Luck in Translation
Do you eat roast duck?
Puzzled, my friend and I looked at each other, not sure we had heard my classmate, Gabriela, correctly, but then she repeatedly herself, this time with a little more bravado.
Do you eat roast duck? she demanded.
She approached us while we were sitting at our workstation during Chemistry lab. We were surrounded by Bunsen burners, beakers filled with sodium chloride solution and small bottles of concentrated hydrochloric acid. Our white lab coats were stained like painter’s smocks with flecks of black iodine and red potassium. The acrid smell of sulfuric acid was as distinct as the unmistakable smell of hair perm solution. It wasn’t quite the setting to be talking about food.
Gabriela was a short pretty girl. Her long brown hair was tied up in a ponytail. Her fair Caucasian skin was the type that splotched red quickly if exposed to the sun. She looked at us, her brown eyes the color of dark pecans twinkling with anticipation for our answers.
Not knowing if this was a trick question, I answered cautiously, Yes, I do eat roast duck.
Gabriela looked at us bewildered.
That’s not what I asked you, she said.
You’ve just asked me if I eat roast duck, I insisted.
No, I asked you how you were feeling€ well, at least that’s what I thought I asked.
Her Vietnamese lab partner had attempted to teach her how to say Hello, how are you in Vietnamese and since my lab partner and I were both Vietnamese, Gabriela decided to test her newfound language skills on us.
But in the short walk over, she transposed crucial accents and words. So instead of saying:
Chao anh, anh co khoe khong? Hi brother, are you healthy?
She said this:
Chao anh, anh co an vit quay khong? Hi brother, do you eat roast duck?
We all laughed loudly at her mistake causing those around us to turn their heads. Her attempt to speak Vietnamese ended abruptly as soon as it had started.
All it took was one mispronounced word and the meaning and context of the sentence completely changed. With the complexities of the Vietnamese language, this was easy to do and, more often than not, the subtle change can go unnoticed to the untrained ear. Speaking was one thing, but translations, whether written or verbal, can be just as trying.
Take for instance when I translated Chao anh, anh co khoe khong. The literal translation is Hi brother, are you healthy. But most Vietnamese employ this greeting as a casual everyday How are you. It came to no surprise that I used the popular translation without even realizing it. Then, after some editing, I realized the translation wasn’t correct. I decided to change it to the literal one. If I was going to stay true to the translation, shouldn’t I translate it correctly? Shouldn’t I be one hundred percent accurate? That’s important, right? As I have to come to find out, the answers to these questions are not so simple or clear-cut.
June 17, 2009