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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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.

Trunks for the blind drunk or insect free trees

Visitors to Sai Gon will notice most of the trees are painted white around their bases; most trees in the rest of the country and the South East Asian region are similarly painted. I’ve asked why this is done and I’ve had many, many answers.

Typical Vietnamese street.
Typical Vietnamese street.

One reason is that many streets are poorly lit and it would be easy to miss the tree trunks in the darkness. Painting the trees white at the base makes them stand out in the gloom, and considering the sheer numbers of drink drivers, I’m glad they’re hard to miss. This reason certainly rings true because the painted trees really do jump out at you at night. This is an elegant, low-cost, long-term solution to a problem. But then, check out some of these exceptional examples below.

If you're in danger of riding into this tree, then you probably have bigger problems.
If you’re in danger of riding into this tree, then you probably have bigger problems.

Also this tree on a hill top at 150 metre elevation.

6.3ft tall foreigner for scale.

So, we come to another good explanation for the paint. It is supposedly Limewash; a breathable paint that soaks into underlying materials and is primarily composed of Lime (Calcium Hydroxide, not the fruit) and chalk. It can prevent termites and insects from eating or boring into the trees. This would explain why you find painted trees deep in forests, far away from any traffic.

In an Emperor's private forest (he wasn't there at the time).
In the Emperor’s forest.

Other explanations given are that it is kind of sun protection to prevent damage from excessive sunlight. This pairs nicely with the Vietnamese obsession with avoiding the harmful effects of solar radiation.

By far the most romantic reason given was that during the American War, trucks would travel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but as they couldn’t use their headlights to see the way, women from the villages used to stand along the road during the night wearing white Ao Dais (Vietnamese women’s traditional dress) to guide them on their way. Trees are painted white in their memory.

The white paint might be a combination of all these reasons and more. If anyone wants to add another explanation, I’m open to suggestions.

The Phú Quốc Ridgeback

You’ll understand by now that this isn’t a travel blog, so I’ll only mention in passing that I visited Phú Quốc Island. It is Viet Nam’s largest island, located in the Gulf of Thailand, 12 kms south of Cambodia. You can actually see Cambodia from the island and believe me that the Cambodians are pretty upset about Viet Nam claiming it for themselves. Both countries have an historical claim to the island and surrounding waters, but Viet Nam won out in the end.

I mention Phú Quốc because it is where you’ll find the Phú Quốc Ridgeback Dog, the smallest of the Ridgeback Breeds; the Rhodesian Ridgeback being the largest, while the Thai Ridgeback is slightly smaller.

The French were the first to document this distinctive breed in the 1800s; all the Vietnamese people probably thought they were just swirly backed dogs that weren’t worth writing about. But because I like all the rare and unusual things that Viet Nam has to offer, I’m going to write down the little that I know about this unique Vietnamese canine.

Their distinctive coat occurred because one or a couple of dogs with the genetic mutation arrived on the island from Africa, Thailand or Australia and started to breed in glorious isolation. The small gene pool meant that the characteristic kept appearing in pups until it was common amongst most of the island’s dogs.

Playfully pulling a man's leg, not an outright savaging.
Playfully pulling a man’s leg, not an outright savaging.

Their fur grows in different directions along their body, mainly on their backs. One long strip of backwards growing fur along their spine is common, but swirls and whorls all over their bodies can occur. Their coats come in pure black, pure tan, black and tan and brindle.

Common fur pattern
Common fur pattern

They are a true island dog; they swim in the Ocean, catch fish, climb trees, sleep on the beaches, and are friendly to tourists (probably because they feed them). Some dogs are owned by locals, while others are owned by everyone and no-one, but all dogs roam free.

dog
Digging hole in the cool sand to sleep in is clever trick to avoid the heat, but there is no guarantee that your sister will leave you alone.

The breed is gaining some popularity on the Mainland; the Vietnamese Kennel Association is currently working on a breed standard and currently they have 700 pure bred dogs registered. I’m a bit sad about this. Viet Nam already kills hundreds of thousands of unwanted dogs every year and I don’t really think we should be breeding even more. I don’t think the World should breed as many pure-breed dogs as we do full-stop; besides being expensive, purebred dogs have more health problems due to genetic disorders and inbreeding. Unethical breeders choose appearance over health or temperament and overbreed dogs to the point of disfigurement. I’d encourage anyone looking to add a dog to their lives, to find one in a shelter.

All this aside, the Phú Quốc Ridgeback has been living on their island for hundreds of years, they suite their environment and they seem very contented with their lives there. Their lives in Sai Gon or the rest of the World would be very different.

The next generation
The next generation

Most of the dogs that live in Sai Gon are chained up their whole lives and it would be that much more sad for dogs that were meant to live in the sand and surf. Chained up Phú Quốc Ridgeback in Sai Gon

Well camouflaged
Well camouflaged

So now you know about one of the rarest dog breeds in the World; feel free to use this information to impress people at your next dinner party. Or never mention them to anyone, I don’t think the Phú Quốc Ridgebacks will mind.

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.