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Vietnamese translation in Australia: 
A missing link

Frank Trinh


1.0 Quality assessment

An assessment of translation quality was made of texts gathered from personal experience and a number of texts taken from pre-published and published translated materials for the Vietnamese communities in Australia.

2.0 Translation into Vietnamese

A personal encounter will demonstrate the difference between an average translator and a skilful translator. In the early 1980s, whilst I first worked as a translator/broadcaster with the BBC in London, President Joseph Tito of Yugoslavia lay very ill. As his death seemed imminent, the BBC had his obituary prepared and taped to be used at any time. We waited for weeks for the Grand Old Man of Yugoslavian politics to die, but Tito went on living, day after day. In a dispatch by a BBC correspondent from Belgrade, the story of the ailing Tito went something like this: "... Tito was held in such high regard by his people that they almost believed he was immortal. When his illness lasted so long, the Yugoslavian people gradually came to the realization that he was simply mortal'. An average translator would render the expression 'simply mortal' simply as rồi cũng phải chết ('will die eventually'). However, an experienced colleague of mine rendered the last part of the text as "... Khi thấy ông bị đauốm lâu nhưthế, ngườidân Namtư mới dầndần hiểura rằng Tito cũng chỉ là người. ('His illness lasted so long that the Yugoslav people then gradually came to the realization that Tito was merely human'). To a Vietnamese listener, the concept of 'mortality' is implied in the phrase 'cũng chỉlà người' ('merely human'), which is considered a better rendering of the phrase than 'simply mortal'.

Another personal experience below may serve as an informal illustration of the problem of quality in translation in Australia. Some ten years ago, on being called to help with a police interview as an interpreter at the high-security women's prison in New South Wales, I arrived at the prison gates flanked on one side by a lanky, young constable armed with a portable typewriter and manilla folders, and on the other side by a burly, plainclothes Detective Sergeant holding an armful of dossiers. While the police officers signed in their assorted weaponry at the main desk, I had a chance to look about me. My professional curiosity was drawn to a poster on a nearby wall. It was the type of multilingual poster often seen displayed at railway stations and other such places. The poster, which was rendered into 11 different community languages, reads as follows:

"It's often closer to home than you think"

My eyes scanned down the lines of multilingual translated texts for the Vietnamese translation which came eighth in order of languages. As I considered the Vietnamese rendering of the title 'child sexual assault', it somehow didn't ring true to me: 'xâmphạm tiếthạnh trẻthơ' (literally 'Violating Innocent Children's Chastity'). In Vietnamese, the word tiếthạnh means 'virginity and good conduct'. Of course, it denotes virginity in young girls and good conduct in widows who remain chaste after the death of their husbands. It therefore immediately rules out boys... The text's message was immediately cut by half through an incorrect translation.

Being intrigued by the translation, I took out my notebook and copied down the translated notice. My friendly neighbourhood policemen immediately joked that I was 'casing the joint' and drawing a plan of the prison for someone to make a quick getaway. What amused me even more, however, was the remainder of the translated text which read: "Sựxâmphạm này cóthể xẩyra ở gầnnhà hơnlà bạn nghĩ  (literally 'This violation may occur nearer your house than you think'). The expression 'nearer your house' has, of course, a more physical meaning than 'closer to home', which carries a more abstract connotation. As a consequence, Vietnamese parents who have read the slogan, might be forgiven for thinking that 'young girls, and not boys, will be safe from being sexually assaulted if they are kept inside the house'.

The original text's message had been totally misinterpreted because of the translator's lack of knowledge of the full background of the campaign to protect children within the community. Under the Child Protection Act the slogan 'Stranger Danger' was first used, indicating to parents and children that they must not talk to or go with strangers, for fear of being harmed by them. The next phase of the campaign was then to focus on the fact that it was not only strangers who could harm children, but that danger could also exist within the homes in which children lived. It was understandable then, that on reading the translation, Vietnamese parents would not understand the meaning of the text, and so unwittingly, by their actions of sticking to what the poster recommended they do, they may have put their girl or boy in physical or sexual danger at the hands of a family member or friend.

Suffice it to say that against expectations, most Vietnamese published translated materials showed at best they are awkward or unnatural as well as nonsensical or incomprehensible. Common errors are indicative of the translators' poor performance in three general areas; namely 'literalness', 'grammaticalness', and 'idiomaticity'.

2.2.1 Literalness

Literal errors were found in the description of body positions and the forms of address. Body positions

A clear example of literalness was detected in a translated text in which a young mother with a baby is directed in a pamphlet to put the baby on its stomach. In Vietnamese this would be translated as nằmsấp 'prone' (literally 'lie, (face) down'). It is not necessary for this to be translated as "nằmsấp trên bụng" (literally 'lie, down, on, stomach") because this translation has been influenced by the source text, in this case, English, and the Vietnamese translation sounds superfluous, naive and awkward. By the same token, if someone is asked to 'lie on their back' the translation would be "nằmngửa" "supine' (literally 'lie, (face) up') in place of "nằmngửa trên lưng" của họ as it is literally translated from the English text. Forms of address

The personal pronoun 'you' has a high frequency of occurrence in English. In Vietnamese there is no universal 'you' as in English. The translator needs to consider each instance 'you' is used in order to choose the closest equivalent, which, in Vietnamese must be based on age, sex, marital status, social status. When 'you' is translated as bạn (literally 'friend') as is often the case found in translated publications, it would sound at best, unnatural, at worst, condescending and would keep the reader at a distance. Therefore, "bạn" in place of 'you' should only be used as a last resort.

Let us consider an example of inappropriate rendition of the pronoun 'you'. A translated post-natal pamphlet in public hospitals addresses mothers who have had premature babies as quíbà ('distinguished ladies'), the term of address used for older women from a high-class background, and who would possibly be receiving medical help only in a private French hospital in the former South Vietnam. The appropriate form would have been to use the word chị or các chị ('you') to address a woman or women of child-bearing age from a lower socio-economic background.

The automatic rendition of the English pronoun 'I' into Vietnamese in community information translated texts is considered unnatural. In English, people ask questions using the first person pronoun 'I'. For example, "How do I find out how our baby is doing?' or 'How will I manage when the baby comes home?'. Vietnamese people do not ask themselves questions as such, particularly in a written form as titles. If they do, they say something like "How does one find out about...?' or "How will one manage...?". The personal pronoun tôi ('I') should be replaced with ta, mình ('one, I, we') or with nothing at all.

2.2.2 Grammaticalness

Grammatical errors were found in the use of Vietnamese numerals, plural markers, classifiers, time adverbials, passive construction, and law of continuity. Numerals

Articles in English are not synonymous with Vietnamese numerals or classifiers. In an unpublished text the English indefinite article a(n) seemed to be consistently rendered into Vietnamese, as một ('one') as in the following example:

(1) When a man and a woman decide to have a baby

(1a) Khi một ngườiđànông và một người đànbà quyếtđịnh có một đứacon

('When one man and one woman decide to have one baby')

In (1a) the translated text does not sound right to a Vietnamese ear. And 'a baby' here does not mean "one baby". "Một" is not the indefinite article a; it is a numeral. It means 'one' rather than a or an. And in most cases it can be dispensed with. Therefore, "decide to have a baby" can be perfectly rendered as quyết định có con, or even more naturally muốn có con 'wish to have a baby'). The translated text can be improved as:

(1b) Khi hai người khácphái quyếtđịnh cócon vớinhau

('When two people of the opposite sex decide to have a baby with each other") Pluralization

In principle, Vietnamese words các, những are used as plural noun markers to convey the notion of plurality. However, the automatic use of các or những in rendering plural nouns in English is considered ungrammatical. Examples are found in the rendition of the titles or subheadings "Premature babies', "Breathing problems', "Doctors and nurses'. Preferred translations would be "Trẻsinhnon" without "những" , "Chứngkhóthở" without các, and "Bácsỹ" và "ytá" without các. Nominalization

The term nominalization is used here to refer to the process whereby Vietnamese translators automatically render English nouns into Vietnamese nouns by using noun markers such as sự and việc. In doing so, the risk is run of sounding ineffective or nonsensical. There are instances, whereby translation shifts will help make the use of Vietnamese noun markers redundant and make the message clearer. For example, the sub-heading 'Warmth' in the context of premature babies can be rendered as "Giữ trẻ cho ấm" ('Keeping the baby warm') in place of "Sựấmáp" ('Warmth') which sounds obscure and absurd in Vietnamese. Time adverbials

With regard to sentence structures, translators appeared to be unaware of the differences in word order in relation to adverbs of time between English and Vietnamese. Time expressions in Vietnamese such as tuầntrước ('a week ago'), thángtrước ('last month'), hômnay ('today'), ngàymốt/ngàykia ('the day after tomorrow'), thángNăm tới 'next May') come at the beginning of the sentence. The initial position of an expression of time in the sentence will help set the scene and bring into focus the events to be recounted in a certain time-frame, without resorting to the use of tenses, as in English. In Vietnamese parlance, it would be rather unusual to see time expressions at the end of a sentence. Passive construction

The use of the passive voice in English particularly in a reporting style is quite common. In the Vietnamese language, the active voice is preferred. As a consequence, words such as bởi, từ ('by, from'), which make the rendered sentence sound foreign to a Vietnamese, can be avoided. For example, the text: "This survey was conducted by Mr. Warwick Wilson' should be translated as "Cuộcnghiêncứu ấy là do Ông Warwick Wilson thựchiện" ('This survey was by way of Mr. Warwick Wilson to conduct') in place of the un-Vietnamese version "Cuộc nghiêncứu ấy được thựchiện bởi Ông Warwick Wilson".

Vietnamese people observe the law of continuity in syntax, which means, what happens first should be described first, whereas in English emphasis is often placed on the importance of the event rather than the chronological order of events. Let's compare the following sentences:

(7) Dad has just come home from work.

(7a) Bố vừa đilàm về. ('Dad, just, go, work, return'), in place of the less typical:

(7b) Bố vừa từ sở về ('Dad, just, from, work, return')

(8) The Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson has returned to Canada from Seoul.

(8a) Lựcsĩi chạynướcrút người Gianãđại Ben Johnson dã từ Hánthành về đến Gianãđại. ('Athlete, run, dash, person, Canada, Ben Johnson, PAST, from, Seoul, return, arrive, Canada'), in place of the less typical:

(8b) Lựcsĩ chạynướcrút người Gianãđại Ben Johnson đã về đến Gianãđại Ben từ Hánthành ('Athlete, run, dash, person, Canada, Ben Johnson, PAST, return, arrive, Canada, from, Seoul').

2.3 Idiomaticity

Errors in non-idiomatic usage of Vietnamese involved translations in the distinction between positiveness and negativeness, between hyponymy and super-ordinateness, as well as in the field of fertility, sex and sexuality. Positiveness vs negativeness

In English there are words which occur comfortably with others to form phrases or sentences, but which carry a positive or negative connotation according to the phrases or sentences with which they co-occur. The translation of these words will sound very un-Vietnamese unless the correct Vietnamese collocation is chosen. For example, the word 'contribute' in English usually co-occurs with words or phrases which can carry either a positive or a negative meaning. Let's consider the 'goodness' and the 'badness' inherent in the term 'contribute' in the following sentences:

(7) We must all work together to contribute to the building of a strong nation. (positive)

(8) The Labor Government was blamed by many Australian people for contributing to the poor economy. (negative)

The Vietnamese equivalent for "contribute" is "gópphần" or "đónggóp" which can only be used in a positive sense. Thus, the term góp phần or đóng góp is an appropriate choice for rendering the word 'contribute' in Sentence (7) into Vietnamese, and not Sentence (8), as it would sound less typical Vietnamese if Sentence (8) was translated as:

(8a) Chínhphủ Laođộng đã bị dânchúng đổtộicho là đã "đónggóp vào việclàm tồitệ nền kinhtế Úc".

An improved rendition should read:

(8b) Nhiều người đổtội cho Chínhphủ Laođộng đã làmcho nền kinhtế Úc trởnên tồitệ.

(Many people have blamed the Labor Government for having made the Australian economy worse) Hyponymy vs super-ordinateness

Translators are confronted by problems involving hyponyms and superordinate terms. The commonly used word "problems' is an example. In Vietnamese, there is no such general term, so in most contexts we have to rely on more specific terms to convey the same idea. The choice of an appropriate word requires a degree of skill and commonsense. Common translations are noted as follows: các vấnđề (issues), những khókhăn (difficulties), những trởngại (obstacles), các trụctrặc/những sựcố ([mechanical] troubles). However, depending on contextual meanings of the English superordinate term 'problems', a choice can be made from among its Vietnamese hyponyms of other terms such as biếnchứng (complications), thắcmắc (queries), lỗi (fault) [as in lỗi tại tinhtrùng (sperm problems); lỗi tại ốngdẫntrứng (Fallopian tube problems); lỗi tại trứngrụng bấtthường (ovulation problems); lỗi tại chấtnhờn tửcung (mucus problems), which are different causes for infertility.

The term 'rocking', as mentioned in the leaflet "Premature Babies HTS 1980" is another case in point. The occasion often arises when a translator has to choose a specific meaning for the word "rocking' in the following text:

(9) Playing with your baby means talking, smiling, putting on some music, putting brightly coloured objects close by (8-12 inches from the head), rocking, hugging.

Because there is no superordinate term for 'rocking' in Vietnamese, the translator must decide whether it is "rocking in one's arm" , or "rocking the cradle where the baby is lying" . Strangely enough, the end result in the Vietnamese text in question was ngồi "ghếxíchđu" (sitting on the swing) as suggested by the final translation checker.

In the Vietnamese context, only người có phúc ('lucky or blessed people') are endowed with children and that depends on what they have done in previous incarnation periods. To call someone 'infertile', as is the practice in English medical parlance, is tantamount to calling them vô phúc ('not blessed') or reminding them how badly they have behaved in past lives. In this case, subtlety in cultural transference is needed, for even though a precise scientific translation should be used to convey the correct message, it may be preferable to render a slightly inaccurate translation to save shocking the reader and causing uneasiness. For instance, a pamphlet entitled 'Infertility' was originally translated as Sự mất khảnăng sinhsản ('loss of child-producing capacity'). A better translation for "infertility" would be the expression hiếm muộn, which literally means 'rarity and lateness', but conventionally conveys the notion of infertility in both man and woman, and accurately suggests the intention of the text. In fact, the term hiếm muộn is commonly used in Vietnamese authentic material written on the same subject. Sex and sexuality

Possibly the most delicate task confronting Vietnamese translators is found in the domain of sex and sexuality. Sex is still something of a taboo subject in a Vietnamese environment, and it too, should be approached in a most subtle manner. The 'sexual act', which was detected in most translations as hànhđộng tinhdục is in fact a literal translation. In authentic Vietnamese texts, it is rarely referred to as such, but is given such euphemisms as chuyệnmâymưa ('cloud-and-rain matter'), chuyệnchăngối ('blanket-and-pillow matter'), chuyệntraigái ('boy-and-girl matter'), chuyệnphòngthe ('bed-chamber matter'), ănnằm vớinhau ('eat and sleep together'), chuyệnxácthịt ('matter of the flesh'), or giaohợp, giaohoan, or giaocấu ('sexual intercourse'). These words are used to avoid giving the reader an impression of vulgarity or unpleasantness.

The terms 'oral sex', and 'anal sex' are also euphemistically translated as, ie. khẩu dâm ('mouth, sex'/'sex performed by mouth'), yêunhau bằngmồm ('love each other by mouth'/'speak of your love'); kêdâm ('chicken sex'), tốngtình cửahậu ('make romantic advances by the back door') to avoid causing repulsiveness or embarrassment, eg. bú ('suck'), liếm ('lick'). The term "lítđắp" which is a spoonerism whose form helps make its actual meaning lắpđít ('mount on to the rear') sound less offensive.

3.0 Conclusion

These problems of unnatural and unidiomatic target language were encountered in Vietnamese community information publications. The reasons for this supposedly collocational incompetence on the part of the translator appear to be in the translator's misconception of their work, lack of cultural sensitivity, influence by language interference, and the lack of proper feedback from readers and/or other translators. However, more recently, as a result of efforts made by some government and private agencies by way of translator-checker process, the Vietnamese translations have achieved a somewhat higher degree of readability.

Frank Trinh


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