Monday, 9 March 2009

Lost in translation

As this is the beginning of a new week my Vietnamese words of the day are….the days of the week.

Monday sounds like tuu hai (with the tone of tuu going up, and hai being the same as the number 2). Tuesday sounds like tuu bear. Wednesday tuu duu, Thursday tuu nam, Friday tuu sow, Saturday tuu baay and Sunday chow nee-at (where the tone for chow goes up and then down – this one seems to cause the most hilarity when I say it. All I can hope for is that I haven’t said something rude!)

I mentioned in one of my first blogs, that the biggest worry I had about doing my assignment in Vietnam was working with an interpreter. So now that Dung and I have been working together as a team for a week now, I thought I’d share some of my experiences and tips so far, should any of you get the chance to work with one in the future.

Firstly, translation and interpretation, I have discovered, are not synonymous. Translation is when a written document is converted from one language to another, while interpreting is simultaneous verbal communication. Dung performs both of these roles for me. She converts the documentation I have produced for the client, including the industry analysis, company analysis, process definitions and training material from English into Vietnamese. We usually talk through the material before hand, so that she can ask questions and clarify her understanding of the content while confirming if there is any new vocabulary. The translation piece is relatively straight forward, as we can sit next to one another in the office working on our laptops and scribbling on pieces of paper. It is a bit of a strange feeling and bizarrely satisfying, seeing my words written in a document using Vietnamese words and symbols. This experience has definitely reinforced how effective pictures and diagrams are in communicating some of the business principles and analysis techniques we use, particularly when Dung and I talk through the material with Mr Dung.

Conversation is a bit more difficult and requires a lot more patience and flexibility. With a smile continuously plastered on my face, I have learned to talk directly to Mr Dung (to demonstrate respect), while asking my questions, and making swift eye contact with my interpreter to confirm that she has understood what I have said. Preparation for these conversations and meetings is beneficial as the content is, more often than not, new to her as well. I often run through some of my main points and questions with her before hand, as it helps when we are with the client. It’s also worth asking your interpreter to let you know what the topics of conversation are, even if you are not directly involved in the discussion. A quick comment from her like, ‘they are discussing their plans for the weekend’ or ‘they are talking about the TV show’, can sign post you through a conversation. I think we’ve developed quite a good working relationship over the past week, which was reinforced to me when I have been out with some of the other interpreters. I sometimes feel a bit lost without her.

My style of working and communicating is a lot more transparent than what is common practice in many Asian countries. I have encouraged her to tell me when there is an issue or if she needs further clarification or time to prepare. I have found her honesty to be invaluable and on many occasions butt saving. This was demonstrated when she confided that she did not understand some of the accounting terminology and wanted time to learn it before we started doing some of the excel training with the accountants. I was so relieved that she told me this before we had the session as it meant I could rearrange some of our activities to accommodate this request. She doesn’t interpret what I say word for word, but more the main points, ideas and principles therefore I have to avoid jargon, slang and expressions as much as possible, while talking clearly and slowly. The pace of work is significantly slower than I am used to, as once I say something she converts it into Vietnamese, and then Mr Dung will say something and she will then convert that into English and so on.

Dung has told me that she thinks my voice, tone and accent are easy to understand. This I think is because they are used to watching American and British films and TV shows. Mr Bean, for example, is very popular lunch time viewing for Vietnamese children and it’s slightly terrifying to think that millions of children around the world are basing their knowledge of the English language on him.

As well as the verbal communication, there is also the non-verbal communication, which is culturally much more difficult. Dung gives me tips and hints about what is or is not considered appropriate behaviour or body language, and often I will follow her example. We also try to have a debrief session, at the end of each day, to discuss what we have both learned in terms of content, culture and language. I am pleased to report that she is learning as many new things as I am.

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