Luck in Translation

One of the keys to translations, in my opinion, is not so much the contextual accuracy but the contextual integrity.  Is the translated piece an echo of the original piece?  Is it true to the intention, the meaning, and the essence of the original words?  If so, then I believe the writer has succeeded.  Readers expect honesty as well authenticity in their stories.  It matters not if the word for word translation are not precise because there will always be some words, phrases, colloquialism that are simply untranslatable.  What writers should strive for or focus on, as I have come to understand, is to bring over the meaning of the words.

But like most serious undertakings, the task is usually more difficult than its initial conception.  So as I try to resuscitate my notes and bring them to life, I began to wonder: isn’t there an easier way to do this?  Raised in a traditional Vietnamese fashion, I have this tendency to strive for efficiency, to reduce the task to its empirical structure so as to bring about a quick and decisive result.  I consulted with my brothers and sisters with one suggesting that I use an Internet language converter.  Just type in the words and it will translate what you need, my sister told me.  It’s easy-peasy, she said flippantly, as if translations were just dirty dishes you put in the dishwasher – with the push of a button, you get squeaky-clean translations presentable to even the most discernible reader.

I wondered if it was that easy and perhaps, just perhaps, I was just making it more difficult.  I tested my sister’s simple postulate by searching for a Vietnamese translation web site.  I decided to use the Vietnamese word for dictionary, tu dien, in my search hoping to find an authentic Vietnamese translation site.  This would, I rationalized, reduce the possibility of a translation error.  My Google search yielded a multiple translator that not only translates English to Vietnamese and Vietnamese to English but also Vietnamese to French, Chinese and even Russian.  I made a mental note in case I ever needed to translate any Bolshevik speeches into Vietnamese.

I selected the Vietnamese to English translation tab and typed in the phrase that cause some consternation earlier, Lieu com gap mam. Surely, this program would not be able to crack the code and decipher the right translation.  Like watching elementary school students perform South Pacific, I braced for the worse.  I clicked on the translate tab and viewed the results.  The first translated entry was a disappointing, but not surprising, literal translation that made little sense, Will meet mam rice.  But just when I was about to close the page, I scrolled down and quickly skimmed the second translated entry for kicks, thinking it would at least provide me with a laugh.  What I read surprised me.  Do the things according to the ability. That was pretty good I thought.  In a roundabout way, that was what this phrase meant.  The headlights in my doubtful mind started to beam in delight.  I felt that I had discovered a Picasso in a slew of kindergarten finger paintings.  I was expecting gibberish but what I received was somewhat coherent, which made it seemed more like Shakespeare.  My sister was right – this was easy-peasy.  All this time, I was doing it the hard way.  I palmed my forehead like those dimwitted saps who should have had a V-8.

I bookmarked the web site as this was a treasure not to be lost.  I was prepared to send the link to my family: if anything, they could use it to improve their English.  But I decided to test the translation program again, just to make sure that it wasn’t fool’s gold and that I indeed had found the translation equivalent of the lost arc.

I typed in the Vietnamese phrase that proved less challenging to translate, Gan muc thi den, gan den thi sang. This should be easy for my lean, mean translating machine that can grind up words and produce translations with the skill of a whittler whittling a piece of wood into a one-of-a-kind tchotchke.  Like an insider trader waiting to reap the rewards of a good tip, I firmly clicked on the translate tab and anticipated the results

The first translation was a little disappointing, Near the black ink, is coming to.  I wasn’t alarmed since I was expecting the first translation to be a confusing literal one.  The second translation would surely make up for the previous lack luster one. Tense ink Sinew is black, high-rolling tense luminaire Sinew. Hmmm…perhaps I mistyped since my fingers tend to slip when excited.  I carefully re-pecked the phrase and clicked the translate tab once more.  There it was again: the same gobbledygook that affronted my eyes the first time.  What happened?  Everything was going so well.  I thought I had received the hard-to-get secret decoder device that normally took ten proofs of purchases from various cereal boxes.  I convinced myself that this was just a fluke, so I typed in another Vietnamese phrase.  Another set of incoherent baby talk flashed on the screen.  I tried again and again, inputting different phrases each time.  It didn’t matter because the results were just as disappointing.  My frustration was akin to dieters on their tenth foolproof diet.  Only one out of the numerous phrases I typed in produced a sensible translation.  My short-lived elation with finding the website quickly dissipated with the speed of a falling brick attached to a three hundred pound anvil.


June 17, 2009

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