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Nguyễn Thị Nhàn


(Nghiên cứu cách dịch Việt-Anh các phụ đề hiện vật

tại bảo tàng dân tộc học Việt Nam)


Field: Linguistics

Code: 5.04.09

Hanoi, 2005




Nguyễn Thị Nhàn


(Nghiên cứu cách dịch Việt-Anh các phụ đề hiện vật

tại bảo tàng dân tộc học Việt Nam)
By: Nguyễn Thị Nhàn

Supervisor: Dr. Trần Xuân Điệp

Hanoi, 2005



In Vietnam as well as in every country of the world, museums have been open to help people understand and appreciate the natural world, the history of civilizations, and the record of humanity’s artistic, scientific, and technological achievements. Museums exhibit objects of scientific, aesthetic, or historical importance for the purposes of public education and the advancement of knowledge. The Vietnam Museum of Ethnography founded in 1997 is a cultural and scientific center. It studies, collects, classifies, preserves, restores and exhibits cultural and historical values of all ethnic groups in Vietnam. People visit the museum not only to amuse themselves but also to study ethnic groups as well as various cultural values of Vietnamese people. Therefore, people from all over the country as well as foreign visitors, scientists as well as students can find interesting things in here. For the purpose of welcoming foreign visitors, all the exhibit labels are written in Vietnamese and then translated into English and French.

The translation of exhibit labels is not at all an easy process as many concepts about the life of ethnic people in Vietnam do not have equivalents in the English language. The translators have to use lots of translation strategies in transferring the concepts in a way that is the most understandable to foreign visitors. However, the translators also have some difficulties in translating the concepts for the problem of non-equivalence at word level.

So far, little research on the Vietnamese – English translation of exhibit labels has been done. Therefore, an investigation on the Vietnamese – English translation of exhibit labels in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnography is really necessary. In the hope for some suggestions of implications that can be of some use to those who are responsible for translating exhibit labels in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnography as well as in other museums, the author would like to carry out this minor thesis to answer the question: What are the translation strategies and procedures used in the translation of exhibit labels in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnography (VME)?


There are several types of exhibit labels in a museum: title or headline labels giving the title of an exhibit; primary or introductory labels providing an overview or introduction to the exhibit; secondary or text labels giving an intermediate level of information between an introductory label and the more specific object labels; and object labels providing information, such as description or title, date or age, artist or user, material composition, and sometimes a brief text on a particular object. This study limits itself to the analysis of the Vietnamese-English translation of object labels in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnography in Hanoi.


This study aims at:

  • Analysing the strategies and procedures used in the translation of exhibit labels from Vietnamese to English in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnography.

  • Working out the difficulties of translation process that the translators in the museum may have.

  • Giving some suggestions for the problems.


To accomplish this thesis, we will go through a number of materials on translation studies to build up a theoretical background for the research. Then, as it was stated in the aims and scope of the study, we will collect the authentic exhibit labels in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnography in Nguyen Van Huyen street, Cau Giay district, Hanoi for description and analysis. From these sources, we will analyse and draw out the methods and techniques used in the translation. Furthermore, some translators who have translated the labels, will also be interviewed for more specific information about the translation.


This study consists of three major parts: Introduction, Development, and Conclusion; a bibliography, and some photographs for illustration.

Part I - Introduction

The rationale of the study is given in this part. It also gives the aims, scope and methods of the study.

Part II - Development

Chapter I - Literature review

This chapter provides the theory of translation, translation equivalence, translation strategies and procedures.

Chapter II - The translation of exhibit labels in the Vietnam Museum of Ethnography

This chapter presents the current context of the translation of exhibit labels in VME; it also deals with the methods and procedures used in the translation.

Part III – Conclusion

This part summarises all the things mentioned in chapter II and gives comments on the suggestions for better translation and further research on the problem.

The appendix shows photographs for illustration.



I.1. Definition of translation

Translation has been approached from a scientific point of view by linguists through times and thus has been defined variously. Many have concluded that translation is scarcely an aspect of applied linguistics or it is just regarded as a complicated process of communicating, in which one decodes from one language and encodes into another. Some others, who have considered translation as something scientific, however, think of translation merely in terms of complex techniques of comparative linguistics (Jumpet 1961, Carry and Jumpet, 1963). In order to find an adequate definition of translation, prominent figures in linguistics such as Cat Ford, Bell, Hatim & Mason, Nida, and many others have carried out careful analyses of the process of translating, especially in the case of source and receptor languages having quite different linguistic structures and cultural features.

We start with a definition quoted from the Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (1992:4739):

“Translation is the replacement of a text in one language (Source Language-SL) by an equivalent text in another language (Target Language-TL).”

And it is then followed by the linguists’ definitions:

“Translation is the expression in another language of what has been expressed in another, source language, preserving semantic and stylistic equivalences.”

Bell (1991:5)

“Translation is basically a change of form. In translation the form of the source language is replaced by the form of the receptor (target) language.”

Larson, M.L. (1984:3)

“Translation is a communicative process which takes place within a social context.”

Hatim & Mason (1990:3)

“Translating consists of producing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent to the message of the source language, first in meaning and secondly in style.”

Nida, E.A. (1975:33)

These five definitions, in spite of slight differences in the expressions, share common features that they all emphasize the importance of finding the closest equivalence in meaning by the choice of appropriate target language’s lexical and grammatical structures, communication situation, and cultural context. Through their definitions these scholars also confirm the possibilities of effective interlingual communication by translation if a set of basic requirements which are considered “Laws of Translation” could be achieved. Nida (1964:164) proposes four major principles:

  1. Making sense

  2. Conveying the spirit and manner of the original

  3. Having a natural and easy form of expression

  4. Producing a similar response

Whereas Savory (1968:54) sets up twelve objectives for a translation:

  1. A translation must give words of the original

  2. A translation must give the idea of the original

  3. A translation should read like an original work

  4. A translation should read like a translation

  5. A translation should reflect the style of the original

  6. A translation should possess the style of the original

  7. A translation should read as a contemporary of the original

  8. A translation should read as a contemporary of the translation

  9. A translation may add to or omit from the original

  10. A translation may never add to or omit from the original

  11. A translation of verse should be in prose

  12. A translation of prose should be in prose

Nida and Savory’s principles are different in number. However, they all pay their first attention to correspondence of meaning over correspondence of style. And it is also recognizable that equivalence in both meaning and style cannot always be retained altogether. In concrete textual situation, it is the translator that decides which principles must be achieved and it is the meaning that must have priority over the stylistic forms.

I.2. Translation equivalence

Equivalence can be considered a central concept in translation theory; many theorists define translation in terms of equivalence relation. Pym (1992) has even pointed to its circularity: equivalence is supposed to define translation, and translation, in turn, defines equivalence. Here are some elaborate approaches to translation equivalence:

Nida 91964) distinguishes formal equivalence and dynamic translation as basic orientations rather than as a binary choice:

+ Formal equivalence is achieved when the source language and target language words have the closest possible match of form and content.

+ Dynamic equivalence is achieved when the source language and target language words have the same effect on their effective readers

Newmark (1988a) terms Nida’s dynamic equivalence as ‘equivalence effect’ or ‘equivalence response’ principle: “the overriding purpose of any translation should be to achieve ‘equivalence effect’, that is to produce the same effect (or one as close as possible) on the readership of the translation as was obtained on the readership of the original” (Newmark 1988a). He also sees equivalence effect as the desirable result rather than the aim of any translation except for two cases: (1) if the purpose of the source language text is to affect and the target language translation is to inform or vice versa; (2) if there is a pronounced cultural gap between the source language and the target language text.

Koller (1979) considers five types of equivalence:

+ Denotative equivalence: the source language and target language words refer to the same thing in the real world.

+ Connotative equivalence: provides additional values besides denotative and is achieved by the translator’s choice of synonymous words or expressions.

+ Text-normative equivalence: the source language and target language words are used in the same or similar context in their respective languages

+ Pragmatic equivalence: with readership orientation, the source language and target language words have the same effect on their respective readers.

+ Formal equivalence: produces and analogy of form in the translation by either exploiting formal possibilities of target language, or creating new forms in target language.

I.3. Non-equivalence at word level

According to Baker (1992:20), non-equivalence at word level means that the TG has no direct equivalent for a word which occurs in the ST. The type and level of difficulty posed can vary tremendously depending on the nature of non-equivalence. Different kinds of non-equivalence require different strategies, some very straightforward, others more involved and difficult to handle

I.3.1. Different kinds of non-equivalence

(a) Culture-specific concepts

The SL word may express a concept which is totally unknown in the target culture. The concept in question may be abstract or concrete; it may relate to a religious belief, a social custom, or even a type of food. Such concepts are often referred to as ‘culture-specific’. Speaker (of the House of Commons) has no equivalent in many languages. It is often translated into Russian as ‘Chairman’, which does not reflect the role of the speaker of the House of Commons as an independent person who maintains authority and order in Parliament.

(b) The SL concept is not lexicalised in the TL

The SL word may express a concept which is known in the target culture but simply not lexicalised, i.e. not allocated a TL word to express it. Landslide has no ready equivalence in many languages, although it simply means ‘overwhelming majority’.

(c) The SL word is semantically complex

This is a fairly common problem in translation. A single word which consists of a single morpheme can sometimes express a more complex set of meanings than a whole sentence.

(d) The SL and TL make different distinctions in meaning

The TL may make more or fewer distinctions in meaning than the SL. What one language regards as an important distinction in meaning another may not perceive as relevant.

(e) The TL lacks a superordinate

The TL may have specific words (hyponyms) but no general word (superordinate) to head the semantic field.

(f) The TL lacks a specific term (hyponym)

More commonly, languages tend to have general words but lack specific ones, since each language makes only those distinctions in meaning which seem relevant to its particular environment. English has many hyponyms under article for which it is difficult to find precise equivalents in other languages, for example feature, survey, report, review and many more.

(g) Differences in physical or interpersonal perspective

Physical perspective may be of more importance in one language than it is in another. Physical perspective has to do with where things or people are in relation to one another or to a place, as expressed in pairs of words such as come/go, take/bring.

(h) Differences in expressive meaning

There may be a TL word which has the same propositional meaning as the SL word, but it may have a different expressive meaning. The difference may be considerable or it may be subtle but important enough to pose a translation problem in a given context. Differences in expressive meaning are usually more difficult to handle when the TL equivalent is more emotionally loaded than the SL item. This is often the case with items which relate to sensitive issues such as religion, politics and sex.

(i) Differences in form

There is often no equivalent in the TL for a particular form in the source text. Certain suffixes and prefixes which convey propositional and other types of meaning in English often have no direct equivalents in other languages. English has many couplets such as employer/employee, trainer/trainee, and payer/payee.

(j) Differences in frequency and purpose of using specific forms

Even when a particular form does have a ready equivalent in the TL, there may be a difference in the frequency with which it is used or the purpose for which it is used. English uses the continuous –ing form for binding clauses much more frequently than other languages which have equivalents for it.

(k) The use of loan words in the source text

The use of loan words in the ST poses a special problem in translation. Quite apart from their respective propositional meaning, loan words such as au fait, chic in English are often used for their prestige value, because they can add an air of sophistication to the text or its subject matter. This is often lost in translation because it is not always possible to find a loan word with the same meaning in the TL.

I.3.2. Strategies used by professional translators

(a) Translation by a more general word (superordinate)

This is one of the commonest strategies for dealing with many types of non-equivalence, particularly in the area of propositional meaning. It works equally well in most, if not all, languages, since the hierarchical structure of semantic fields is not language-specific.

(b) Translation by a more neutral /less expressive word

Baker (1992:29) gives an example to illustrate this.

Source text: the shamanic practices we have investigated are rightly seen as an archaic mysticism.

Target text (back-translated from Japanese): the shamanic behaviour which we have been researching should rightly be considered as ancient mysticism.

The translator could have used a Japanese phrase which means ‘behind the times’ and which would have been closer to both the propositional and expressive meanings of archaic. This, however, would have been too direct, that is too openly disapproving by Japanese standards. The expressive meaning of archaic is lost in the translation.

(c) Translation by cultural substitution

This strategy involves replacing a culture-specific item or expression with a target-language item which does not have the same propositional meaning but is likely to have a similar impact on the target reader. The main advantage of this strategy is that it gives the reader a concept with he/she can identify, something familiar and appealing.

E.g. Source text: The Patrick Collection has restaurant facilities to suit every taste – from the discerning gourmet, to the Cream Tea expert.

Target text (back translated from Italian): to satisfy all tastes: from those of the demanding gastronomist to those of the expert in pastry.

In Britain, ‘cream tea’ is ‘an afternoon meal consisting of tea to drink and scones with jam and clotted cream to eat. It can also include sandwiches and cakes. ‘Cream tea’ has no equivalent in other cultures. The Italian replaced it with ‘pastry’, which does not have the same meaning. However, ‘pastry’ is familiar to the Italian reader and therefore provides a good cultural substitute.

(d) Translation using a loan word or loan word plus explanation

This strategy is particularly common in dealing with culture-specific items, modern concepts, and buzz words. Following the loan word with an explanation is very useful when the word in question is repeated several times in the text. Once explained, the loan word can be used on its own; the reader can understand it and is not distracted by further lengthy explanations

E.g. Source text: Morning coffee and traditional cream teas are served in the conservatory.

Target text (back-translated from Japanese): Morning coffee and traditional afternoon tea and cream cakes can be enjoyed in the conservatory (green house)

The underlined word in the ST is used as loan words in the Japanese text, not because they have no equivalents in Japanese but because they sound more modern, smart, high class.

(e) Translation by paraphrase using a related word

This strategy tends to be used when the concept expressed by the source item is lexicalised in the TL but in a different form, and when the frequency with which a certain form is used in the source text is significantly higher than would be natural in the TL.

E.g. Source text: There is strong evidence, however that giant pandas are related to the bears.

Target text (back-translated from Chinese): but there is rather strong evidence that shows that big pandas have a kinship relation with the bears.

(f) Translation by paraphrase using unrelated words

If the concepts expressed by the source item is not lexicalised at all in the TL, the paraphrase strategy can still be used in some contexts. Instead of a related word, the paraphrase may be based on modifying a superordinate or simply on unpacking the meaning of the source item, particularly if the item in question is semantically complex.

E.g. Source text: ….the lower mixed broadleaf forests….are the areas most assessible to and disturbed by Man.

Target text (back-translated from Chinese): …the mixed broadleaf forests of the lowland area …are the places where human beings enter most easily and interfere most.

The main advantage of the paraphrase strategy is that it achieves a high level of precision in specifying propositional meaning. One of its disadvantages is that a paraphrases does not have the status of a lexical item and therefore cannot convey expressive, evoked, or any kind of associated meaning. Another advantage of using this strategy is that it is cumbersome and awkward to use because it involves filling a one-item slot with an explanation consisting of several items.

(g) Translation by omission

This strategy may sound rather drastic, but in fact it does no harm to omit translating a word or expression in some contexts. If the meaning conveyed by a particular item or expression is not vital enough to the development of the text to justify distracting the reader with lengthy explanations, translators can and often do simply omit translating the word or expression in question.

(h) Translation by omission

This is a useful option if the word which lacks an equivalent in the TL refers to a physical entity which can be illustrated, particularly if there are restrictions on space and if the text has to remain short, concise, and to the point.

I.4. Translation procedures

Translation procedures, as stated by Newmark (1988:81), are used for the translation of sentences and smaller units of language. According to Newmark there exist the following procedures:

  • Borrowing

  • Calque

  • Literal translation

  • Transposition

  • Modulation

  • Total syntagmatic change

  • Adaptation

The first three, called direct translation procedures, are used when structural and conceptual elements of the source language can be transposed into the target language. The other four, called oblique translation procedures, are used when structural and conceptual elements of the source language cannot be directly transposed without altering meaning or upsetting the grammatical and stylistic elements of the target language. Oblique translation procedures require that the translator have an in-depth knowledge of both languages involved in the translation process. For instance, transposition requires that the translator know it is possible to replace a word category in the target language without altering the meaning of the source language text. Modulation, which is perhaps the most complex of all the procedures, requires that the translator knows the mechanics of both source and target languages as well as their respective inherent qualities.

I.4.1. Borrowing

It can be said that borrowing is the simplest translation procedure of all. Indeed, it would scarcely be a procedure of any relevance here if the translator did not occasionally need to make use of it in order to create some particular stylistic effect. To introduce an element of local color, foreign terms are often retained. Elements of local color evoked by means of borrowings have an effect on the style, and consequently also on the message itself. It is worth noting that loans often actually enter language via translation as happens with semantic loans or false friends against which one has to be on one’s guard.

Vietnamese is a language that has so many borrowings, especially in recent times when the influence of foreign cultures is stronger than ever. Examples of borrowings in Vietnamese are: Internet, vitamin, live show, hormone, axit, virus, dollar, email… (English), toilette, cravate, fromage, savon (French), etc.

Similarly, when translating from Vietnamese into a foreign language, we have to retain some culturally distinctive words that cannot be replaced by foreign words. Eg. Ao dai, pho, xich lo….

I.4.2. Calque

A calque is a loan translation of a particular kind: a complete syntactic unit is borrowed, but its individual elements are translated literally. The result may be a calque of expression, which preserves the syntactic structure of the source language while introducing a new mode of expression.

Eg. Global warming vs. sự nóng lên toàn cầu

Cold war vs. chiến tranh lạnh

Trade mark vs. nhãn hiệu thương mại (thương hiệu)

Superman vs. siêu nhân

Call girl vs. gái gọi .

The White House vs. Nhà trắng

The summit conference vs. hội nghị thượng đỉnh

suicide bombing vs. ném bom tự sát

I.4.3. Literal translation

Literal, word-for-word translation is defined as one where the resulting target language text is grammatically correct and idiomatic, but where the translator has not needed to make any changes other than those that are obviously required by the target language grammar itself (such as concord, inflectional endings).

Eg. Kim Chi là cô gái đẹp, làm vợ thằng Tuân đúng là “hoa nhài cắm bãi cứt trâu”.

Kim Chi is a beautiful girl, and as Tuan’s wife it was certainly a case of “a sprig of jasmine in a field of buffalo shit”.

(Source: Nguyen Huy Thiep, Tuong ve huu, Material for translation studies tutorials)

In principle, literal translation is a unique solution, reversible and complete in itself. It is most commonly found in translations between closely related languages, and especially those having a similar culture. If literal translation is often possible between French and English, this is because shared metalinguistic concepts can equally well derive from a physical co-existence, periods of bilingualism, with the conscious or unconscious imitation that accompanies a certain intellectual or political prestige. Another reason is the general convergence of thought, and sometimes of structure, among the European languages (such as the creation of the definite article, the concepts of culture and civilization).

I.4.4. Transposition

Transposition means the replacing of one word-class by another, without changing the meaning of the message. The procedure can also be used within a language, as in rewording: thus He announced that he would return can be reworded, with the subordinate verb becoming a noun, as He announced his return. We call this second version the transposed form, and the original one the base form. In translation, two types of transposition can be distinguished: obligatory and optional transposition.

The base and transposed forms are not necessarily equivalent from the stylistic point of view. The translator must thus be prepared to carry out a transposition if the resulting version fits better in the sentence or allows a particular stylistic nuance to be retained. The transposed form generally has a more literary character.

When translating from Vietnamese into English or vice versa, we have to use this procedure very often. The reason is English tends to have more noun phrases whereas it sounds more Vietnamese to use verb phrases.

Eg. His generosity was a result of the poverty of his early years

Sự hào phóng của ông là kết quả của những năm tháng nghèo khó thời niên thiếu.

I.4.5. Modulation

Modulation means a variation in the message due to a change in the point of view: seeing something in a different light. It is justified when a literal or transposed translation results in a form which is grammatically correct but not quite natural, going against the feeling of the target language.

Through modulation, the translator generates a change in the point of view of the message without altering meaning and without generating a sense of awkwardness in the reader of the target text.

As with transposition, we can distinguish free or optional modulations from fixed of obligatory ones. An example of an obligatory modulation is the phrase “in the world” which must be rendered in Vietnamese as “trên thế giới”. It is because it would sound unnatural to say “trong thế giới”. A common example of an optional modulation takes place when a negative expression in the source language becomes positive in the target language, although this is also closely linked to language specific stylistic features.

Eg. It is not difficult to do this.

 việc này dễ thôi mà.

The difference between fixed and free modulation is one of degree. In the case of fixed modulation, a competent bilingual will not hesitate to have recourse to this procedure if it is supported by frequency of usage, total acceptance of usage, or a status established by the dictionary or a grammar book.

With free modulation, no fixation has taken place and the process must be undergone anew in each case. However, this kind of modulation is not really optional in the strict sense; correctly carried out, it must result in the ideal target language solution corresponding to the source language situation. By way of comparison, one could say that a free modulation leads to a solution which makes the reader exclaim “yes, that’s just how it would be said.” Free modulation thus nevertheless tends towards a unique solution; and this unique solution rests on a habitual mode of thought, which is imposed and not optional. Between fixed and free modulation, there is only a difference of degree; a free modulation may at any moment become a fixed one as soon as it becomes frequent, or as soon as it is felt to be the unique solution (this usually happens during the examination of bilingual texts or discussions at a bilingual conference, or as a result of a famous translation which becomes established by virtue of its literary value). The evolution of free modulation into a fixed one becomes complete when it is recorded in dictionaries and grammar books, becoming something to be taught. From that moment on, non-modulation constitutes a mistake of usage and is condemned as such.

There are several types of modulation

Concrete vs. abstract: give a pint of your blood  donnez un peu de votre sang (give a little of your blood)

Whole vs. part: he shut the door in my face  il me claque la porte au nez (he shut the door in my nose)

Part vs. different part: water off a duck’s back  nước đổ đầu vịt

Converses: you can have it  je vous le laisse (I leave it to you)

Cause vs. effect: baffles analysis Þ échappe a l’analyse (escapes analysis)

Means vs. result: firewood Þ bois de chauffage (wood for heating)

Different sense: the rattle of a cab (sound) Þ le roulement d’un fiarce (movement) (the rolling of a cab)

I.4.6. Total syntagmatic change

Two texts may account for the same situation by means of very different stylistic and structural devices. The change involved is usually syntagmatic, affecting the whole of the message. Most examples are thus fixed, they belong to the phraseological repertoire of idioms, clichés, proverbs, nominal or adjectival collocations, etc. proverbs typically provide perfect illustrations of the procedure: when the cat’s away, the mice will play Þ vắng chủ nhà gà vọc niêu tôm; the early bird catches the worm Þ trâu chậm uống nước đục. And the same is true of idioms: as like as two peas Þ giống nhau như hai giọt nước; promise the moon Þ hứa nhăng hứa cuội.

I.4.7. Adaptation

This last procedure brings us to the extreme limit of translation; it is used in cases where the situation to which the message refers does not exist at all in the target language and must thus be created by reference to a new situation, which is judged to be equivalent. This is therefore a question of situational equivalence.

Eg. Bụt lại xuất hiện, khuông mặt hiền từ như người mẹ an ủi cô: con đừng khóc

The Goddess of Mercy appeared again, with a face as sweet as a loving mother, and comforted her: "Do not cry, my child”.

(Source: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/tam.html)

In Vietnamese culture, But is understood as an old fairy man, but when ‘Tam Cam’ is translated into English by an English author, ‘But’ is translated as ‘The Goddess of Mercy’, a female fairy figure, which is popular in English folklores.

Besides the above-mentioned procedures, Baker (1992) also suggests some other strategies to deal with the problems of non-equivalence at word level.

I.4.8. Naturalisation

This is the translation procedure that succeeds transference and adapts the SL word to the normal pronunciation, and then to the normal morphology (word-forms) of the TL, e.g. cowboy – cao bồi;

I.4.9. Cultural equivalent

This procedure is an approximate translation where the translator translates a SL cultural word by a TL cultural word, e.g. baccalaureat is translated as “A” level. The translation uses of these approximate equivalents are limited because they are not accurate, but they can be used in general texts, publicity and propaganda, as well as for brief explanation to readers who are ignorant of the relevant SL culture. A great advantage of approximate cultural equivalents is that they have a greater pragmatic impact than culturally neutral terms; they are important in drama as they can create an immediate effect. However, the main purpose of this procedure is to support or supplement another translation procedure in a couplet.

I.4.10. Functional equivalent

Functional equivalent, which is applied to cultural words, requires the use of cultural-free words, sometimes with a new specific term. Its function is to neutralise or generalise the SL word; and sometimes add a particular, e.g. baccalaureat – French secondary school leaving exam. This procedure is the most accurate way of translating or deculturalising a cultural word.

This procedure is also used when a SL technical word has no TL equivalent. In other words, this procedure fills in the gap between the SL culture and TL culture. In translation of cultural terms, this procedure is often combined with transference.

I.4.11. Descriptive equivalent

To distinguish description from function, Newmark (1988) presented an example: Samurai is described as ‘the Japanese aristocracy from the eleventh to the nineteenth century’; its function was ‘to provide officers and administrators’. Generally, description and function are essential elements in translation.

I.4.12. Reduction and expansion

Reduction and expansion are rather imprecise translation procedures, which the translator practises intuitively in some cases and purposedly in others. There is, however, at least one shift for any procedure.

E.g. (1) SL adjective of substance plus general noun, TL noun: science linguitique – linguistics

(2) For expansion, a not uncommon shift is SL adjective, TL adverb plus past participle: cheveux egaux – evenly cut hair.

I.4.13. Combination

Couplets, triplets, quadruplets are the combinations of two, three or four of the procedures for dealing with a single problem. These combinations are particularly in the translation of cultural words in which transference is combined with a functional or a cultural equivalent.



The Vietnam Museum of Ethnography on Nguyen Van Huyen street, Cau Giay district, is both a scientific and cultural center. This museum studies the ethnic groups in Vietnam; its main function is to collect, classify, preserve, exhibit historical and cultural values of all ethnic groups in Vietnam. Of all these functions, exhibition is always the most important. The museum considers exhibits the core as these exhibits reflect the peoples’ everyday life. The permanent exhibition of the museum shows around 700 objects. Each object is accompanied by a label showing its name and origin. The labels are written in Vietnamese, French and English for the purpose of welcoming foreign visitors to this museum.

The English version of the exhibit labels have been translated by a group of four translators of the museum. They all graduated from universities that specialise in English. None of them learned about ethnography or anything related to it. When asked about the translation process of the exhibit labels from Vietnamese into English, La Thi Thanh Thuy, one of the translators, said that the most difficult aspect of the translation was some terms or name that did not exist in English; then they had to choose words and phrases in English that could be best suitable for that name. After that, the editor, an English native speaker, would give comments on the translation and if he could understand what was meant by the translation. Then the translation would be chosen.

Most of the exhibits in the museum are everyday life belongings of the people of ethnic groups in Vietnam. Therefore, many items do not have equivalent terms in English. In the following section, we are going to examine the techniques and methods that have been used by the translators in transferring the terms into English.


The following section will deal with the strategies used in the translation of exhibit labels in VME. Certainly and obviously, most of the label remains short and concise. This is considered the case of illustration strategy in translation. Other strategies will be investigated in the following parts

II.1. Translation using loan words

As said in the literature review, this strategy is particularly common in dealing with culture-specific items. In the case of VME, a lot of concepts are about the life of ethnic groups in Vietnam; the translators could not find equivalents for the concepts, so they had to use the original words in their translation.

The followings are examples of using loan words in translation:

Example 1. Ông Địa = Ong Dia, water puppet

In this example, the concept ‘Ông Địa’ is truly culture-specific. It is a famous and unique character in Vietnamese water puppetry and cannot be found in any other cultures. The translators had no other ways than using this concept accompanied by an explanation ‘water puppet’.

Example 2. Tượng thờ tổ nghề hát bội = ritual dolls for Hat boi singers

Similar to ‘Ông Địa’, ‘hát bội’ is a concept that only exists in Vietnamese culture and have no equivalents in the English language. The translators reused this concept in the translation without any explanation for it. Therefore, it might be a problem for foreign visitors to understand the concept.

Example 3. Lễ lẩu then của người Tày = The ‘lau then’ ceremony of the Tay

This object label is accompanied by a text panel which explained very clearly about the origin and meaning of the ceremony. Foreign visitors, therefore, can understand the concept ‘lau then’.

II.2. Translation by a more general word (superordinate)

This strategy is used a lot in the translation of cultural items where there is a relative lack of specificity in the English language.

Example 1.

Tiên nước = fairy

If translated word by word, the English version must be ‘water fairy’. In this case, however, the English culture does not accept such a concept. Therefore, the translators used a more general word for it – ‘fairy’.

Example 2.

Úp nơm = fisherman

Fisherman is the superordinate word for ‘úp nơm’, which means a fisherman using a specific fishing tackle to catch fish.

More examples are:

Đèn kéo quân = lantern

Đèn xếp = lantern

Mâm cơm và đũa cả = serving dish and chopsticks

Bẫy chim mồi = trap for doves

Hũ đựng mẻ = spice jar

II.3. Translation by cultural substitution

This strategy is really necessary in translating culture-specific item with a target language item that does not have the same propositional meaning. It is specially used in the translation of concepts related to musical instruments which do not have equivalents between the two languages. Most of the musical instruments belonging to Vietnamese ethnic groups are unique; therefore the translators had to use culture-specific items to describe them. By using this strategy, the translators can make the labels understood by foreign visitors.

Example 1. Đàn gáo = two-stringed fiddle

Đàn nguyệt = two-stringed lute

Đàn bầu = monochord

Kèn bóp = shawn

Phách = clappet

Tiêu = flute

Đàn nguyệt = zither

Trống một mặt = drum

Đàn độc huyền = monochord

Dây lục lạc = rattle

Đàn goong mười dây = 10-stringed lute

Đàn tinhninh = zither

Đàn ống tre = tubular zither

Nhị = fiddle

Khèn = mouth organ

II.4. Translation by paraphrase using related words

This strategy is used to lexicalise a concept in the SL in a different form, which make it easier to understand the concept. The translators have paraphrased some items as a way of explaining the complex concepts in the ethnic cultures.

Example 1. Bưng trống cơm = buffalo skin to be nailed on to body of rice drum

In the example, the translators have explained the meaning of the word ‘bưng’ by a longer expression. The English label, in this case, can be also useful for some Vietnamese visitors. Sometimes, Vietnamese visitors do not know what ‘bưng’ means as this word is not common in the Vietnamese language. If they can speak English, the English version of the label will be helpful.

Example 2. Tủ sách của thầy đồ = portable cabinet for candidates taking the Mandarin examinations

The translation of the concept ‘tủ sách của thầy đồ’ is really clear and easy to understand. ‘Candidates taking the Mandarin examinations’ fully expresses the meaning of ‘thầy đồ’. In addition to that, the word ‘portable’ also gives an explanation for ‘thầy đồ’.

Example 3. Nọc cấy = digging stick for transplanting rice seedlings.

Similar to the first example above, the translated version is also helpful to English-speaking readers from Vietnam, as the concept ‘nọc cấy’ is not easy to understand. By paraphrasing the concept, the translators have made it possible for the readers to catch the idea.

Other examples of this strategy include:

Trống chầu = drum to accompany singing

Trống chiến = drum for martial music.

Bao gốm = receptacles for fired pottery

II.5. Translation by omission

In several translations, the translators have omitted some words or expressions. The reason might be that those words and expressions are not necessary in conveying the meaning of the items to the readers.

Example 1.

Ván khắc in nét đen = outline printing block

In this case, ‘đen’ is omitted as it is not vital in the whole expressions. Furthermore, the label is illustrated by the object itself, therefore, the translators can leave out the unnecessary words.

Example 2.

Kìm gắp than = tongs

Xẻng xúc than = shovel

Vá hớt bọt = strainer

Muôi múc đồng = ladle

Nồi nấu đồng = cốt gang

Khuôn thạch cao và kềm lấy gốm mộc = mould and remover

All these labels are for the objects of traditional handicrafts by ethnic groups in Vietnam. Besides each group of objects is a text panel explaining clearly about one handicraft village. Therefore, it is not necessary for the translators to translate such words as ‘than’, ‘đồng’, ‘gốm’, etc. Without these words, still the targeted readers can catch the meaning of the labels.


III.1. Borrowing

As explained in the strategies, the translators have used some borrowings as the terms do not exist in the English language. This is done for the purpose of introducing the elements of local color. Examples are: ‘Tượng thờ tổ nghề hát bội’ = ‘rituals dolls for hat boi singers’; ‘Ông Địa’ = ‘Ong Dia, water puppet’; ‘Lễ lẩu then của người Tày’ = ‘The lau then ceremony of the Tay’.

III.2. Literal translation

Literal, word-for-word translation is used where the resulting target language text is grammatically correct and idiomatic, but where the translator has not needed to make any changes. In the translation of exhibit labels, the translators have used this procedure in many cases.


Xe chở đó = bicycle carrying fishtraps

Mặt nạ con giống = animal masks

Ông tiến sĩ giấy trên ngai = paper doctor on throne

Khăn đắp mặt người chết = face shrouds

Gối tre = bamboo pillow

Cồng săn = hunting gong

III.3. Transposition

It is known that Vietnamese and English are two distinctive languages. This is shown in the way of using different word-classes for one idea. In general, Vietnamese speakers prefer using verbs and active voice rather than nouns and passive voice in English. Therefore, the translator has to comform to the transposition procedure to translate the message, which is the replacing of one word-class by another, without changing the meaning of the message.

Example 1.

Kéo cắt đất = clay cutter

If translated literally, the target text would be ‘a tool for cutting clay’. However, the translators have used a more English expression, i.e. they have briefly employed the noun ‘cutter’ to show the meaning of the item.

Example 2.

Mủng đựng cơm = basket for cooked rice.

Mủng đựng trầu = betel nut box

Both of the Vietnamese text include the verb ‘đựng’, which means ‘to hold, to contain’ in English. However, the translators have transferred it into a preposition as in ‘basket for cooked rice’ or simply omitted the word as in ‘betel nut box’.

Example 3.

Quả ăn hỏi = box given at betrothal

Đồ dùng của thầy cúng = rattle used by rituals specialists

It can be clearly seen that the source texts do not have passives, whereas, in the translated texts, two passives have been inserted.

More examples are:

Bộ đánh lửa = fire starter set

Ống đựng tên = quiver and arrows

Gùi đựng thóc = harvesting basket

Ống đựng rượu cần = tray and alcohol glass

Vỏ bầu đựng rượu = alcohol receptacles

Dụng cụ làm cỏ rẫy = small hoe

Đó bắt cá bống = goby fish trap

Ống tra hạt = seed tube

Lồng mang gà đi xin dâu = Bird cage for betrothal

Giỏ cắm dao = knife sheath

Bộ đồ cất rượu

III. 4. Modulation

The translators in VME have used this procedure as a variation in the message due to a change in the point of view: seeing something in a different light.

Example 1.

Vỏ bầu đựng rượu = alcohol receptacles

The translators considered ‘vỏ bầu’ as a container, a receptacle therefore the original word ‘vỏ bầu’, which means ‘a calabash’ was transferred to ‘receptacles’.

Example 2.

Bù nhìn hình vượn = scarecrow in monkey image

The Encarta Dictionary defines ‘vượn’ as a small tree-dwelling ape of Southeast Asia with a slender body and long arms that allow it to swing rapidly and agilely from branch to branch. Whereas, ‘monkey’ is a medium-sized primate found mostly in tropical areas. Monkeys include baboons, marmosets, capuchins, macaques, guenons, and tamarins, but exclude apes, lemurs, and tarsiers. Clearly, the two concepts ‘vượn’ and ‘monkey’ are totally different; however, in Vietnamese people’s thought, ‘vượn’ and ‘monkey’ are closely related. Therefore, they have utilised ‘monkey’ in their translation.

More examples are:

Túi da thú = fox-fur hunter’s bag

Úp nơm = fisherman

Bẫy chim mồi = trap for doves

Hũ đựng mẻ = spice jar

III.5. Adaptation

When the message refers does not exist at all in the English language, the translators have to create a new equivalent that is culturally accepted in the target language. In the case of translating cultural items which are not identical in both languages, the translators have applied this procedure to make their translations understood by foreign visitors.

Example 1.

Úp nơm = fisherman

In the English language, there are no expressions for the Vietnamese-characterised item ‘úp nơm’, which is one kind of fishing tool. Therefore, the translators must replace it with a more general word ‘fisherman’.

This procedure is specially used in the translation of labels for musical instruments, which are culturally different in the two languages. By adaptation, the translators used the concepts of musical instruments in the English language that have similar features to those in the Vietnamese language.

Example 2.

Đàn gáo = two-stringed fiddle

Đàn nguyệt = two-stringed lute

Đàn bầu = monochord

Sáo ngang = flute

Nhị = two-stringed fiddle

Mõ = bamboo bell

Khèn = mouth organ

Đàn độc huyền = monochord

Kèn saranai = oboe

Tiêu = flute

III.6. Descriptive equivalent

For some concepts that have no equivalent in English, the translators have described the item by using a longer explanation.


Tủ sách của thầy đồ = portable cabinet for candidates taking the Mandarin examinations

Bưng trống cơm = buffalo skin to be nailed onto body of rice drums

Trống chầu = drum to accompany singing

Mẹt = rice winnowing basket

Mặt nạ trong lễ cấp sắc = mask for shaman’s initiation ritual.


The translators in VME have worked very hard to translate the exhibit labels successfully and understandably. However, as the saying goes ‘nobody is perfect’, some mistakes are unavoidable. While translating the sxhibit labels, the translators have encountered a lot of problems such as non-equivalence, limited knowledge of the cultures of the ethnic groups as well as ethnography. In this section, several examples of the problems will be discussed.

Example 1.

Thước đo lợn = ruler to measure pigs

‘Ruler’ is defined as ‘a strip of plastic, wood, or metal with at least one straight edge and units of length marked on it. It is used for measuring and for drawing straight lines’ (Encarta dictionary). However, the object exhibited is a tape-measure, which is defined as ‘a strip of tape or flexible metal marked in inches or centimeters, etc. for measuring length’. Therefore, the translated version is not very exact. It should be translated as ‘tape-measure for pig measuring’.

Example 2.

Chú Tễu = announcer

‘Chú Tễu’ is a famous character in water puppetry, a traditional art of Vietnam. If translated as ‘announcer’, it won’t be comprehended by foreign visitors. Therefore, it is advisable to put ‘water puppet’ behind ‘announcer’.

Example 3.

Khố trẻ em = belted child’s apron

Encarta dictionary defines ‘apron’ as ‘a garment worn over the front of clothes to keep them clean during working, especially cooking’. Whereas, in Vietnamese culture, ‘khố’ is understood as a cloth worn around the hips covering the hips and the genital area. In English, it is named ‘loincloth’. So ‘khố trẻ em’ should be translated as ‘children’s loincloth’. Similarly, ‘khố’ = ‘man’s belted apron’ should be changed into ‘man’s loincloth’.

Example 4.

Ống chọc tiết lợn = bamboo pig bleeders

A bleeder is a blood vessel that is bleeding during surgery and requires clamping or other measures to stop it (Encarta dictionary). But ‘ống chọc tiết’ is something used to kill an animal by stabbing it and taking its blood, which is named ‘sticker’. Therefore, ‘ống chọc tiết lợn’ should be ‘bamboo pig stickers’.

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