The Vietnamese language is notoriously difficult to translate without a lot of surrounding context — words have multiple meanings; prepositions and articles like “to, a, in, at” don’t exist; and most catchy slogans are truncated to a few words, leaving the reader to fill-in the gaps.
The results can be hilarious… Here, we focus on studying Vietnamese by learning from its translation mistakes. Enjoy!
Cút lộn rang me is best translated as Fried Quail eggs with tamarind sauce. However, Cút has two meanings in Vietnamese, which originally caused the Google translation:
- Cút = Quail
- Cút = Go away! or F**k off!
So, be careful when ordering Quail in Vietnam!
Gà ác is a type of luxurious small black chicken. That is just its name, and no one considers it evil.
However, when each word is translated literally, Gà = “chicken” and Ác = “evil”, so the per-word translation is not bad, but makes no sense, only because there is no common English word for the special tiny black chicken that Vietnamese love to eat.
They should be advertising delicious sugarcane juice, with free wifi (Nước Mía – có wifi), but now the juice comes with a wife!
What is the mistake? — They’ve written wifi like it is pronounced in Vietnamese: wee-fee, or wi-fe (wife!)
In Vietnamese restaurants, it is common to either order a whole chicken or half a chiken — “luộc nửa con gà”, where “con gà” means chicken. For brevity, one usually can drop the gà, because it is implicitly understood what the con is referring to (chicken). However, in isolation, con is also an adjective for something small, young, and baby-like.
- con gà – an animal that is a chicken (con is a noun)
- gà con – a baby chicken (con is an adjective for baby-like).
Hence, the Google-mistranslation doesn’t understand that the con in luộc nửa con is meant as a noun, referring to an animal. Instead, it assumes it is an adjective for something baby-like. Ergo, boil half a child!
“Kính thầy – Mến bạn” is a school-yard motivational slogan to “Respect your Teacher – Love your friend”. The irony is that, instead of educating its children, the bad Google-translation is de-educating the students.
Kính has two meanings: “respect” and “glasses”. Therefore, kính thầy is easily mis-translated to “Teacher glasses” instead of “Respect your Teacher”.
Bạn also has two meanings: “you” (when spoken between two person of similar age) and “friend”. Therefore, mến bạn is easy to mis-translate as “like you” instead of “love/like your friends”.
Today, Google-translate does little better, translating the motivational slogan as “Dear teacher – Love you”
Gà xối mỡ is a really fatty dish with a lot of oil on a chicken (gà), fried (xối mỡ).
However, the dish is not necessarily a rooster, either a hen or rooster. So, the translation is really bad! There is fat, and there is a chicken.
The mistranslation of “củ quả” is a complex, that has to do with incorrect diacritics and tones. Perhaps the translator wasn’t Vietnamese?
- Củ – root-vegetables (potatoes, yams)
- Cũ – old
- Quả – fruit
- Quá – too/very
Đi – go
học – school
đúng – correct
giờ – time
… i.e., Go to school at the correct time, or Go to school on time. Vietnamese has very very different rules about prepositions like on, at, to, nevermind definite articles like “the” (they don’t exist).
Mực nướng actually means grilled squid. But, in Vietnamese, the words for ink and squid are the same: Mực. Why? Obviously, because squid shoot ink. So, Google-translate could be forgiven for not understanding the difference without more context.
When you go to a store a buy an ink-pen (bút mực), be careful they don’t give you a squid.
There’s a type of “soft-shelled turtle” in the family Trionychidae, which is called ba ba in Vietnamese. Ba also the number three, as in Một Hai Ba.
There is no reason why the turtle is called ba ba – its just its name.
Why Google-Translate (Hilariously) Fails With Vietnamese?
Goolge-translate is getting better, but translating small snippets of Vietnamese to English and vice versa is just plan difficult.
From the failures, we can learn some lessons:
- Fluidity between nouns, adverbs and adjectives – the same word can often be used as both a noun or adjective or adverb. For example, Vietnamese has the same word for stylish and styling (phong cách). For small phrases without a lot of context, it may be impossible to disambiguate the nouns vs. verbs for English.
- Words often multiple means – Vietnamese frequently has the same word with the same spelling with multiple means, like bạn (you/friend), or mực (ink/squid) or cút (quail/go away!).
- Diacritics and tones – if you translate a letter with the wrong diacritic, such as củ (tuber) vs cũ (old), there will be disasterous results.
- (Lack of) Prepositions and articles – Notice the lack of prepositions and articles in phrases like “Go
toschool at thecorrect time”. Next time you hear someone mistakenly swap the and a, go easy on them!