Language In-Focus: Vietnamese

Languages28 March 20143.2k

Vietnam became a member of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 1995. Quickly becoming one of the key contributors to the region’s economy, with an economic growth rate in excess of 5.5%, coupled with a growing middle-class, and a young and hard-working labor force, companies with ambitions of expanding in Southeast Asia would be well advised to keep a watchful eye on Vietnam. Although it may be following up the rear behind Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia in terms of pure GDP numbers, it is almost certain to be a major player in years to come.

Other Vietnamese economic accolades include being a major exporter of agriculture products including black pepper and cashew nuts, where it is the world’s largest producer, holding one third of the world market share. As a result of the controversial rice pledging scheme which took place in Thailand in late 2013/ 2014, Vietnam also quietly took over as the world’s largest exporter of rice. Whether or not Thailand can regain its long-time position as world’s largest producer remains to be seen.

A member of the Mon-Khmer group of the Austroasiatic language family, Vietnamese is the national language of Vietnam and is spoken by around 97 million people globally, including in the US and Europe. Vietnamese is in fact the seventh most spoken language in the US with over 1 million speakers, and the sixth most spoken language in Australia. Vietnamese is also recognized as a minority language in the Czech Republic.

Much of the Vietnamese vocabulary has been borrowed from Chinese and it is written using the Chu nom script, which contains some 3,000 characters not found in Chinese. It also has three main dialects; northern, central and southern.

However, with relatively low English proficiency levels, and a potentially troublesome character sets which we will come to in a moment, companies also need to ensure they are comfortable translating into Vietnamese script if they want to connect with their audience and be successful in this relatively new and emerging Asian market.

What are the challenges?
Vietnamese desktop publishing requires the use of specific software programs, as they have to be capable of correctly rendering letters that may have two superscripted, or one superscripted and one subscripted, diacritical marks. While the majority of documents will now be encoded in Unicode format UTF-8, there are some still using non-Unicode, single byte encodings such as TCVN3, VNI, and VISCII. This is why it's critical to do thorough research before choosing a program.

As already mentioned, there are three main dialects in Vietnamese and therefore considerations need to be made around the choice of vocabulary and grammar used for translations. Both the nature of the subject matter and the target readership will have a role to play when it comes to making the right translation. 

Another part of this is pronunciation when it comes to voice-over recording, as there are significant differences. Because of this, voice talents should be chosen based on their target audience. However, if the recording is going out to a national audience, native speakers of the northern dialect are preferred.

Common errors in Vietnamese-English translation
According to a research paper carried out at the University of Vietnam in Hanoi, English translation of interpretive signs in Vietnam has been poor as a result of insufficient quality assessment. 

Errors have been spotted in both the source text and the target text. In terms of what constitutes a good translation, it pointed to the faithfulness to the source text and the maintenance of 'specific flavors'.

The paper looked at 13 separate translations and 61 errors were discovered, either in the form of a sentence or a whole paragraph. 

Issues with spelling were centered on the difficulty associated with translating Vietnamese proper names, including personal names and geographical names. Examples of misspelt words included status instead of statute, relic instead of relics and genius instead of genie. 

Other issues included incorrect capitalization, punctuation and errors in the use of articles. This demonstrates how important it is for brands to use experienced linguists that have a thorough understanding of the language (source and target) and subject matter.


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