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Back to Minh Ho's "Questions on Thử Ðitìm Cáitươngđương Trong Phiêndịch"

In reply to Minh Hồ's questions on
"Thử Ðitìm Cáitươngđương
Trong Phiêndịch" 

by Philip Coen (alias Hoang Ba Cong)


The Terms and Phrases

The following paragraphs discuss the terms and phrases mentioned in Minh Ho’s e-mail:

Terms of Trade

Apart from what was discussed above, this is in fact economic jargon which describes “the ratio between money paid for imports and received from exports” (OED). Thus it is a “ratio” of monetary values: either tỷ số, tỷ lệ or tỷ suất sounds like a good bet! (although one “dictionary” uses chỉ số which means ‘index’); the term then describes a ratio of “monetary values”: either giá tiền, trị giá or giá cả - take your pick…; finally the term describes that ratio of values of goods “imported and exported” or “traded”. Depending on your personal preference this would be xuất nhập cảng or xuất nhập khẩu or possibly mậu dịch.

One dictionary gives tỷ lệ mậu dịch, another chỉ số giá xuất nhập khẩu. As I am not a Vietnamese economist, and do now know what the actual term used in Vietnam by the Hanoi authorities is, I find it hard to say how the term should be translated. I have nothing really reliable in the form of Vietnamese reference material to be able to offer a definitive solution. However I can say that in China they use the term: tiến-xuất-khẩu giao-vãn tỷ-suất and I’d be prepared to wager that the Hanoi term may well be a ‘Vietnamised’ version of this.

Fiscal Policy

The term “fiscal policy” raises particular problems, due mainly to the history and semantics of the word ‘fiscal’. Is the usage Australian or American? Also, it should be noted that ‘fiscal’, with a limited range of meaning, is an adjective having no true noun form, whereas ‘finance’, with a wider range of meanings, can be a noun, adjective and verb.

Added to that, from the reasoning given in the e-mail, Minh appears to be mistaken about the true responsibilities of the Australian Department of Treasury and Department of Finance and Administration (DOFA) and their various agencies. In the US there is but one Department, namely Treasury, having responsiblility for Federal fiscal, finance or financial matters. Also, in the US they use the term ‘fiscal year’ for ‘financial year’ and their journalists often just use the term ‘fiscal’ as in fiscal 99 meaning the financial year ending in 1999.

The older Vietnamese translation of the title of the US ‘Department of Treasury’ was Bộ Tài Chính, then in the late 1970’s the ‘word-for-word’ translators appeared and changed it to Bộ Ngân Khố. The original translated the idea and function contained in the title, the latter translated the title only.

In Australia, prior to the 1980’s, we hardly ever used the adjective ‘fiscal’. The word only began to creep into our lexicon with the rise of ‘economic rationalism’, when the Harvard MBA’s began to teach us their capitalist ways. At this time it became fashionable to use ‘fiscal’ rather than the older ‘financial’ or ‘finance’ as the adjective. Bureaucrats, technocrats and politicians began to use ‘fiscal’ as the adjective for government financial activities because fiscal seemed to have official government connotations, while finance/financial had both public and private sector connotations.

The term ‘fiscal policy’ suffers from the same problems mentioned in the above example and discussion of ‘terms of trade’, i.e. without a context no accurate translation is possible. Because ‘finance policy’ or ‘fiscal policy’, depending on the context, could mean: government policy relating to ALL aspects of the national finances - money, taxation, revenue and borrowing, etc…, as we used to describe it before the MBA’s arrived on the scene. On the other hand, the term may mean ‘that policy which governs the national budget’, but then again the term may have been used in a piece which discussed taxation matters - who knows?

Notwithstanding all this, if the adjective ‘national’ was used to describe this ‘fiscal policy’, perhaps chính sách tài chính quốc gia would be a safe bet, and, in my opinion, seems to indicate what the translation of the term ‘fiscal policy’ most probably would be.

Finally, whilst on the subject of national Australian fiscal or financial matters, I think that we should also be careful about the use of ngân khố to describe a government ministry, as after all, doesn’t it just mean quỹ, a place to keep the silver cash! - And what about the Reserve Bank of Australia when we consider its functions, is it Ngân Hàng Trung Ương Úc Ðại Lợi or Ngân Khố [QuốcGia] Úc Ðại Lợi or Ngân Hàng Trữ Kim Úc Ðại Lợi or something else?

The Dilemma

To me the phrase “a $350 000 dilemma” sounds like a bit of journalistic cant! To more accurately appreciate the context of the phrase, it would have been nice to see a little more of the original text, rather than just a report of it.

I think the argument that tiến thoái lưỡng nan does not collocate with the word trị giá is unconvincing, because ‘$350 000’ does not collocate with ‘dilemma’ either! That is why I think it is a piece of journalistic cant. Some journalists seem to think that they have a duty to coin new terms and phrases or to “masticate” nouns into verbs. (e.g.: ‘drought’, a noun, was turned into ‘droughted’, a past participle, in “…the droughted farmers requested assistance…”). The point is, if the style or form of a phrase creates translation problems, rephrase or paraphrase it so that at least some of the intention and effect of the original is translated.

Having considered the e-mail content regarding this phrase, and if one accepts Minh’s reporting of the facts about it, I think that while the teacher may have been over-zealous by trying to translate the phrase at the semantic level, Minh has also been somewhat over-zealous in criticising the teacher’s effort.

Because Minh has been somewhat reticent about giving us more of the text, it is difficult to see how the ‘$350 000 dilemma’ appears in its context, and thus provide a reasonable suggestion as to how to overcome the difficulty posed by the phrase. However, I might suggest that the use of the simple conjunction inserted into the phrase before trị giá may sort out some of the problem.


I vaguely remember having seen a similar Centrelink leaflet or brochure at a community legal centre and being struck by the odd phraseology which appeared to me to be quite ambiguous in parts. We could discuss at great length the failings of information leaflets and brochures and spend twice as long discussing the translations of them. However, let me try and make some sense of this conundrum.

When I first read the sentences as Minh reported them, I was struck by the oddity of the phrase ‘just to get residence’. I read the sentences again and noticed that ‘Australia’ seemed to be out of context. My thought was now similar to that of Minh’s teacher, as Minh reported it, namely, that there was something in it about immigration.

I then read the sentences a third and fourth time and realised that ‘in Australia’ appears to be redundant and that the use of ‘residence’ may have been a poor choice of words by the text’s author. However, I still have a feeling, that, when composing this part of the text, in the back of the author’s mind was the idea that some migrant women endure domestic violence up until such time as they receive permanent resident status. This idea may have been the reason for the text’s author using the strange phraseology ‘in Australia’ and ‘residence’.

Now if we accept Minh’s arguments then I would suggest that ‘in Australia’ is redundant and if translated at all, it should be ở đây, while ‘residence’, meaning ‘a place to stay’ or ‘a place to live’, is fairly self-explanatory.

However, this in no way addresses the problem of the strange phraseology and resultant possible ambiguity. Because Minh has given us so very little of the original text it is impossible to decide what course to follow. If there are other oddities elsewhere in the text, the ambiguity problem could be resolved because we could treat the oddities as aberrations in the author’s English expression. But, if there are no other such textual oddities, then the ambiguity problem must be addressed by the translator by creating an equivalent ambiguity in the translation. It all boils down to: no context, no translation!


Philip Coen (alias Hoang Ba Cong)

Professional Interpreter/Translator

Sydney, September 2002


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