VIR turned 30, and I wrote about the different aspects of translating

Vietnam Oct 20, 2021

Vietnam Investment Review, the main newspaper I'm working with, has turned 30 at the end of last month. On that occasion, my manager asked my co-workers and me to write something about our personal experience with our work. I chose to write a small piece about translating for the business newspaper, which was then translated to Vietnamese by a reporter and printed in the anniversay publication. Below you can see the special edition and read the English version of my article.

Transferring quality news into English

Translating is a craft that needs to be mastered. Words and sentences always carry a unique meaning in each language, and conveying these meanings into another language is sometimes harder than one may think. Translating from Vietnamese into English has been one of my tasks at VIR for the last year or so – a challenging but rewarding one.

I started learning Vietnamese about seven years ago when I first came to Vietnam. Though, never had I imagined I would end up translating for one of the most important business newspapers in the country. Has it become easier after one year? Yes and no.

While I am more used to translating big chunks of text quickly now, there are often new topics, terms, and phrases that I’m not accustomed to yet. As I’m also editing the text while translating, multiple processes happen in my mind at the same time: Understanding the original text, thinking about how to put this in English, adjusting the style of the writing, bringing in my own flavour, and many more steps. This can sometimes be really easy if I know the topic, or quite tedious if I need to find out what someone is talking about in a certain article first.

Common traps of Vietnamese

One of the most significant differences between English and Vietnamese is that the latter is full of homographs – words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings and origins. By themselves, those words alone cannot even be distinguished by native Vietnamese speakers.

For instance, the word dịch on its own could mean “translation” or “translate” – as you can also not tell whether this is a noun or verb – but it could also mean “disease”, “illness” or even “pandemic”. Both main meanings have exactly the same written and spoken representation but, depending on the context, different meanings.

This even goes for entire sentences that use shortened versions of words. For example, the sentence dịch này phức tạp quá could mean “This translation is so complicated” or “This disease/pandemic is so complicated” – though, for dịch to be “translation”, there should be a bài in front, which would make it clear. Without the context of surrounding sentences or words, translating such phrases could be embarrassing if misunderstood.

Another problem in translating Vietnamese are its compound words, which make up a big portion of the language. Compound words exist in English and many other languages too.

However, while in English or my native language German readers could differentiate a compound word easily by the use of hyphens (daughter-in-law) or the fact that these words are joined together (keyboard, notebook), Vietnamese compound words are still written with spaces in between and visually look like single words.

For example, xe bò (cow carriage), xe trâu (buffalo carriage), and xe ngựa (horse carriage) are all compound words of which each element also has its own meaning. Xe just means vehicle, whereas the other words refer to the animals that pull them.

Now, if you know these words and understand the context, translating them is easy. However, sometimes it’s not so obvious which words are compound words and which stand on their own. Moreover, Vietnamese often shorten larger compound words with four or more syllables down to two, which requires one to know the original version.

Other challenges, that are also present in other languages, are sentences that deviate from the standard grammatical structure and are thus hard to understand for a non-native speaker, as well as slang or idioms, though these are not found so often in VIR’s articles.

Staying flexible

One of the biggest hurdles when translating from Vietnamese to English is the sheer amount of set phrases in the former that need to be expressed differently in the latter. They do often work directly translated, but they don’t sound natural in English.

For instance, ... nói chung và... nói riêng is a set phrase in Vietnamese that could be translated as “...in general and... in particular”. While this phrase works well in Vietnamese, in English the structure is often too clunky to create a smooth text flow. Thus, while translating this phrase I often change it into something slightly different.

Another issue I often encounter is repetition. Vietnamese writing works often better when repeating nouns and set phrases. If an author is talking about a certain ministry, that ministry’s name gets repeated many times in Vietnamese. In English though, we usually try not to do that by replacing the word with referrals. This process requires certain flexibility from the translator, whose task is then to convey the original meaning of the text but in a way that sounds natural in English.

The pride of a translator

You may wonder why VIR uses translated articles in its newspaper and why not all reporters directly write in English. As a foreign language taught in schools and universities, English is a relatively new subject that has only become more popular in the last three decades and was “particularly tied up with the reform policy known as đổi mới, which was adopted by the Sixth National Congress of the Communist Party in 1986,” as researcher Nhan Trong Nguyen stated in her article Thirty Years of English Language and English Education in Vietnam.

This means that many of our authors may have studied another language in the past, like Russian, but not English. While these reporters are great writers and reporters, it may be hard for them to transfer their quality news into English – and that’s where people like me come into play.

As one of VIR’s subeditors and translators, it is my job to convey the news of our reporters in English in a manner that is easy to digest for the reader while making sure that all information and their hard work is preserved.

Frankly speaking, I take pride in this. Taking the ideas and creation of someone else and transferring them to a new audience that would otherwise be unable to understand their work humbles me. In a way, our reporters trust me with their ideas and information so that I can render them presentable in another language. For that, I am grateful.

Moreover, I’m grateful for the learnings that I pick up on the way. There’s no deeper reading than the one a translator does. I have to dive deep into a text to be able to carry its meanings into another language. This also means that I have to read about certain terms, laws, technical processes, and many other things. As a result, my knowledge about certain topics – for instance about trade remedies and issues in international import and export – has increased dramatically within the last year.

And this is one of the best outcomes of translating news articles into English – not only can I learn more about Vietnamese and its sometimes unique expressions, but I can also pick up knowledge about a variety of topics that I may have never come across otherwise. Therefore, I want to thank everyone at VIR for giving me this opportunity and hope that, together, we can continue to deliver quality news to our readership.

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Etienne

BA Vietnamese Studies, blogger, and subeditor for a newspaper as well as some academic publications. Loves tech stuff, free thinking, and games.

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