Problems in Translation Facing Vietnamese EFL College Learners | July 2018 | Translation Journal

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Problems in Translation Facing Vietnamese EFL College Learners

Abstract. Translation and Interpretation are important components of English Language Studies programs which aim to provide learners with sufficient English language knowledge and translation techniques to work in multilingual settings. However, doing successful translation is not an easy task since English language skills are not the only matter; other factors are also involved in this process. Many Vietnamese EFL college learners are quite inexperienced in translation and interpretation due to their limited language proficiency and understanding of translation techniques. In addition, exposure to contexts where translation is demanded is also restricted to those learners. All of these significantly contribute to their low-quality translation outputs. The paper therefore investigates how Vietnamese EFL college learners undertake translation tasks and the effectiveness of those translated versions in comparison with the Vietnamese documents. Examining 10 translated texts of 10 participants, the findings reveal a high volume of inaccurate translated items caused by word-by-word translation technique and the influence of Vietnamese language. Advices are provided to help educators and learners modify the program and teaching methods.

Key words: Translation, techniques, word-by word, Vietnamese


In this globalisation era, English is the most preferred language worldwide which leads to the increasing number of English language learners seeking opportunities to work in international and multilingual settings. Being highly aware of the needs to learn the language, higher education institutions have offered English Language programs that allow learners to investigate aspects of English language and take professional courses for their future career paths. One of the main streams of the current research institution is English Translation and Interpretation which provides learners with sufficient English language knowledge and techniques for successful translation and interpretation. The institution offers four courses of Translation and Interpretation in which learners have the opportunities to get to know translation theories and practice translation and interpretation.

Despite having quite abundant time to get immersed in the field, problems in doing translation and interpretation exist. Being limited in English proficiency and inexperienced, Vietnamese EFL college learners are facing numerous challenges in learning and doing translation. The late exposure to English language education, limited background knowledge of translated topics, few chances to practice translation authentically are some reasons that learners are not doing well in their translation tasks. Besides, the teaching and learning at their institution does evolve some inefficiencies that do not assist learners’ translation skills. To better understand the current practice of translation of those learners, I in this paper will analyse the definitions and elements of good translation practices and examine the effectiveness of learners’ translation outputs with an attempt to improve the quality of learners’ translation ability.

What is Translation?

Translation and Interpretation have been paired in most cases; however, they are not identical. This section will explore the definitions of both issues to identify their similarities and differences. It is also to note that this paper focus on the former only.

With their popularity, translation and interpretation are well-known to public, and there have been numerous definitions investigating the two fields. Heim and Tymowski (2006) defined translation as an act of changing a text, regardless of its form, from a language to another. This definition is quite general since a text can be produced in both spoken and written forms, which require different techniques if being translated. Other researchers with more detailed views of translation have based their definitions on the types of texts. Jones (2002) and European Commission (2009) made very simple clarification of the two issues, stating that both terms refer to changing messages from the original language to another, but translation aims for written language while interpretation is in spoken form. The primary difference between translation and interpretation has been clarified through the forms of the texts and messages that people switch from a language to another.

Because of the differences in the text forms, the requirements to achieve good translation and interpretation are also differentiated. The following section of the paper will demonstrate characteristics of an effective translated work and the requirements that translators need to satisfy.

Requirements for translation and translators

According to Jones (2002), translation requires more than just changing words of a language into another. In fact, translation should be associated with meaningful messages that sound smooth in the intended language. Readers of the translation should have the feeling that the version is not translated but originally written in that language. While Jones (2002) emphasised on the coherence and cohesion of the translation, the European Commission (2009) and Paul (2009) paid more attention to the accuracy of the content. Even it is stated that translated documents should be given the same legal values as the original one thanks to their accuracy in content. Hence, good translation involves the accuracy in content, coherence, and cohesion to ensure the readability and understandability of the translated texts.

Because of those aforementioned points of good translation, there have been certain criteria established for translators. Jones (2002) declared that because translation is undertaken in written form, translators should obtain excellent writing and editing skills that help constitute a high-quality translated work. However, good language skills are not sufficient enough. A major work on the qualities of good translators has been done by the European Commission (2009) who pointed out the myths of what constitutes a good translator. To illustrate, knowing two or more languages does not ensure the ability to translate messages among those languages. Good translators should be able to obtain deep understanding of the messages that they translate. This is particularly true in cases of specialised translation (Jones, 2002) in which translators work on texts of specific disciplines such as Nursing, Engineering, or Sociology, which requires understanding of the field to get the messages correctly translated. Required by Jones (2002), translators after receiving the translation assignments should look up for more details of what they are going to translate to ensure they accurately grasp the ideas of the original texts. Since translation involves changes from one language to another, cultural aspects are also taken into consideration due to the inseparability between language and culture (Jiang, 2000). Translators are advised to acquire cultural awareness to provide explanations on slangs and colloquialisms that may not be literally translated. To make the translation to be of high quality, translators should also take the opportunities to revise the translated drafts to the final versions.

Because there are high demands on the quality of translation, becoming a professional translator is a long process of practice and efforts. Jones (2002) and Robinson (2007) further discussed the professional training for those who plan to become translators emphasising on what training programs should offer to future translators. A translator may focus his profession in a particular discipline such as judiciary, literary, medical, conference, and escort translation. Being able to identify the field of interest can help translators devote time and efforts to obtain language skills and importantly specialised knowledge in that field. Those who wish to expand their translation profession to a variety of disciplines, the efforts should be multiplied to gain deep understanding of different fields and English language skills including terminology. An additional point is localisation which requires translators to immerse themselves in contexts of the both original and translated work. This complicated advice aims to help translators be fully aware of the conveyed meaning as well as deliver comprehensible messages to a specific group of audience. Training programs, mentioned by Robinson (2007), need to enlighten the idea of ethics of translators. As a link between people of different languages, translators must maintain good ethics in their work not to distort the meaning of the source texts. Since there is a belief on life-long learning and being more experienced, Robinson (2007) went further to discuss the idea of translator professional involvement. In other words, translators should join in association of their field for experience exchange and chances to practice.

It is a matter of little or no concern to translation users, but of great importance to translators, what translator associations or unions we belong to, what translator conferences we go to, what courses we take in the field, how we network with other translators in our region and language pair(s). These "involvements" sometimes help translators translate better, which is important for users and thus for the pride we take in reliability. More crucially, however, they help us feel better about being translators; they enhance our professional self-esteem, which will often sustain us emotionally through boring and repetitive and low-paid jobs.(p.25)

From the points above, achieving good translation and becoming professional translators are unquestionably challenging and demanding. However, the concern is how those being trained to be good translators are aware of these qualities and how those qualities are reflected in their translation assignments. The following part is devoted to examining the ability to provide good translation outputs of Vietnamese EFL college learners and the reasons implied in their translation.



Research methodology

In order to investigate how Vietnamese EFL college learners undertake their translation assignments and whether those translation outputs meet the criteria previously mentioned, I propose the following research questions:

-          How do Vietnamese EFL college students undertake translation assignments?

-          How effectively are those translation assignments undertaken?

-          What are the reasons for their translation styles?

The study was carried out with 10 English-major students who were at their junior years at the time of the data collection stage. Those junior students were selected due to their completion of Introduction to Translation and Interpretation as well as Translation 1 courses in their training program. It is believed that they had obtained certain understanding of translation theories and techniques before they took part in this study. The reports showed that those participants obtained at least B+ in their Translation-related courses and English Language Skills courses, which ensures their good English proficiency and understanding of translation methods.

The participants were required to translate an excerpted text in Vietnamese discussing English language learning at higher education level into English. The text was selected from a reliable newspaper named “Tuoi Tre”, and the topic was familiar with the participants (See Appendix).

After the translation was completed, I requested the lecturers of those Translation courses to cross-evaluate the translated texts of the participants. Those lecturers were in charge of Translation and Interpretation courses in the researched institution and had many years of teaching experiences. They also attended numerous Translation and Interpretation training programs at Vietnam National University. Because of being experienced and well-trained, their evaluation was valuable and reliable.

The translated texts were analysed in comparison with the Vietnamese original document to point out the inappropriateness of translated items. Then, I conducted interviews with those participants for more insightful ideas on translation procedures.

Findings and discussions

Translated texts

The analysis of translated texts showed that the participants still had considerable problems in their translation due to their word-by-word translation technique and the influence of Vietnamese language leading to inappropriate word choices. Besides, unawareness of the meaning conveyed in the original language also caused inaccurate translation. In this part of the paper, I provided some notable examples of their inappropriateness in translation.


Orginal words

Participants’ Translation



Nỗi ám ảnh


This was incorrectly translated by a number of participants since in this case it should be seen as “the fear”. However, not being able to put the word in the right context led to this inaccurate translation.


Cựu sinh viên

Old students

This was incorrectly translated since it should be “former students”. Because there is a term in Vietnamese called “tân sinh viên” meaning “new students”, the participant referred those who had already graduated as “old students” in which “old” is an opposition with “new”


Sụp hố

Stepping into a hole

This was also an example of word-by-word translation without any references to the context. In this case, “sụp hố” means “feeling down or shocked”, but the participants translated each word and distorted the meaning of the phrase.


Chuẩn bị tâm lý

Preparing their psychology

This is another example of word-by-word translation. The original text refers to “getting ready to deal with the obstacles”. However, the phrase was separated, and each word was translated such as “preparing” for “chuẩn bị” and “psychology” for “tâm lý”


Người bản xứ

Local people

This incorrect translation was due to the unawareness of the Vietnamese term. “Người bản xứ” in this case means Native English speakers, but the participants misunderstood and provided “local people” which was not suitable.

Other examples extracted from the participants’ translation also showed the inequivalence in translation due to word-by-word technique. In these illustrations, I used the numbers to indicate how the participants closely based on the Vietnamese text and word-for-word technique to do the translation.

Original text:

Bản thân      quá      chú trọng   ngữ pháp   trong khi    nghe yếu,     nói dở,  chỉ có đọc hiểu,  viết là kha  khá.

   (1)            (2)             (3)             (4)         (5)             (6)             (7)              (8)                       (9)

Participant’s tranlsation:

Individuals   too   focus on   grammar  while  listening is weak, speaking is bad, only reading    and writing are fair.

   (1)           (2)       (3)            (4)        (5)              (6)                        (7)             (8)                             (9)

Suggested translation: The students pay more attention to grammar and ignore their listening and speaking skills; only reading and writing skills are rather good.

That example shows that the participant translated each word without regards to sentence transformation to make the sentence flow smoothly. Another example in which word-by-word translation made the sentence unclear could be as below

            Original text:

Để sử dụng tiếng Anh   cho một cơ hội nghề nghiệp tốt ,    môi trường   sách vở,    lớp học   thôi chưa đủ.

                 (1)                          (2)                                      (3)              (4)          (5)              (6)                       

Participant’s translation:

To use English     for a good career chance,   environment,    books,     classes     are not yet enough.

                 (1)            (2)                              (3)                 (4)            (5)                  (6)                       

Suggested translation: To be able to use English effectively for their careers, learning from the books and classes is not sufficient enough.

As can be seen, insufficient translation was done, which had already distorted the meaning of the original messages and created incomprehensible translated texts.


The interviews shed light on participants’ insights into their translation techniques. Those who employed word-by-word translation admitted that they do not know to to rewrite the translated ideas coherently and cohesively. Hence, the most preferred way was to keep translating each word from the original text to English. Others, however, declared that they did think about transforming the English sentences into a more comprehensible way, but they were not confident that the transformation would be accurate, so they decided to follow the Vietnamese word order and made very minor changes in sentence structures.

The interviews also reveal the facts of being unaware of the meaning conveyed in the original text. Some participants admitted that they were not clear of what the Vietnamese sentences meant, and they did not seek help to clarify those points. As a result, they just translated those by their own opinions which were not equivalent to the original meaning.

Some participants also claimed that their limited language proficiency hindered them from doing the translation effectively. For example, one participant stated that she understood the original text clearly but did not know how to translate that into English due to her limited vocabulary. She further agreed that several times she was unsure of whether her word use was correct or not.

Another participant mentioned the time limit and the quality of translation. In his view, because he was given very limited time to undertake the translation; there should not be high expectations on the quality of translation. This idea is relevant to Iverson (2004) who established a relation between time and quality. It is certain that limited time will not allow translators to revise their work, so the expected quality may not be reached.

Referring to the literature, all participants although having achieved satisfactory results in their Translation and Language Skills courses did not effectively translate the document of their field. In conclusion, the content accuracy was not ensured due to participants’ unawareness of the original materials. Also, limited language proficiency and inconfidence have led them to sticking to the Vietnamese version and following word-by-word translation to avoid content distortion. Nevertheless, this word-by-word translation had already shifted the meaning of the messages to other directions or even made them unclear.

Conclusion and suggestions

The paper shows that translation is not successfully undertaken by the participants due to their unawareness of the meaning conveyed in the original text, limited English proficiency, the improper use of word-by-word translation technique, and inconfidence in making sentence transformation. This leads to the need for educators to improve their learners’ language proficiency and background knowledge through different resources. Besides, there should be more opportunities to practice translation to build up their confidence and experience. As suggested by Robinson (2007), the institution may establish translation clubs so that students and lecturers can have a playground for further practice and experience exchange. Experienced translators can also be invited to provide students with hands-on experience in translation. Becoming a professional translator is not a process of comfort, but hard work and efforts. Consequently, both educators and learners need to make the courses more practical with abundant opportunities for practice for the development of their translation ability.


European Commission. (2009). Translation and interpreting: Languages in action. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities.

Heim, M. H. & Tymowski, A. W. (2006). Guidelines for the translation of Social Science texts. American Council of Learned Societies.

Iverson, S. P. (2004). The art of translation. World Trade, 44 – 46. Retrieved from

Jiang, W. (2000). The relationship between culture and language. ELT Journal, 5(4), 328-334.

Jones, E. (2002). Interpreters and Translators. Occupational Outlook Quarterly, 2, 22-29. Retrieved from

Paul, G. (2009). Translation in practice. London: Dalkey Archive Press.

Robinson, D. (2007). Becoming a translator. London: Routledge.


Tiếng Anh ở đại học - 'nỗi ám ảnh' hay cơ hội?

TTO - “Giá như” là từ mà nhiều cựu sinh viên nhắc đến khi nhìn lại bốn năm lãng phí trên giảng đường. Thay vì những lần thức trắng đêm ôn thi lấy điểm gạo, sinh viên đã có thể đầu tư cho tiếng Anh.

Tại buổi họp lớp đầu tiên của tân sinh viên, đại diện khoa luôn thông báo chương trình học trong bốn năm và chuẩn đầu ra về tiếng Anh, tin học, chính trị, quốc phòng để sinh viên chuẩn bị cho ngày xét tốt nghiệp.


Dù đã chuẩn bị tâm lý bước vào môi trường mới, nhưng kể cả những bạn có nền tảng tốt ở bậc phổ thông thì việc học tiếng Anh ở đại học cũng là một cú sốc.

Nhớ lại ngày đầu nhập học, Vương Phan Huy Hoàng - sinh viên khoa báo chí và truyền thông, Trường ĐH Khoa học xã hội và nhân văn - ĐHQG TP.HCM, chia sẻ: “Ở quê dạy tiếng Anh một kiểu, thành phố dạy kiểu khác. Bước vô đại học mình thấy như bị “sụp hố”.

Bản thân quá chú trọng ngữ pháp trong khi nghe yếu, nói dở, chỉ có đọc hiểu, viết là kha khá. Lúc nào cũng bị lệ thuộc vào mẫu câu hỏi có sẵn trong sách giáo khoa, lẩn quẩn cứ “how are you? I’m fine, thank you”. Khả năng ứng biến khi giao tiếp gần như không”.

ThS Tô Thùy Trang - giảng viên bộ môn tiếng Anh Trường ĐH Ngoại thương cơ sở 2 tại TP.HCM cho biết: “Việc các tân sinh viên bỡ ngỡ, ngạc nhiên thậm chí cảm thấy thua kém rất xa so với nhiều sinh viên khác là bình thường do thực tế có nhiều bạn được gia đình đầu tư từ nhỏ, đến năm 18 tuổi đã sử dụng tiếng Anh như người bản xứ.


Để sử dụng tiếng Anh cho một cơ hội nghề nghiệp tốt, môi trường sách vở, lớp học thôi chưa đủ. Nhiều sinh viên bước ra ngoài để thực hành tiếng Anh như tham gia vào một số CLB nghe nói, làm thêm ở quận 1, qua lại phố Tây Phạm Ngũ Lão (TP.HCM), đi bảo tàng và lễ hội đa văn hóa


Retrieved from

Note: This is the excerpted part of the article via the above link, I have kept the parts that are used for data analysis in the paper. The left-out parts of the original are indicated by [...]. I have also made the relevant parts of the data analysis in bold.

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