Photograph by Gian Thanh Son*

Turtle Lake isn’t a lake, nor is it home to any turtles. It is a concrete pond in the middle of a giant traffic roundabout between districts one and three. The water is stagnant and it has to be cleaned regularly so the smell doesn’t overpower people. It is poorly lit at night, though some illumination is provided by the lamps and fires of the many food and drink vendors. In addition to couples, groups of friends and families with their children also gather to spend humid summer evenings around Turtle Lake. There is a near constant hum of conversation coming from the place. It is free to sit down, there is cheap food and drink and in spite of the crowds of people you can usually squeeze on one of the concert seats without too much difficulty. Mosquito mothers have found Turtle Lake to be the ideal place to raise their own 200 children, so getting bitten isn’t that uncommon.

Turtle Lake
Turtle Lake at night.

I’ll forgive you for thinking that Turtle Lake doesn’t sound like a great place for a date, but it is only because I haven’t given you context.

Vietnamese people still tend to live at home until they get married or move away for school and work. This is partly for economic reasons and because family is the centre of society, so you should stay with family until you’re ready to make a new family. Living at home into adulthood is slowly changing, but you’ll still meet lots of twenty-somethings living with their parents, grandparents, siblings, maybe some Aunties, Uncles, cousins in one house… The expectation of privacy is slim to none. Home is not the place to feel up your significant other on the couch, unless your family is waayyy more liberal than mine. Personally, I don’t think I could manage more than some light hand-holding if my grandmother was literally starring at my date and I, from across the room.

Couples wanting a little alone time isn’t strange or unexpected at all; it is completely normal and natural. If your living situation means that you can’t have that at home, then you’re going to go outside your home. Japan has ‘Love Hotels,’ Guatemala has ‘Autohotels.’ Australia has… I don’t know… beaches, bushland, any flat surface?

What are the young Saigonese people to do when they want some private time? They might go to places like Turtle Lake, whose darkness and overcrowding affords some anonymity.

If they want even more privacy they might take to darkened riverbanks and park lands (watersides seem to be a common theme). They bring a blanket, some drinks, an umbrella perhaps, and settle in for some alone time. One night, I was once walking over a bridge to a club in district four and I noticed a little boat underneath me was bobbing more vigorously than the boats moored around it. A quick glance informed me that the occupants of boat, underneath a blanket, were the reason for the rocking, I moved on quickly.

So yes, spending a significant amount of time next to stagnant bodies of water probably means they get eaten alive by mosquitoes, but sometimes love requires a sacrifice. A blood sacrifice, as it where.

*http://www.thanhniennews.com/education-youth/japanese-activist-shares-greenliving-dreams-with-saigon-youths-47528.html