There’s a whole variety of ways to translate a language. I roughly translated a short ten minutes of a film almost word for word as it was spoken by the actors. English however condenses it, and only sometimes do the words hold the same meaning to the original. There are phrases in Vietnamese that cannot be directly translated in English. Described, yes, but it would not hold the same effect as it does so in the original. Some of these words/phrases cannot be understood without it since many words vary in definition depending on how it is used. In the Vietnamese language, the sentence structure seems to contain more words that those of the English subtitles. Although length does not mean quality, it is very much true for the Vietnamese language. Most of the dialogue when translated to English is clearly condensed as subtitles. Sentences in the original and in English may give similar meanings, but they are not one in the same. Words vary and have different meanings depending on the tone and how it is used because the Vietnamese language is a predominantly tone-specific language (Le Tien and Huynh Hanh, personal communications).
The film is a Southern Vietnamese made film. The entire makeup of the movie is predominantly southern, from the director and cast to even the location in which the movie was filmed. The southern dialect is considered to be slang to some people, including myself. The phrase “Oi Chet” (Nguyen, Director Dustin) in this movie acts like a curse word, a kind of vulgar slang. A direct translation of “Chet” is dead or death. When Nam Mi jests with Mrs. Muoi when she asks why Nam Mi would visit, it is translated to “Oh, my”. When Tu Phi is checking his broken nail, I translated this phrase to mean “Oh fuck” but the subtitles translated it to be “curses”. The term “go co” when Mrs. Muoi warns Tu Phi to not dream of such superstitious ambitions can also be considered slang. The phrase is used instead of “bac”, which has a more common assumption of being handcuffed rather than a more violent meaning of arrest. To me, slang is very hard to catch in the Vietnamese language. Specifically, for southerners like me, the dialect or the way in which we speak Vietnamese, is already considered slang*. According to Huynh, idiomatic expressions are more predominant as compared with slang.
Idiomatic expressions and proverbs usually revolve around animals. Animals are culturally important to the Vietnamese language according to Le Thi Thu Hien. He states that customs play a big role in which animals may be considered “wealthier” or even “lazier” based on how each culture regards them to be important or not (Le T.T). When Nam Mi firsts arrives at Mrs. Muoi’s house, Mrs. Muoi greets her with the phrase: “Rong den nha tom” (Nguyen, Director). Mrs. Muoi talks about a dragon setting foot in a shrimp’s home. This idiomatic phrase is asking why someone as wealthy as Nam Mi would even visit someone as poor as she. This idiom also speaks of the difference in status between the two women (Le Tien, Personal communications). In Vietnam, the dragon symbolizes wealth and a higher status, whereas shrimp are a plenty and considered to be very poor. It is also evident when Tu Phi asks the year in which Nam Mi was born and makes his fortune telling based on that fact.
Other idiomatic expressions used in the film is “Nguoi tran mat thit” (Nguyen, Director) or “person of flesh and bone”. It is a phrase Tu Phi also used in convincing Nam Mi that his fortune-telling should be reliable enough. He’s basically telling Nam Phi that he is just as human like her. He does not have the same spirituality to peer into her mind or even know anything about her because they’ve never met before (Huynh H., personal communications). Another example of idiomatic expressions is when Tu Phi mentions a person of high spiritual standing when foretelling Nam Mi (Phan Thi Mi’s) fortunes. In the original, I assumed that “Thanh Ong” was some spiritual deity, an almost equivalent of what most people would refer to as a god. However, the dialogues later revealed that he was merely lying. Tu Phi was more of referring to himself when he said that he’d consult “Thanh Ong” about the amount of money she would need to give to him to make those offerings. The English subtitles translated this to be “God” instead. Vietnamese people in general are extremely superstitious. The southerners are mainly composed of those who follow religions that worship many deities instead of one. Whereas in the Americas, a singular God is the most prominent religious figure. This exchange is a good example of how different cultural beliefs would affect what is translated.
Social meanings behind their choice in words also reveal to me that it is the southern Vietnamese dialect. I am familiar with how they speak because my family speaks the southern dialect. We use phrases such as “chet”, “oi” and “ha” extremely often when speaking. There isnt really a social meaning to the general terms they use to address one another, but the words take on a rather pragmatic meaning. Most of the time, Vietnamese speakers uses the individual’s name or uses pronouns to address them. In most cases, individuals are addressed with pronouns like “Co”, “Anh” and “Em”. These titles have different meanings that vary on age, sex, and if applicable, family relations. Sometimes, these titles also have numbers that follow it. For example, “Di Muoi”, or Mrs. Muoi, means 10th aunt quiet literally. This is your mother’s 9th sister*1. Starting from the old days, one individual would carry many titles and would be called so by different people (Huynh H.).
There is an instance in which the English translation comes off a little more ruder than what is said in the Vietnamese language. Various words used to address whomever the speaker is speaking to allows for a more respectful approach. The original translations were “Excuse me sir, are you Mr Tu”, but the subtitles translated it as “Hey, man. Excuse me. Are you Mr. Tu?” (Nguyen, Director). Another example of the change in social meanings of a phrase is “Con lai…” (Nguyen, director) this phrase is Translated to “I bow”, but the I or “con” in this phrase denotes a more humble and smaller status of the speaker because of the pronoun.
Translating is not an easy task. One must consider the cultural and context of the words or phrases to fully grasp the meanings in which a speaker or text is trying to convey. Sometimes these translations can lose its intended meaning if phrases are condensed as well.