Luck in Translation

Translating programs such as the one I found were good at translating words but not phrases or even worse, proverbs.  If you were lucky, as I was the first time, you may find a suitable translation when using these, what I have dubbed, Chia Pet-style translators; just add words and watch as your translations magically appear.  But try to translate something longer than one word and your chance of getting a coherent sentence was almost as good as getting a resident of Paradise Trailer Park, who addresses his parents as Maw and Paw, to recite a Walt Whitman poem.

So I’m back at the drawing board, trying to figure out the key to translating my notes accurately but still maintaining the true intent of the original piece when a co-worker instant messaged me to ask me how to say motherfucker in Vietnamese.  Was it mere coincidence or divine intervention that she should ask me while in the midst of my translation dilemma?  My friend was half-Vietnamese and half-American.  Her Vietnamese vocabulary consisted mainly of cuss words spoken so badly that if I cocked my head, closed my eyes, tuned out all peripheral noises and only concentrated on Vietnamese letters and sounds, I might, and only barely, understand what she was saying.  I responded that there wasn’t really a direct way to say the word, but there was a saying closely resembling it.  I sent her the Vietnamese equivalent of her request.  I still find it ironic that probably the most translated words in any language are cuss words.  I don’t know how many times I have been asked at small get-togethers or informal dinners how to say, how shall I put it, less than dignified words.  It got to point that I just started to expect it:

Excuse me, can you pass the salt and, by the way, how do you say asshole in Vietnamese?

The next day I passed the same co-worker in the hallway.  I pleasantly greeted her with a ‘Good Morning and she responded back with a ‘Motherfucker‘ in Vietnamese.  I stopped so abruptly it was as if I ran into an invisible wall, an act even a trained mime couldn’t duplicate.  It wasn’t the fact that she pronounced the phrase correctly, which was a feat onto itself, but it was the glib way she said it.  She giggled when she said it like a child saying a bad word for the first time.  I turned and asked her if she truly understood the intense meanings those words conveyed.  She looked at me and said casually, It’s just motherfucker.  It is true that motherfucker in English is used frequently and has a versatile function.  It can be used interchangeably as a noun like in, Hey motherfucker, or as an adjective – motherfucking jerkbut in Vietnamese, the equivalent of this word is used only to inflict serious injury.  The Vietnamese connotations are so strong that in my life I have never uttered these words to another person.  In fact, these words are usually reserved for saloon brawls, gang turf wars and reviews of any Steven Segal movies.

In Vietnamese, the word fuck is more akin to violate or brutalize, so when you associate the word with a mother, the expression is quite violent.  She stared blankly at me as if I was trying to explain Stephen Hawking’s theories of relativity and quantum mechanics.  Finally, I told her it’s the difference between hitting someone with a feather and hitting someone with a sledgehammer.  She still didn’t understand so I started to look around for a sledgehammer to prove my point.  Luckily, she finally grasped what I was trying to convey, It’s like saying shit instead of poop, right?  It was my turn to look befuddled.  I just nodded in agreement.  I asked her to refrain from saying motherfucker in Vietnamese just in case there were any Vietnamese-speaking co-workers who might be offended if they overheard her.  Sure, she said airily and click-clacked away in her three-inch stilettos.  Her long hair swayed in perfect sync with the swishing motion of her hips, reminding me of models on a catwalk or drag queens on a stage.

I realized that what I gave her was the right translation but what I failed to give her was the meaning behind the words.  Without knowing the true impact of what she was saying, she casually shot out the phrase as if they were rubber darts but in reality they were actually shotgun shells.

It is just as important to know the objective or the reasoning to why a piece is translated as is the manner in which it is translated.  I may, and upon deeper consideration, actually will argue that the why is probably even more important than the how.  When a story or phrase is brought over to another language, there must be an agenda, otherwise, why make the concerted effort for accuracy or authenticity?  A translation can add emphasis to a point or help to clarify the author’s message.  It stands out and draws the reader in like a fast food employee offering free samples.  All it takes is one delectable nibble and the author knows the reader is hooked.  Once the reader starts to read, she begins to understand why the author chose to translate a story, a phrase, or a word.

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June 17, 2009

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