Lost In Translation


I’ve posted thoughts in the past about the meaning of words and the importance of being true to the language we use. I had an experience recently that puts my grievance to shame.

I have a client who is from South Vietnam. He has lived in the U.S. for 36 years. With only a high school (Vietnam) education, his speaking English is passable, if a little hard to understand at times. Trying to explain legal matters to him is difficult, because some of the more complex vocabulary needs to be broken down into simpler concepts. But that is not the problem.

We are preparing him for the time when he must testify at trial, and it is imperative that a jury be able to understand him clearly. So we need to look into finding an interpreter – someone who clearly understands his Vietnamese dialect but can speak with flawless English. We can’t.

He left South Vietnam just before the communists overran the country from the north. Since he left, the South Vietnamese dialect he spoke has been virtually wiped out. If he goes home today, he can barely communicate with locals. In 35 years, his language has disappeared. There are no Vietnamese interpreters in the area who speak or understand his dialect sufficiently to do the job.

He wanted to open a restaurant in Boston, in a thriving Vietnamese area, but his dream was wiped out by a very bad lawyer (also Vietnamese). In order to prove his lost profits, we have to find a witness from the Vietnamese community who knows the restaurant business and the neighborhood. There is such a person. But the two of them can barely communicate, and his English is no better than the client’s.

This fellow is literally a man without a language – he and others from the discreet area of South Vietnam (each region has its own dialect, not so dissimilar that they can’t communicate, but very dissimilar to the North Vietnamese dialects that have overrun their home tongue).

My complaint before was about the influence of political correctness on the meaning of words. Here, politics has had a much, much graver impact.


14 Responses to “Lost In Translation”

  1. Oddly enough, I know exactly what you mean. Years ago, I worked in a pizza restaurant and the pizza maker was Vietnamese as well. Best person in the world, but his English was horrible. One of his jobs was to answer and take orders over the phone, but everytime he answered, the customers couldn’t understand him and ask for him to repeat himself. Sometimes this request happened so much, that out of frustration, HE would hang up on them! He wasn’t fired, just banned from answering the phone.

  2. You’ve left me here, just shaking my head over the losses such as this, which are probably going on all the time, but which we, in the West and in our self-absorbtion, know nothing about. I think I shall show this to my daughters the next time they complain about the language of Shakespeare…

  3. There were lots of Vietnamese families being sponsored by churches, et cetera, to come to the US from different areas of Vietnam about twenty-five years ago. These families were integrated into largely suburban areas, rather than immigrant communities, and included pre-teen and teenage children who subsequently went to American schools and learned English well. Might it be worth it to research younger immigrants from his region in the 1980s, who might now speak English properly but are likely still fluent in their native dialects due to the continued need to communicate with their parents?

    Case in point: The Pham family, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, circa 1986. I have no idea of the region from which they came, but both Hung and Hen (aka Brian) Pham were both fluent in English, even after only two years here. Their parents were not.

    Just a thought – you’ve probably already exhausted that possibility. Interesting post!

  4. “A man without a language” – what a horrible condition to be in.

  5. This is so very sad. I wish I could help.

  6. 9 Pete

    We’ll get him straightened out, Jo-Anne.

  7. Peter – It has been a very long time, my friend, since the days of Beacon Hill. I was happy to read that you have fallen in with my good friends Dennis, Terry and Steve – three of the funniest and most able guys I have ever had the pleasure of working with. While I emphathize with your client’s dilemma, I would suggest that you make his lost language central to your case and explain this loss to the jury. There are other many other such cases of whole languages and cultures being lost and it is a compelling story. Give my best to the boys! Ernie

    • Hey Ernie, glad to see you. The problem with your suggestion is that his language is totally irrelevant to his case, which is essentially against a bunch of other Vietnamese. Heh.

  8. I once had to use three interpreters to talk to someone–one who could translate the person’s rural Chinese dialect into Fukinese, then Fukinese to Cantonese, then Cantonese to Mandarin–it was unbelievable what we must do to communicate to our fellow human sometimes.

  9. Oh, and then Mandarin to English of course…

    Thanks for stopping by my blog!

    • Thanks for stopping in, Lydia.

      Hopefully it needn’t have been to communicate to a jury of non-Asian American born folks being paid $7 a day for their time!

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