Wandering through vietnamese culture

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1   2   3   4   5   6   7 One-to-one equivalence

The last but not least group is one–to–one equivalence. This type of equivalence could be achieved when a single expression in Vietnamese is equivalent to a single expression in English.

Given the fact that culture is “the way of life and its manifestations that are peculiar to a community that uses a particular language as the means of expression” (Newmark, P. 1998:94), one could question why there are still one-to-one equivalence between two distant cultures? Why can we still see some one-to-one equivalence in translation such as:

Gỏi cá: raw fish

Mộc nhĩ: wood ear

Chả xiên: kebab

Thịt chó: native dog’s meat

Thịt dê: goat’s meat

Thịt ếch: frog’s meat

Đánh đu: swinging

The explanation may be that they are universal. That is, most nations in the word have undergone the developing stages of human social forms, from primitive to modern time. People in all over the world would share the common needs for food, home and clothes. In the process of development, they can share a common games or entertainment like:

Thả diều: flying the kite

Đánh đu: swinging

Nhảy lò cò: hopscotch

Cà kheo: stilting game

Đàn đá: litho phone

Or the equivalence may originate from a culture that immigrates into English culture:

Múa sư tử: lion’s dance/unicorn’s dance

Or sometimes they do raise the same animals but do not eat the same animal. In case of one-to-one equivalence, the hardest task of the translators is to find the exact equivalence to the word (literal translation). In conclusion, one-to-one equivalence between two cultures is possible but how to match them with each other requires much knowledge and experiences of the translator.


This paper starts with definition of the translation. Concerning the nature of translation, many translation theorists worded their ideas differently and lay their emphasis on dissimilar aspects of translation such as a basic “change of form” (Larson (1984: 3); the “intended in the text” Newmark (1988:5) or, the communicative purpose of translation Hatim & Mason (1990:3), “semantic and stylistic equivalences” Bell (1991: 5). However, they all seem to agree one the importance of achieving the closest equivalence in meaning by the choice of appropriate target language’s lexical and grammatical structures, communication situation, and cultural and the requirement to find equivalents which have similar characteristics to the original.

Logically, the great emphasis is now laid on equivalence. Equivalence is defined as a relation that holds between a source language text and a target language text. As far as the nature of equivalence is concerned, the question to be asked is not whether the two texts are equivalent, but what type and degree of translation equivalence they reveal. As a consequence, some main approaches to equivalence are listed such as quantitative, meaning based, form-based and function based.

The next question to be answered is about the difficulties that the translator has to encounter when executing his task? Could he always achieve the long-awaited equivalence? Baker (1994: 72) has tried to give her response by synthesizing the common problems of non-equivalence such as: culture-specific concepts; the source-language concept is not lexicalized in the target language; the source-language word is semantically complex etc.

In an attempt to narrow the topic, the following part of the literature review focuses on definition and notion of culture in translation. The writer of the thesis chooses to follows Newmark (1988:94) definition of translation and draw out that it is important to consider not only the lexical impact on the TL reader, but also the manner in which cultural aspects may be perceived and make translating decisions accordingly.

To come to a more concrete step, some typical categories of culture-related words proposed by Newmark (1988:95-102) are listed as the theoretical basis for the latter classification of cultural words under investigation in the book. Those are ecology; material culture (artifacts); social culture – work and leisure; organizations, customs, ideas; gestures and habits. In order to lay the theoretical foundation for the translation of cultural words, the thesis writer reviews major methods assisting the translator dealing with non-equivalence and finding the equivalence with major focus on Hervey et al, (1992:28)’s and Newmark’s. The first chapter set its aims to lay a foundation, on which the castle of investigation on Huu Ngoc translation of cultural words will be built in the following chapter.

The second chapter finds out that the frequency of material culture words, and to be more specific, food, occupying 45.9% is the highest as compared to other types. Then most of the cultural words occurred in his book is listed and put into the order of the most common types of equivalence to the least common one as follows:

  • Nil equivalence (66 %)

  • One-to-part-of-one equivalence (13%)

  • One-to-one equivalence (14.6%)

  • Many-to-one equivalence (6.4%)

From investigating the data, nil- equivalence is the biggest group. Therefore, much focus is laid on figuring out the reasons for this situation. The first occurs when the Vietnamese word may express a concept which is totally unknown in the target language culture. To be more specific, those words often link to food and many kinds of tropical herbs and plants. 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 to cook, which leads to the existence of exotic Vietnamese dishes to Englishman. The wet-rice 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.

First of all, borrowing is the first tool that Huu Ngoc has rendered to narrow down the cultural gaps of typically tropical plants and vegetables. Huu Ngoc uses the third language, that is, Latin as a medium for translation with the specific description or use of each type. Additionally, he also uses the technique of source- language word loans, which means the original Vietnamese culture words are used as common English words preceding their detail description.

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. However, the biggest group of dish is translated by the detailed description of how the food is cooked plus its ingredients.

The purpose of the things is also used for paraphrasing.

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

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

Literal translation is utilized in many cases to deal with the culture-words that are totally dissimilar to the target language readers together with their possible equivalence in meaning

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.

Huu Ngoc has mostly succeeded in fulfilling his task of bridging the gaps between the two cultures via the translation. 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.

Another thing in the translation of culture words is that the translations of the same words are not consistent from the beginning.

The other inappropriateness, to the best of my understanding, is the translation of nominal 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 noting to the end of the book.

Stepping into the land of one to part of one equivalence, which happens when a English expression could only covers part of a concept designated by a single Vietnamese expression. Those are the cases of “Tam cuc” or outstandingly, the translation of the Vietnamese “rồng” into the English “dragon”. To clear this possible misunderstanding, some note at the end of the page in term of what and how Vietnamese people consider and appreciate their dragon is strongly recommended.

The next group of equivalence is many-to-one equivalence this kind of equivalence, in contrast with one-to-many equivalence, could occur when there is more than one expression in the source language but there is a single expression in target language which is equivalence to them.

As distant as Vietnamese and English culture, it is more common that English tends to have general words but lack specific ones.

To deal with this problem, the translator and the writer has no other choice but to use that loan word with some addition.

The literal meaning of the word with some detailed description is also a good way of solving this ad-hoc.

Due to the similar in process of social development and ideas of life and society, there are still one-to-one equivalence between two distant culture. The evidences can be easily found in his book but how to match them with each other remains challenges.

To date, Huu Ngoc still proves himself as the leading translator in term of culture with a great number of works involving introducing Vietnamese culture to the world, which will bring about the indispensable task of translating Vietnamese authentic words of culture into English. His greatest of all work, “Wandering through Vietnamese culture”, is assessed by an American writer, Lady Borton as “one comprehensive resource on Vietnamese culture in English” (Wandering through Vietnamese culture, p 7). Similar comments from source language readers have talked louder than any praise. Huu Ngoc has shown the readers as well as the researcher of translation how flexibly free translation or paraphrasing could be used to crack the hard cultural nuts. He has also suggested a new idea of translation by borrowing, that is, borrowing from a third language as a medium for understanding.

From the point of a young researcher of translation, shedding the translation of the Vietnamese culture words from the book in the light of translation theory, I would like to make following suggestions:

First of all, given the fact that culture words challengingly belongs to a particular group of people, the consistency of the translation from the beginning of the book to the end of the book is crucial. This helps avoid the misunderstanding that two translated versions of the same thing could mean two different things.

Secondly, when a common noun was already nominalization and treated as a proper noun in the source language culture, it should not be literally translated since its nominal sense could be lost.

Thirdly, in case the two languages may have words which are “false friends”, that is, they seem to be each other’s equivalence but in fact, they have different referential meaning, it is necessary for the translator to make clear note of the differentiation to avoid the misunderstanding.

To conclude, via his book “Wandering Through Vietnamese Culture”, Huu Ngoc has made a significant contribution to the translation study area in Vietnam as it provides a resourceful materials for the translation studies of Vietnamese culture words. This book is like a mine of gold waiting for further reaches and studies. Some of the suggestive topics could be the study of the translation of proper names in the book or the stylistic equivalence in the translation of Sino-Vietnamese culture words into English.

This is my very first research on the issue. I am fully aware that mistakes and inappropriateness are indispensable. I would be extremely grateful to any comments that could help better the study and enable me to go on with further research.


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