Luck in Translation

I began to review the pieces I had translated.  Why did I choose to translate these phrases or these words?  What was my intention?  What was the message I was conveying to the reader?  I realized that most of my translations were smack-dab in the middle of a dramatic conflict or situation.  On hindsight, I did this deliberately because I wanted the readers to feel like they were actually partaking in the scene.  They were present when my family dramatically escaped Vietnam, when we first set foot on American soil and of course when we first discovered how to use a toilet.  I wanted the scene to be authentic so I included the Vietnamese texts, to give the impression my family was speaking directly to the reader, as well as the translated texts.  I felt that if I left out the Vietnamese texts then the momentum and continuity would be lost, almost like an anachronistic break jumping forward to a time when my family spoke fluent English where as in the story we barely learned how to say hello.  Even if the readers don’t understand the Vietnamese words, they know to pay more attention to this part of the story.  The translated parts stand out and make the reader take notice.  It is that part of the movie where the hero nonchalantly eyes the immaculately clean, never-been-used but-not-oddly-placed, glistening knife lying on a heap of soiled dishes and spoiled food in a rusted sink with a leaking faucet and one dangling handle.  You just know that the knife has some significance later on.

By including the Vietnamese texts, I wanted to give the reader a visual stimulus while the translated texts provided the necessary comprehension.  Combining the two texts helped to further the action and the sequence with a little more intensity and, if anything, sequined the current image into the reader’s mind.  Translations I have come to learn can be used to explain or to describe, but it can also be used to spotlight and highlight a particular scene for its poignancy or, as in my case, its dramatic value.

During the Beijing Olympics, the Associate Press ran a story detailing the efforts of Chinese officials to help rid some mangled English translations found in the menus of many restaurants.  Here was an excerpt from the article:

The Beijing Tourism Bureau has released a list with 2,753 proposed names for dishes and drinks, designed to replace bizarre and sometimes ridiculous translations on menus, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Friday.

Foreigners are often stumped by dish names such as “virgin chicken” (a young chicken dish) or “burnt lion’s head” (Chinese-style pork meatballs). Other garbled names include “The temple explodes the chicken cube” (kung pao chicken) or “steamed crap” (steamed carp).

How can a country that produced so many ingenious things screw up simple translations, my co-worker asked me.  I can only surmise that Chinese (it is noted that China is not the only country guilty of bad translations, but they are often used to represent the entire Asian race, so in this case, they can also bear the brunt of this problem) writers either used a flawed web-based translator and taking the results to be an authentic translation or they are using interpreters to handle their translation needs.

An interpreter doesn’t have to possess a deep cultural knowledge, although it would be helpful.  Interpreters rely on their fast thinking and processing skills, striving for accuracy but more importantly, transforming idioms, colloquialisms and other culturally-specific references into analogous statements the target audience will understand.  The misconception that if you are bilingual means you can translate is the reason why bad translations like ‘virgin chicken’ and ‘steamed crap’ (although I think the last translation is more of a typo and The Associated Press couldn’t pass up a gem like that) exist.  Many Chinese restaurateurs or any other entities make the mistake of using interpreters to translate menu items or cultural phrases.  It’s like asking a major-league baseball player to hit a homerun with chopsticks; the results will be disappointing.

When I was in New Orleans, I lived on a main thoroughfare named Manhattan Boulevard on the West Bank of New Orleans.  I didn’t realize Manhattan was such a difficult word for Vietnamese people to pronounce.  So to make it more pronounceable, the word was broken up into syllables, Ma-nha-tan, then ornamented with Vietnamese accents to complete the vietnamizationMa-nha-tan.  My family used this word makeover as a litmus test to see how fresh off the boat a Vietnamese immigrant was.  If he could pronounce Manhattan with one fluid breath, then we deemed him as living in the states for some time and had probably even been to the real Manhattan.  If he chopped the word up like an excited stutterer, more than likely, he probably has a conical rice hat stowed in his closet and secretly longed for the days he can ride his ox again.

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June 17, 2009

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