Wandering through vietnamese culture

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1.5. Conclusion

This part of study has just examined general translation theories. It also takes a close look on the significance of culture and the translation of cultural words. Furthermore, a variety of different approaches have been examined in an attempt to shed light on Huu Ngoc translation of cultural words in the next chapter.

Chapter 2: Vietnamese cultural words and their equivalences

2.1. The most common types of cultural words

In his classification of culture words, Newmark (1998) concluded five major categories of culture words including ecology, material culture (artifacts), social culture – work and leisure, organisations, customs, ideas and gestures and habits.

In Huu Ngoc’s book, the frequency of material culture, and to be more specific, food is the highest as compared to other types. The ratio among them can be illustrated in the chart as follows:

Culture-related words


Rate (%)

Food and drinks






2.2. The most common types of equivalence

As mentioned above, there are many approaches to the classification of equivalence in translation. This thesis adopts Munday (2001)’s perspective of quantitative equivalence which is consisted of one-to-one equivalence, many- to- one equivalence, one-to-part-of-one equivalence and nil equivalence. We can hardly find the case of one-to- many equivalence. Therefore, this kind of equivalence is not taken into consideration.

The writer of the thesis has listed almost all the cultural words occurred in his book and put them into the order of the most common types of equivalence to the least common one. The data can be easily find in the table below:

Type of equivalence


Rate (%)





Nước vối: “voi tea”




Cá kho: fish cooked with sauce




Miếng trầu: a betel chew




Đền, miếu, phủ: temple



2.2.1. Nil equivalence:

Looking into the translation of “Wandering through Vietnamese culture”, one can easily see on the chart above that nil-equivalence makes up the largest part, consisting 66%. Clearly, This is not a surprise to any translator who have ever stepped into the translation land of culture related words. There are some explanations for this biggest share.

The possible explanation is the availability. Normally, with exactly the same meaning, no one can say for sure that two cultures could choose to express it the same way. For example, , Vietnamese people would prefer using the buffalo in many idioms “Ngưu tầm ngưu, mã tầm mã” but the English would like to use “bird” as in “Birds of the same feather flocks together”. One other example may be “hiền như củ khoai”, “hiền như bụt” or “hiền như cục đất” for Vietnamese people but their English counter part would like to say “as mild as a lamb” (hiền như một chú cừu non). That is the case when two cultures express the same meaning. As a consequence, one can easily guess what the situation will be like when there are abundant of things in Source Language (SL) culture but there is no such things Target Language (TL) culture.

The first problem occurs when the Vietnamese word may express a concept which is totally unknown in the target language culture. To be more exact, those words often link to food and many kinds of tropical herbs and plants. For instances:

Tía tô

Hoa đơn

Cải cúc


Hoa thị

Mùi hoặc Ngổ


Hoa mộc

Lá khúc


Hoa thiên lý

Diếp cá

Lá chanh

Hoa ngâu

Gạo tẻ, gạo nếp

The explanation to this situation may be the climate differences. Vietnamese climate is hot and humid which is home to many tropical kinds of plants while the English climate is cold and dry, which may be suitable to totally different kinds of plants. Therefore, it can be easily understood while there are a lot of tropical plant culture-related words in his book which may not be known to English readers.

This may also be the reason for the second group of non-equivalence which is dishes. Different kinds of vegetables / herbs may lead to different ways of cooking, which leads to the existence of exotic Vietnamese dishes to Englishman. For examples:

Xôi gấc

Thịt kho tàu

Cua đồng nấu thiên lý

Xôi vò

Gà tần thuốc bắc

Miến lươn

Xôi đỗ

Chả lươn

Giả cày

Living on land, Vietnamese (and Chinese) peasants also have their own festivals, customs or ceremonies relating to land, rice or grains, trees with special attention paid to the weather, especially rain. For instances:

Lễ cầu đảo (cầu mưa)

Lập Xuân

Tết Đoan Ngọ (diệt sâu bọ)

Tết Hàn Thực

Cốc Vũ

Dựng cây nêu ngày tết

Tết Trung Thu

Tết Ông Công Ông Táo

Đi hái lộc

Additionally, the traditional games and entertainments of the Vietnamese are also various:

Trồng Nụ, Trồng Hoa

Ô ăn quan

Đánh thẻ

Múa khèn

Múa sư tử

Múa chiêng

Those mentioned categories are like only the tip of the Vietnamese culture iceberg which can be roughly listed as illustrations for the diversity of the source language culture. Clearly, this poses a huge challenge to the translator and the writer.

So that will happen if the translator has to face with the translation of culture-related concepts? Looking into the translation of those nil-equivalents words, one can clearly see that the first common translation tool that is fully made use of is borrowings.

First of all, looking at the group of typically tropical plants and vegetables, Huu Ngoc uses the third language, that is, Latin as a medium for translation. He tends to use the scientific terms of the plants to translate the Vietnamese words. For instances:

Cây sấu : dracontomelum duppereanum Pierre

Gạo tẻ : Oryza sativa Lin var dura

Gạo nếp : Oryzasativa Lin glutinosa

Hoa sói : Eugenia

Hoa ngâu : Algaria

Hoa đơn, hoa mộc : Apotasis

Hoa thiên lý : pergularia odoratissimasm

However, it can hardly be denied that Latin-original words can make the text difficult to understand because not all common English readers can know all the Latin words or have an available dictionary of plants and vegetables to check all the words up when necessary. One more thing is that a common reader may find it uninteresting to read a culture books with full of Latin original words. Huu Ngoc seems to understand this fact when he accompanying each Latin word with the specific description or use of each type. For instance:

Cà cuống: lethocerus indicus belostomalidae, an insect the size of cicada which gives an aromatic meat and essence

Back translation: Cà cuống: lethocerus indicus belostomalidae, một loài côn trùng cỡ như con ve, thịt và tinh dầu làm gia vị (my translation-Bach Anh Hong (BAH))

Quả thị: The fruit of the cây thị is found in countries with warm climates and grows fleshy, light yellow, aromatic fruits the size of oranges. Its scientific name is diospyros decandra lour and it belongs to the ebancea family, whose generic name in Vietnmamese is hồng (khaki). (p288)

Back translation:

Quả thị: Quả của cây thị, thường có ở các nước có khí hậu ấm áp, thịt mọng, màu vàng nhạt, là loại quả tỏa mùi hương có cỡ bằng quả cam. Tên khoa học là diospyros decandra lour, thuộc họ ebancea có tên Việt Nam thường gọi là hồng.

After translating the word with the Latin-original equivalence, together with some description, the Vietnamese word is then used as a common English word. That is, the author of the book has loaned the original words as the equivalence like in:

Ornamental flowers are orchids, camellias, chrysanthemums, sói, mộc, dahlia, peony…(p 291)

Many Vietnamese words have been rendered in the translation effectively. In those cases, there is no other language that has such words to be used as the third medium:

Nước vối : “voi tea”

Chuối tiêu : bananas of the kind called “tieu”

Múa khèn : khen dance

Múa Hát : Hat dance

Lúa chiêm : rice of the Chăm

The second effective tool is communicative methods or to be more specifically, the free translation or paraphrasing. However, not all the words are paraphrased in the same way.

With dish-related group, each word is translated by the description of how the dish is cooked:

Source Language

Target Language

Back Translation

Bánh cuốn

steamed rice roll

Cuốn gạo hấp

Nem chua

minced and fermented pork

Thịt lợn xay rồi để lên men


boiled pork paste

Thịt lợn xay luộc


sautéed pork paste

Thịt lợn xay rán

But the biggest group is translated by the detailed description of how the food is cooked plus its ingredients:

Source Language

Target Language

Back Translation

Bún chả

grilled pork eaten with vermicelli

Thịt lợn nướng ăn kèm bún

Phở sốt vang

rice noodles severed with beef stewed and flavored with wine

Phở ăn với thịt bò hầm rượu vang

Lươn om củ chuối

eel cooked over a slow fire with pieces of banana rhizome

Lươn nấu trên lửa nhỏ với những miếng củ chuối.

In many other cases, the purpose of the things is used for paraphrasing:

Source Language

Target Language

Back Translation

Thuốc lào

home – grown tobacco for the water bubble pipe

Thuốc lá nhà tự trồng dùng cho ống điếu nước

Giấy bản

absorbent paper to write ideograms on with a brush pen

Giấy thấm mực dùng để viết chữ tượng hình bằng chổi lông

Giấy lệnh

paper for the royal ordinances

Giấy dùng để viết các lệnh của nhà vua

With the culture word relating to festivals, customs or ceremony, the author describe in detail how the process is preceded as the translation:

Hái lộc: people pick a twig from a tree growing on the pagoda’s grounds which they believe will bring them prosperity

Back translation:

Hái lộc: mọi người bẻ một nhánh từ cây trồng trong sân chùa với niền tin rằng nhánh cây sẽ đem lại sự thịnh vượng cho họ

Đoan Ngọ: an occasion to “kill insects” on a person’s system by eating and drinking, right at the drawn, anything which is better or sour : glutinous rice alcohol, green fruits (peach, plum, mango, star fruit…) and other foods like the watermelons, coconut milks …

Back translation:

Đoan Ngọ: một dịp để “diệt côn trùng” trong cơ thể người bằng cách ăn và uống, ngay vào lúc sáng sớm, bất cứ thứ gì ngon hoặc chua: rượu nếp, hoa quả còn xanh (đào, mận, xòai, khế…) và các thức khác như dưa hấu, nước dừa…

The shape and appearance of things also proves its use when being rendered in translation:

Source Language

Target Language

Back Translation

Nhà sàn

house on stilts

Nhà trên các trụ

Bánh dẻo

moon shaped cake

Bánh giống hình mặt trăng

Bánh chưng

square cake

Bánh vuông

Literal translation is ultilized in many cases to deal with the culture-words that are totally dissimilar to the target language readers. Some illustrations are:

Source Language

Target Language

Back Translation

Hoa đá

literally, rock flower = coral

Nghĩa đen, hoa đá = san hô

Hoa tai

literally, flower of the ear = pendant

Nghĩa đen, hoa của tai = khuyên tai

Mặt hoa

literally, blossoming face – lovely face of a woman

Nghĩa đen, mặt như hoa nở- khuôn mặt đáng yêu của phụ nữ

Số đào hoa

literally, born under the star of a peach flower = to be chased after by women

Nghĩa đen, được sinh ra dưới ngôi sao hoa đào = thường bị những người phụ nữ đẹp theo đuổi

The final way of paraphrasing that Huu Ngoc used is to explain in detail the difficult to understand part of the word to the commonly understandable ones. For instances, “lúa chiêm” and “lúa mùa” or “ông đầu rau” are often heard but many Vietnamese youngsters do not understand exactly the meaning of the words. When reading the translations, the Vietnamese young readers could understand the words more, and hopefully they can do the same to English readers. Followings are some common cases:

Source Language

Target Language

Back Translation

Lúa chiêm

Summer rice

Lúa mùa hè

Lúa mùa

Autum rice

Lúa mùa thu

Ông đầu rau

The gentlemen bearing pots

Ông đội nồi

In general, Huu Ngoc has successfully cracked the hard culture word nuts by paraphrasing together with borrowings both from scientific names and the source language culture words. However, in some minor cases the translated version is not the best one. This is, in part, caused by the inappropriate use of the word. In many cases, the source language word is lexicalized in the target language word but is not rendered in the translation. For instance “cà dái dê” was translated as “testicles of billy goats, thus named perhaps because of its colour and shape”. Reading the translation, no one can say for sure that the English readers could understand that it is the exact “eggplant” in their country. The same case may be true for “the drawing orange trees” (cây cam nhỏ). Obviously, had the “quat” transferred into “kumquat”, many target-language readers would not have spent time imagining what kind of trees the translation refers to. One more case that would need further discussion is “convolvulus” (336:2006) in “the convolvulus rau muống is well liked vegetable, especially in summer when the weather is hot and oppressive and people suffer from constant thirst”. If a reader understands both English and Vietnamese, he will understand “convolvulus” as “rau muống”. But if he does not understand Vietnamese and checks it up in the “Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary”, he would find the definition of the words as “a wild plant with triangular leaves and flowers that are shaped like trumpets. It climbs up walls and fences, etc, twists itself around other plants (336:2005)”. Our Vietnamese scholars translated the definition in“ Từ Điển Anh-Việt” (p347:1999) as “loại cây thân quấn, có hoa hình loa kèn; cây bìm bìm. A Vietnamese would be fully aware of the kind of “bìm bìm” that often climbs up walls and fences, which is not eatable and their common “rau muống”. More suitably, the word should be translated as “morning-glory” which is more common to the target language reader. Additionally, “morning-glory” means “bìm bìm hoa tím” in Vietnamese which is exactly the other name of “rau muống.

Another thing in the translation of culture words is that the translations of the same words are not consistent from the beginning to the end of the book. For example:

This time the man’s family would be required to bring area nuts and betel leaves, tea, pork, glutinous rice and an equal number of glutinous rice cake (bánh dày) and square cake (bánh chưng) (404:2006).

But in the “New-life” weeding (411:2006), one can read “For the engagement ceremony alone, the bride’s family would demand for each member of the clan and each friend a gift consisting of one “bánh chưng” (square cake) or “bánh dày” (round cake). The same case happens with nem (spring roll) and “… one roll of nem (pork pie)” (411:2006). One more illustration could be “rau muống”. In P.334, he translated:

Trời còn đây, đất còn đây, còn ao rau muống còn đầy chum tương” - “as long as heaven and earth remain I will have my pond of water cress and my jar of soya sauce”.

However, in the next page 335, another very interesting text is dedicated to “convolvulus and aubergine” with the translation of:

Anh đi anh nhớ quê nhà

Nhớ canh rau muống nhớ cà dầm tương”


Far from home I think of my native hamlet

Of the bowl of boiled convolvulus

Of the aubergine bathed in soya sauce”

It is strongly doubtful that a foreigner could think “round cake” and “glutimous rice cake” refer to the same thing or one may say the same situation of nước mắm (fish sauce and fish brine); chả (kebab and grilled pork); phở tái (noodles servered with parboiled or scalded beef and noodles soup with half done beef).

One more inappropriateness, to the best of my understanding, is the translation of norminal group. There are common words that have been frequently used and turned into proper nouns such as name be transferred but the nominal sense of the words is not. For instance, “Lễ xem mặt” is translated into “Looking at the face” as in:

The first would be an introduction ceremony called Lễ xem mặt (Looking at the face)” conducted after the match-maker has got the agreement of the fiancee’s family. The man’s family would make a visit, bringing gifts of tea and area nuts, and the two young people would be allowed to have a bring look at each other.” (p404)

Lễ đưa dâu” (Sending off for the Bride) would take place the following day, with the two family in a lavish meal” (P 405).

Lễ đưa dâu” is not fully translated as only the name is translated, not the way the ceremony is conducted. Treated as a noun, Vietnamese people would prefer to use “dự lễ đưa dâu” not “tôi đưa dâu”. The same would happen to “lễ xem mặt”.

In conclusion, the first part of this chapter has found out that the most common types of equivalences the translation of the culture-related word is nil-equivalence. The major reason for this largest part is that the source language concept is unknown to the target language readers. Those non-equivalences are mainly attributed to the differences in plants, dishes, traditional customs or ceremony of festivals. The writer of the book has successfully made full use of free translation method in dealing with the non-equivalence. He also borrows word from a third language to translate the culture-related word, it is Latin. However, there still remains some minor inappropriateness such as the inconsistency in translating the same words, the misuse of some lexical items and the translation of nominal group.

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