Translation Problems: Answering Questions From Vietnamese

Part of being a writer is taking criticism, as is part of being a rather public figure. I make no attempts at all to hide my thoughts on the internet, and I embrace the opportunity to share things I learn and experience with people every day. One of the risks about this, however, is when it comes to foreign media. Much like news organizations in America, media outlets tend to either miss key parts of the story, or flat out twist them to fit their agenda. I expect this so much from “mainstream media” like Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and the like… that I don’t even watch or read them anymore. If I wanted to miss what politicians don’t want me to see, then sure, I would just watch that and call it news.

Writing a critique piece from another country, about people from another country though, poses a different kind of risk: translation problems. It’s easy to see why, but in the case of my article about Vietnam Traffic Police, the mistakes vary widely. With that, I’d like to take a moment to address some of the key mistakes Vietnamese media might be making, and try to clear up any problems with translation along the way. I understand that, in terms of major newspapers, the writers within Vietnam are obligated, dare I say ‘forced’ perhaps, to show their country in as positive of light as possible. With that in mind, I’d like to present the 5 biggest translation problems of my article so far, and the interpretation issues of the story as seen by those who are not native English speakers:

Translating the English I write is almost impossible

A forum post in Vietnamese, translated to English by Google

A forum post in Vietnamese, translated to English by Google

Translating my writing into almost any other language is going to be difficult. This is mostly because I type like I speak, and that includes the sarcasm and adventurous wordplay that goes into expressing a thought or idea. With regards to Vietnam, my sarcasm and colorful speech isn’t something that can be easily caught by those who don’t speak English natively. In fact, many regular English speakers aren’t going to fully understand what I say if they haven’t grown up within the American culture where I’ve lived my entire life. It isn’t because you’re dumb or anything – but because I use words they don’t teach you in classes. I say phrases and sentences that you simply have to be here to understand. It’s no different for me learning Vietnamese: there are going to be things you say that I simply will not understand fully, because I didn’t grow up there.

Using Google Translate is a terrible way to read stories by other countries. It just doesn’t work as well as we’d like it to. Hopefully, many of the official sources of news out there have native English speakers, but those who don’t have gotten a lot wrong. So… every other point I’m going to make below stems from that fundamental language translation problem.

I’m not anti-Viet Nam. I love Viet Nam

One of the key things to take from this article I wrote back in January of this year, is that I don’t hate Viet Nam. Indeed, I see a variety of things with the country that could be improved upon, but in no way am I insinuating that I have any answers. My country (the United States) is far from perfect. In fact I’ve been quite vocal about downright despising many things we do in this country, such as our obsession with military conflict around the world, our obsession with religious policy infecting government, our passion for locking up our own citizens while further destroying our own economy, and our lack of compassion or regard for anyone making less than a million dollars a year, or anyone who isn’t contributing money to some politicians pockets. My country is likely just a screwed up as yours, except American officials are simply bribed with more money.

Some people are angry, most likely as a direct response from not fully understanding what I was saying. People like THIS GUY HERE say all sorts of angry stuff. Sorry you feel that way bro.

Everyone has their problems, and my article makes absolutely no attempt to address them all. What I do attempt, however, is to tell a story of experience. To tell people about something I witnessed and experienced multiple times as an injustice against common citizens. An overreach of power with an all but non-existence of oversight. My article is about the traffic police in Viet Nam (CSGT) and that’s all. Nothing more, nothing less. It isn’t a piece against your government, or your people. I don’t know nearly enough about them to write about it.

I even see some people thinking I’m racist, or just against Vietnamese because I’m white. To you people I say: Quit being stupid. I married a Vietnamese woman.

I’m not ashamed for having to share this, nor am I embarrassed

Some publications have noted that I feel bad about sharing things like this, and that I’m embarrassed for Viet Nam. That is ridiculous. It’s not true. I’m not ashamed, nor am I even sorry for sharing it. If I was, it wouldn’t still be online for the tens of thousands of people to see every day (thanks for visiting my blog, by the way!).

I’m passionate about sharing things that matter to me. I’m in no way embarrassed about doing it. The fact is: the story has little to do with me. Really, it has nothing to do with me outside of being the person telling the story, and shooting the video. Probably the only thing about this entire ordeal that I actually regret is not blurring some faces when I published the video. That’s pretty much it.

You, as a Vietnamese person, shouldn’t be embarrassed or ashamed either. This isn’t your fault. You are more than likely a victim of this system, not the cause. Don’t feel embarrassed; feel angry about it, and fuel the discussion in your country for change.

I’m not confused. I’m fully aware of everything

Questions asked to me by a reporter from a major Vietnamese newspaper...

Questions asked to me by a reporter from a major Vietnamese newspaper…

One question I was asked by a reporter at a popular Vietnamese newspaper (there have been several that have contacted me so far), was that I appeared to be confused about what was going on in the video. They didn’t believe I was fully aware of the situation, and that’s why I interpreted things this way. You think I simply don’t understand why were were stopped.

I understand why you’d want to express that to me… after all, part of your job is to spin things as favorable to your country and government as possible – so naturally you’d believe I don’t understand, and would write accordingly. Allow me, however, to clear this up right now:

I’m fully aware of what’s happening, and have experienced it once before, in the countryside when traveling north towards Da Nang. I tell that story in the article too. In that case, officers were standing in the middle of the road, waving a stick for us to pull over. They claimed we were speeding over 4km back from where they pulled us over, which is obviously impossible to prove. I’ve been in a car that was stopped by traffic police twice in the two months I’ve been to Vietnam, and in both cases, there was really no cause for the stop. Reasons were entirely made up. What amazes me, is that there is no appeals process for traffic violations. The people have no way to fight the ticket, or argue their case. It’s an officers word against theirs, and with that authority, it’s easy to abuse the power against the rights of a citizen.

I don’t have the answers for you to fix this

Some have asked me what I would do to change this? Nothing. I have no business in Viet Nam, and aren’t going to do anything. Another reporter asked me what was different between police in America and in Viet Nam. For that question, I know a little bit more on how to answer it, but that doesn’t mean I have any answers for you.

The last person you should be asking to help you solve your country’s problems is an American. We are not role models.

In terms of answering that question though, consider this:

Officer oversight has had a big impact on police in America. Police officers are regularly required to report their activities, log paperwork for the stops they make, and there is a lot of oversight to ensure they are doing their job properly. Those that aren’t doing their jobs right, or are breaking the law themselves – accepting bribes – are removed from their jobs as police officers, and sometimes even pay fines or go to jail themselves if it is serious enough.

That’s not to say our police are perfect. They aren’t at all. There’s problems in every country, and part of being a united nation of people with a shared belief system is working together to solve those problems.

Personally, I believe one of the big reasons why we don’t have as much of a bribery problem with street police in America, is because our police are paid well. Our police make good salaries, and accepting a bribe is a great way to get fired from your job. It’s illegal, and citizens go to jail for trying to bribe officers all the time.

I think, honestly, if the government would pay police officers a fair wage, and activly train them against bribery, it would happen less. Police officers in Viet Nam are not paid well, and if they don’t bribe other higher up officials themselves, they’ll get placed in positions around the city that aren’t as desirable. There is a big incentive to bribe people in Viet Nam, and since everyone is doing it – nobody ever gets in trouble for it, unless to make some sort of a political statement.

I’ve traveled to many different countries, but I have very little experience with police in any other countries besides Viet Nam, Indonesia, and Cuba. I’ve never been pulled over in Cuba, but the experience I do have with their police force is pleasant thus far. I didn’t see a lot of people pulled over on the side of the road, and in many high-traffic areas, police were helpful with troubled drivers. With Indonesian police, I’ve been stopped in Bali once. It was the fastest traffic stop I had ever seen – basically consisting of a guy standing in the middle of the road while we drove around a corner, stopping us, our driver getting out with cash, handing the cash to the officer, and then getting back into the car and driving away. I don’t think they even had time to talk about what the traffic violation was even. It was just “I stopped you, give me money” and that was that. Perhaps Indonesian people should be upset about it. Maybe they already are and I just don’t know it. I never claimed to be an expert on foreign countries.

I’ve seen police being helpful to troubled drivers in Viet Nam as well. There was an accident between two motorbikes in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City once, and I saw traffic police helping drivers with getting their bikes up and going again.

Still the problem of bribery remains, and no matter how many accidents they help with, pulling over people that have done nothing to endanger the lives of others and asking them for money is wrong.

If somebody changes lanes without a blinker, is it really that dangerous? In the busiest parts of HCMC, there are situations when drivers are centimeters away from other drivers. There are times when you can easily touch another person on the road, because of how crowded things are. The traffic system demands flexibility when traveling, and there are far more dangerous things than a simple blinker. If somebody is traveling 1km over the speed limit, is it really that dangerous? It would help if officers were focused on providing safety over collecting money.

We don’t all hate police in America, because they use their judgement over the written law. If somebody is driving 8-10kph over the speed limit here, we don’t pull them over unless they appear to be a danger to other people. It’s completely common to change lanes without a blinker here too, because it rarely harms anyone. We don’t get tickets for tiny things like this, because officers aren’t benefiting from bribes here. Instead, it takes time out of their day to stop us, so they only focus on stopping those who make the road dangerous.

It’s a better system, because there are less stops, and much more attention paid to safety instead of getting money. That’s really all I can say about that. It’s a lot to read, I get it.

“You are famous in Viet Nam now!”

Oh boy, I’ve heard that far too much already, and it wasn’t what I wanted at all.  I had no idea this article would have this type of an effect. It was written for my family and friends in the USA to read. I had no intention of it going viral in Vietnam at all, and now that it has, I do worry about the safety of the people around me at the time of the video. I’ve considered removing it, but since many sites have already pirated it and uploaded their own, I don’t see a point anymore. It’s received well over 140,000 views on YouTube, and the story has been read over a quarter-million times… and that’s just on my own site. That doesn’t even include all of the other websites and news media that published the story on their own blogs, almost all of which were done without permission. Some even watermarked my photography, as if it was theirs. I no longer have control of this story.

I’m pleased to see, however, the the vast majority of people who comment agree with my story, and see things the way I’ve written them. It provides a sense of confirmation to me, as If I’ve gotten it right, and see things as they really are. I don’t ever claim to know things as they are, because I have very little experience in the country. From what I can tell from the comments though, I seem to understand pretty well.

Many people can relate to this as well, and have pointed out that officers have requested similar bribes of them. In the beginning of the video, you can hear talking about what they were asked to do, and where the officers told them to put money.

Hopefully that clears up some questions. If you’d like more clarifications or have some questions of your own, I cannot promise I’ll answer them all – but simply leave them in the comments down below. If you haven’t read the original article, please read it from the source here.

Charlie Pryor

Charlie is a media producer, writer, and a traveler. He grew up in Michigan, all of his life and attended Grand Valley State University for a B.S. in Film and Video Production. He's married to a wonderful woman named Hang, and simply hopes to one day turn himself into a man that many will remember long after he's gone.

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3 Responses

  1. Vu Thi Viet Ha says:

    Charlie, its not always about translation. Though English is not my native language I still can understand your writing. People misinterpreted not because of their bad English. Its because they read with a blind patriotism instead of a mind. Its not the first time I’ve seen such over-reaction when a foreigner says something negative about our country. Some people think a true patriot must defend in every possible way when someone talk bad about their country. I call them hypocrites and extremists. Back to your story about traffic police, I don’t find anything offensive yet. Keep on writing as long as what you write about is true. I like your writings

  2. doanthuongtcdnb says:

    I dont know how about others, as for me I think , the problem is the translation. Same for you. I,as a Vietnamese person, I have been joined a translation class, I really see the problem. When I read a article written by native person, It’s difficult to understand fully if not to say, maybe mistake. 
    I realise you really love Vietnam, without that, you cant spend your time to write about my country not any else coutry. Of course, I’m so glad.

  3. doanthuongtcdnb It’s very hard to understand exactly what I’m saying when I write, if you don’t natively speak English. There’s stylistic language, sarcasm, and cultural references that fly past people who don’t know English well. It causes a bad interpretation of the language, which is sadly something I have no control over when Vietnamese media publishing things. 
    Thanks for being understanding on that.

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