Translation for the audience: The case of Vietnamese

Not long ago, I received a job offer from a translation company based in the United States. In the e-mail, the project manager warned: “the biggest problems we’ve had with Vietnamese translations for this client are that they were too ‘Vietnamese’ (i.e. not geared toward the Vietnamese speakers living in the US). Please keep that in mind as you translate.” On another occasion, I was offered a proofreading job and was advised that the translator of the document tended to use a style that was a bit oriented to the US market. The company thus wanted me to edit and make it “more native Vietnamese” since the document targeted an in-country audience.

It is obvious that many translation companies are aware that special considerations must be taken into account when handling projects involving the Vietnamese language. However, not all companies are fully aware of the pitfalls and complexities when requesting language service providers to translate or localize into this language.


The role of Vietnamese translation abroad

Vietnamese is the national and official language of approximately 80 million people living in Vietnam, and the language also has an important status in other countries such as the United States. According to the 2000 US census, the Vietnamese language has over one million speakers in the United States. The 2009 US Census Bureau estimates that the Vietnamese American population has grown to more than 1.6 million as of 2007. In California, Vietnamese is one of the top five languages other than English most widely spoken by Californians in their homes, along with Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog and Korean. Vietnamese is certainly one of the most popular languages in the translation and localization market in the United States. In some states, such as Texas, Massachusetts and California, government agencies and businesses are required by law to provide their Vietnamese-speaking clients with Vietnamese translations. For example, California Civil Code Section 1632 specifies: “A person in a trade or business, who negotiates primarily in the Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese or Korean language in the course of entering into a contract with a consumer, must give the consumer a written translation of the proposed contract in the language of the negotiations.” 

Vietnamese people living in the United States and in some other Western countries do speak Vietnamese, but the language they use can be different from that spoken in Vietnam, particularly in terms of word choice, expressions and spellings. A majority of immigrants left South Vietnam after 1975 with the collapse of the Saigon government and the resulting takeover by the Communist government. When these people left the country, they brought with them the language used prior to 1975. Meanwhile, for the past four decades, the Vietnamese language in Vietnam has continued evolving like any other language. A great deal of new vocabulary, expressions and styles have appeared. While these new vocabularies and expressions are widely used in Vietnamese society, they are usually not welcomed by many Vietnamese speakers living overseas, especially by the older generation who, for political reasons, are antagonistic toward the current government in Vietnam. Some even believe that their native language has been intentionally changed to serve the communist ideology, and consider the “new” language a threat to their traditional culture and identity. A word commonly used in Vietnam can sound communist, strange and even offensive to a Vietnamese speaker in the United States. Meanwhile, a word or phrase commonly used by overseas Vietnamese people can be considered outdated and odd in Vietnam.

One notable difference is the translation of the names of the continents and countries. For example, while Europe is called Âu Châu by the Vietnamese living abroad, it is always called Châu Âu in Vietnam. South Korea is officially translated as Hàn Quốc in the media in Vietnam, but this translation would be frowned upon by Vietnamese immigrants who settled in the United States in the 1970s or 1980s. Vietnamese newspapers published in the United States would translate this country as Nam Hàn or Đại Hàn. Many other examples of these differences can be found in the translation of other continent names such as Africa, Australia and America, and other countries such as the Philippines, Myanmar or China.

Another difference is the translation of terms in the field of information technology. For example, the word computer is translated as máy ¯di.ên toán in Vietnamese materials published in the United States, but in Vietnam, the popular word is máy tính or vi tính. The translation of many other IT or technical terms, such as software as ph`ân   m`êm, hardware as ph`ân  cú’ng, network as m.ang, computer monitor as màn hình, database as co’ so’ d˜u’ li.êu, scanner as máy qu´et, VCR as ¯d`âu máy, and cell phone as ¯di.ên di ¯d.ông, are very well received in Vietnam, but can cause unpleasant feelings and even trouble in understanding for overseas Vietnamese speakers who prefer to retain the English terms rather than translate them.

It is also important to note that Vietnamese immigrants abroad tend to have strong feelings against some word uses and expressions that did not exist in the South of Vietnam before 1975, despite the fact that these words and expressions have now become popular all over the country. Table 1 shows a list of the words and phrases often seen on websites, brochures and promotion materials that need to be considered when translating into Vietnamese. The words and phrases in the middle column are widely used in Vietnam, but would cause raised eyebrows within overseas Vietnamese communities. This incomplete list of words and phrases comes from long experience translating and editing documents for the Vietnamese living in the United States.


Important considerations for translation companies

Obviously, translation companies need to be sensitive to differences when dealing with Vietnamese language projects. Lack of awareness of these issues would result in unexpected or even dangerous outcomes. For example, the older Vietnamese generation in the United States would reject a marketing campaign launched by a health insurance company if its brochures or evidence of coverage contains an abundance of “new” Vietnamese terms. Likewise, a research market survey addressing Vietnamese speakers in the United States could fail to help clients to collect reliable data if the translated questionnaire contains terms that are not understood by respondents there. Meanwhile, a US company wishing to do business in Vietnam could miss out on a substantial market if its website contains outdated terms.

It is always advisable for translation companies to ask clients to provide information about the intended audience of a translation or localization product, if this is not already given. Project managers should know if a certain document is translated for people living outside Vietnam or for the people living in Vietnam, and thus can provide translators with appropriate glossaries, style guides, reference materials and previously translated documents, if available. Assuming that a majority of Vietnamese people living in the United States come from the South of Vietnam, some US companies that I have worked with often use the terms Southern Vietnamese or southern dialect to refer to the Vietnamese language used in the United States. Typical instruction might be “Please translate the attached document into Southern Vietnamese.” However, given that Vietnamese people living in the South of Vietnam now use a written language that is identical to Northern Vietnamese, at least in terms of vocabulary and spelling, the notion of Southern Vietnamese can be vague. Project managers need to explicitly instruct freelancers to translate into the language commonly used by people in Vietnam, or the one used in the United States, for example.

Knowing the geographic location of the intended reader is important, but it can be insufficient. More information about the intended readers such as age group and the length of time they have lived in the host country can be useful. Recently, I was requested to translate an educational document into Vietnamese. The end client was a US university and its intended readers were newly-arrived students from Vietnam. The translation company that hired me at first maintained that I should translate into the Vietnamese language currently used in the United States. However, I doubted if those young people who just arrived in the United States and had spent most of their lives in Vietnam were able to understand the “old” Vietnamese language used in the Unites States. I raised the issue to the company. After consulting with their client, the company finally asked me to translate into the language used in Vietnam, which I thought would make more sense. In the same way, questions regarding linguistic appropriateness can be raised for some US health care materials that target newly-arrived immigrants. Given that these immigrants have just arrived and are more familiar with the language used in their native homeland, would it be better for them to read documents in “new” Vietnamese that they understand better, or in “old” Vietnamese, which is often considered more politically correct in countries such as the United States?

In terms of recruiting, a common policy that some translation companies tend to follow is to hire translators located in the United States to do the translation jobs for the Vietnamese speakers there, while requesting translators residing in Vietnam to translate for the in-country audience. While this seems to be a reasonable strategy, a company can lose the potential pool of global resources if it rigidly applies this policy by giving preference to a certain geographic location during the recruiting process. More thoughtful considerations of other factors such as the translator’s work history, client records and life experience must be taken into account. Experienced translators can be well aware of linguistic differences of the language they translate into. Many of them also live in different countries. Experienced translators always think of the target audience they translate for, and they are able to consult relevant glossaries, style guides and reference materials effectively.

Finally, any Vietnamese variety, no matter where it is used, keeps evolving, and it is difficult to know with certainty what will happen in the future. Owing to the internet, Vietnamese people overseas can now read more and more online publications from Vietnam. Vietnamese people in Vietnam can also gain access to online newspapers published abroad. Opportunities to travel between Vietnam and the United States or Australia have become much easier. Young Vietnamese people tend to be more tolerant toward ideologies and political beliefs. Thus, it might be worthwhile to ask if the linguistic differences discussed in this article will still be valid in ten years’ time.