Unnaturalness in – English Vietnamese Translation

Table of Content


The practice of translation dates back some two thousand years and ever since has existed until present days. It is generally believed that translation plays a key role in the universalisation of human knowledge. It helps improve international understanding, socio-cultural awareness, professional communicative activities, implementation of technologies, and so much more. Many well-known translators have been praised for their great contribution to the mankind. Translation is of undeniable significance to the development of the world culture and society.

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However, the practice of translation has long been criticized for being, more than often, unsatisfactory or even incorrect. The Italians have a saying that goes, “traduttore, tradittore” (translator, traitor). This seems to evoke an immoderate distaste for translators; yet it has its own reasoning. Certainly, almost no translation is perfect even when the general message is conveyed. This is due to the many linguistic and cultural differences between one language and another. Perfecting the practice of translation has been a great desire of generations of translators all over the world.

There have been several senior translators devoting their life to finding ways to overcome difficulties in their work. In other words, they have tried to figure out and resolve common pitfalls that make a translation unnatural and sometimes even incomprehensible. That is also the attempt that this thesis tries to accomplish, though in much more limited scope.

Literature review

In Vietnam, there has been a growing concern about the quality of English – Vietnamese translations. Some have been called by prestigious translators as “disasters of the translation art”.

Indeed, the practice of translation is not only a craft, but also a science and an art (Newmark, 1988), which needs to be constantly improved with a view to bringing the Vietnamese mass culture to new heights. Particularly, English is the language of billions of documents available in all fields, academic or popular. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that many scholars and lecturers teaching translation at universities have spared no efforts to work on the frequently seen types of mistakes in English – Vietnamese translation as well as techniques translators may employ to avoid them.

However, the field of study in Vietnam began comparatively recently and the number of published works remains modest. While some research has focused on the basic theory of translation, other work has sought to show different examples of translation techniques or provide sample translations. Much of the work published for internal circulation in universities emphasizes the former aspect, which is the theoretical basis of translation.

Prominent publications of this type (in Vietnam) include Interpreting and Translation Course Book (Bui Ti n B o & ng Xuan Thu, 1999), Theory of Translation (Hu? h Trung Tin & Nguy n Ng c Tuy n, n. d. ) and some scattered academic essays found on the Internet. Different from international books on the theory of translation, these publications are closely related to the English – Vietnamese translation. Written by experienced translators who have spent years practicing translation as a profession and working with students learning translation skills, the books concentrate on addressing the main theoretical issues encountered by translation learners in Vietnam. This can be a solid basis to start any further research on the practice of translation in Vietnam.

For instance, in Interpreting and Translation Theory, the authors have mentioned the basic process of translation with the four-level approach. 8 It is a crucial argument to locate the level of naturalness in the whole translation process. However, about the unnaturalness in translation, none of the books mentioned have a clear definition of it. The description is rather brief and the issue is not placed enough importance on, whereas actually the books have certain examples of unnatural translations in several chapters.

Another trend of coping with translation issues in Vietnam is to figure out what are the weaknesses lingering in translation work and suggest specific techniques to help translators avoid repeating frequently made mistakes. This kind of approach can be seen in Hu ng d n k thu t d ch Anh – Vi t (English – Vietnamese Translation Techniques) (2005) by Nguy n Qu c Hung and Le Van S ’s Translation and Grammar (2003). Both books are practical and useful for readers as translation learners if they are to develop their translation skills and ability to deal with thorny situations.

The authors base their arguments on verified studies by well-known scholars over the world and their scope of study is broad. In Hu ng d n k thu t d ch Anh – Vi t, the author conducts in-depth analysis of each translation technique following every unit, which is in fact a sample translation task. The book focuses on the English – Vietnamese translation, the same as that of this thesis. The classification is rational and examples are practical. The only limitation of the book is that it gives too little room for discussion on problems a translator may face when translating the sample passages and the causes.

It is much like instructions for specific translation tasks rather than suggestions on translation methodology. In summary, this is a good book for translators who have already recognized their weaknesses and are seeking ways to improve their skills and polish their translations. However, for inexperienced translators or translation learners, it is more important to know the potential pitfalls they usually face so as to avoid them. This is why there is a need for a study on common mistakes that make an English – Vietnamese translation unnatural or smooth.

Author Le Van S in his book titled Translation and Grammar discusses as many as twenty five translation techniques, under each of them being typical and diverse examples. His way of classifying types of techniques is different from that of the author of Hu ng d n k thu t d ch Anh – Vi t, but it is rational on the ground of English grammar. Nevertheless, the book places too much emphasis on the grammatical aspects while it is crucial for translators to be aware of all linguistic aspects and even many cultural and social aspects. The sample translations are not accompanied by explanation of the translation methods.

In conclusion, so far few publications on English – Vietnamese translation clearly separate the mistakes that damage the meaning of the whole translation work and ones that make it sound un-Vietnamese or unnatural. These mistakes are discussed all together in the books mentioned above. Consequently, readers may not gain the different notions of what a correct translation is and what can be called a good translation. In fact, apart from the efforts to make correct literal translations, translators also need to be trained to better their work to the highest level possible. It is for the sake of the whole translation culture at present and in the future.

Aims and scope of the thesis

The term translation can be understood in two ways. In broader term, translation is the process of converting words from one language to another (International Translation Bureau™, 2003). According to this definition, it includes interpreting as the conversion of spoken words from one language into another. However, what this thesis looks at is translation with its narrower definition, concerning only the written words. The rendering of written texts from one language into another requires high accuracy and smoothness.

This is because translation tasks allow considerable time for translators to find the best substitutions while interpreters hardly have time to 10 consider the wording and structure carefully. Inaccuracy and unnaturalness in translation, therefore, need to be studied more cautiously than those in interpreting. Moreover, the thesis concentrates on analyzing in details the English Vietnamese translation, which is much more popular in Vietnam today than Vietnamese – English translation. It touches upon translations of this kind by students of English as well as translators for Vietnamese magazines, newspapers and publishers.

This is due to the fact that not only translations by students but, worryingly, those by some contemporary professional translators in Vietnam can be dubbed unnatural. This is a flaw we need to eliminate or at least reduce to the minimum level with a view to purifying our mother tongue and providing readers with the best possible sources of knowledge and enjoyment. This is of importance to the development of Vietnamese culture and society in the future. The thesis may mention the theoretical base in each of its parts, but it concentrates largely on dealing with translation in practice.

In Vietnam, there have been quite little research work like this and most of the publications are for internal circulation in universities only. For that reason, this thesis is mostly based on the combination and analysis of minute details picked from these publications and materials acquired from personal sources. The primary aim of the thesis is to give students of English, the would-be translators, an overview of the frequently seen types of mistakes in English Vietnamese translation that may make their translations unnatural and incomprehensible so that they are fully aware of and able to avoid them.

The thesis also aims at finding causes of translation unnaturalness and then suggesting some possible strategies to overcome the problems. The targeted subjects of this thesis are mainly students; nevertheless, all people who are interested in translation work can consider it a useful reference helping improve their translating skills. In addition, the thesis touches upon a field of study that is still rather insufficient in Vietnam for further discussion by other researchers.

Unnaturalness in English – Vietnamese Translation

What is Unnaturalness in Translation? Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940), a German literary critic and philosopher, wrote in his essay “The Task of the Translator” (1923), one of the best-known theoretical texts about translation: It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language. (Venuti, 2000)

In his preface to Tianyanlun, Yan Fu (1853 – 1921), a Chinese scholar famous for introducing Western thoughts into China during the late 19th century, explained the three problems in achieving an ideal translation: the “faithfulness to the original text (xin), communication of the ideas (da), and literary elegance (ya)” (Wright, 2001, p. 4). Both Benjamin and Yan Fu, though belonging to two different cultures, agree that the translator should have the ability to not only thoroughly understand the source language text nd convey the same understanding in the target language but also make his “re-creation” sound natural and pure enough to be accepted by readers of the target language.

However, for some reasons, the translator may fail to fulfill his tasks and the outcome turns out to be a rough combination of words. To figure out the underlying sources of this failure, we should remember the four levels of translation process: the textual level, the referential level, the cohesive level, and the level of naturalness (Bui Ti n B o & ng Xuan Thu, 1999).

However, as mentioned in the previous chapter, this thesis deals with only the fourth level, the level of naturalness, the most advanced one. Naturalness can be understood as “a set of requirements for the target language used” (Shei, 2002) which makes the translation read naturally and fit the context. Unnatural translation does not gravely spoil the general meaning of the text; nonetheless, to some extent, it distorts the writer’s intention, disappoints readers for not meeting that set of requirements.

In short, unnaturalness in translation can be understood as the failure to recreate a text “according to the writer’s intention, the reader’s expectation, and the appropriate norms of the target language”, making the translation imperfect and not literarily elegant (Newmark, 1988). This may be considered a definition of translation unnaturalness, on which the following detailed analysis is based to judge the translations taken out from different sources.

Classification of mistakes that cause unnaturalness in English – Vietnamese translation Unnaturalness in translation can be observed from the linguistic angle, analyzing the clumsy use of words, expressions, grammatical structures, etc. On the other hand, translated texts may be criticized for using alien cultural concepts, which seem to be so foreign to target language (Vietnamese) readers, resulting in dissatisfaction. From the above perspective, we can systematize unnatural English – Vietnamese translations on two grounds, the linguistic and the cultural grounds.

On the ground of linguistics, the most important aspect on which a translation is judged as good or bad, unnaturalness in translation can be broken down into three levels: word level, phrase level, and sentence level. No matter what level you may consider, perfect equivalence rarely happens between two languages, especially 13 when they belong to two quite different language families like English and Vietnamese. (While English belongs to the Indo-European family, Vietnamese is one of the Austro-Asiatic languages. ) Thus, translators employ various strategies to deal with the non-equivalence. Some of them succeed, while the others do not and thus produce unnatural translations.

Loss of connotative meanings Before analyzing translation unnaturalness at the level of word, it is recommended to define and differentiate the two types of semantic components of the word. According to Catchword glossary, denotative component or denotation is the intrinsic, literal sense of a word, excluding its overtones and shades of meaning while connotative component or connotation is a word’s extrinsic, figurative sense, which includes its overtones and shades of meaning.

Conspicuously, it is much simpler for a Vietnamese translator to remember the denotation of a word than keeping in mind all of its connotations. As a result, when encountering an English word he is not so sure about, an average or inexperienced translator tends to immediately choose the best Vietnamese equivalent of what he has known so far, regardless if it is suitable in the context or not.

In this way, he may somehow misrepresent the writer’s writing style and his/her intention. Connotation of Formality Perhaps the most frequently mentioned of the aspects of writing style is formality. A clear and general definition of “formality” is not obvious in most linguistic dictionaries; nevertheless, everybody usually makes an intuitive distinction between formal and informal manners of expression. An example of formal language might be the sentence read out by a judge at the end of a trial. A typical informal speech would be produced in a relaxed conversation between close friends or family members.

In other words, almost everybody instinctively has in mind a set of words they believe is of proper use in formal circumstances and another set to utilize only in casual situations. However, sometimes when translating a text in foreign language into their mother tongue, inexperienced translators, for some reason, fail to recognize the necessity to find equivalents of the same formality level. The improper words chosen then make the whole text a mixture of styles and this, to readers of the target 15 language, is unnatural and even confusing.

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Unnaturalness in – English Vietnamese Translation. (2018, Mar 06). Retrieved from


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