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‘Old’ Phách: 
40 Years' Meditation on Words and Meanings

by Frank Trinh

Thangui Editor of Website

Launay khong tintuc gi cho nhau. Sau vu docgia, dacbiet la MinhHo va DieuTan, dat cauhoi va neu nhanxet qualai ve baiviet cua toi va cua Philip Coen (HoangBaCong) lienhe den chuyen zichthuat tren ‘Website’ cua anh, toi xingui den anh baiviet nay (xem attachment zuoiday, Font Unicode, New Times Roman) ve motnguoi ma MinhHo decap la tacgia cuon “Butchien MietDuoi”. 

Caigoi lai “Butchien’ nay keozai khoang 3 thang vao nam 1997-1998, khoidau tu viec Ong Phach tranhcai ve mot vai tungu phiendich voi mot anh sinhvien cuatoi, ma saunay cungla ChuBut/Chunhiem cua mot tobao Vietngu o Sydney. Loile doiben, ngoai nhung ykien tichcuc, saucung diden cho chitrich nangne den canhan. Tatnhien khongthe doloi cho cai ‘khongkhi ngotngat’ rieng vephan aica. Boivi “it takes two to tango” nhu anh dacothe biet.. Trong mot giaidoan loiquatienglai giua hainguoi, toi cung co ‘nhay’ vao banluan gaygo qualai voi Ong Phach, nguoiban vongnien cua toi, nhung tranhcai cua chungtoi hoantoan tren canban xaydung hocthuat. Baiviet tiengAnh nay cua toi (dadang trong tobao Anhngu ‘Integration’ cua Congdong NguoiViet tai Uc, nam 1998) la mot phan trong mot baizai hon bang tiengViet, sau va trong vutranhcai voi Ông Phách, la nguoi vanthich cuoc butchien trong lichsu vanhoc candai VietNam co lienhe den Cu PhanKhoi. Theotoi cuoc tranhluan giua toi va Ông Phách co taczung phainoi la ‘positive’ cho nganhnghe phienzich. Totthoi! 

Nay anhhieu lizo taisao toi khong muon lienhe vao nhungvu tranhcai giua sinhvien va giangvien nhu truonghop anh MinhHo va ‘his tutor’ o RMIT, hocvien cu cua Gs Phách. 

Gui anh baiviet nay de anh ‘tuynghi’. 



I have known ’Old’ Phách (we like to address each other in this fashion) for nearly 30 years, when the country was at war, and by sheer chance we happened to be working in the same building at the same time. He was older than me, his position and rank was superior to mine, and his knowledge of words and their meanings was wider than my own at the time.

In that imposing building, which was referred to with great respect as the Main Building, ‘Old’ Phách was Chief of the Press Section, whereas I was Chief of the Protocol and Translation Section. We did not meet up with each other in the course of our work, however we often met together on the tennis court (I am a better player than he is). We would meet in the early morning, exercising vigorously to build up a sweat, and then have breakfast bún mộc (vermicelli soup with meatballs stuffed with chopped mushrooms) in a small roadside café before going to work. Sometimes we were even accompanied by our subordinates.

The situation changed when the country was going through a ‘metamorphosis’, and we met up again in Australia after he arrived here from Guam with the idea of resettlement. He chose to live in Melbourne because he was scheduled to work for Radio Australia, whereas I was settled in Sydney completing my MA (Hons) Degree in Linguistics. After about two years of teaching English to Indo-Chinese refugees with the Adult Migrant Education Service (AMES), I was selected to work with the BBC World Service in the Vietnamese Section in London in the late 1970s. This was on a three-year short-term contract, and on my return I was appointed lecturer in Vietnamese and in charge of training students working towards a BA degree in Interpreting and Translation at the then Milperra College of Advanced Education (now known as the University of Western Sydney Macarthur). Before and during this time the University introduced the BA (I/T) and I had the honour of asking him to attend the University and to deliver speeches at various conferences and seminars on translation. These lectures were sometimes delivered to both ethnic and Australian groups. We also invited him to serve as a visiting professor of translation on a fortnightly basis lecturing and tutoring in translation into and from Vietnamese and English, in the years 1986 and 1987.

Sydney to Melbourne is a distance of nearly 1000 kilometres, and he often boarded the coach, sleeping on the overnight trip and arriving early the next morning. We acquired the habit, at the conclusion of the evening lecture, to go to Cabramatta for hủ tiếu xào bò (fried beef rice noodles), a dish which he relished very much. Personally, I have always thought that he is the most experienced and capable person in the Southern Hemisphere on the subject of translation. He is always very careful in his work as a translator, and has always maintained that translation is a very difficult task indeed. Those who perform this task must be highly competent and thoroughly understand both languages in question, in order to render successfully and effectively those things that people speak and write. He held the view that the source language material, when translated into the target language, must be done in such a way as to sound natural and comfortable to the listener’s or reader’s ear, thus resulting in being comprehensible.

At a seminar on translated health information in 1986 in NSW, whilst commenting on the weaknesses of Vietnamese community translators, he did not forget to make derogatory remarks about his first forays into the profession, when he stated, ‘If anyone could find a text which I translated 30 or 40 years ago and point out to me the mistakes I then made, I would have to look for a hole in which to hide’. Whatever text he has translated, whenever he has a chance to revise it, he can always find things with which he was not happy and which need to be corrected. Only when it has gone to press, will he be content that no more can be done.

He is hard-working and spends much time researching, in order to find the correct strategies to use to translate new words in English which have no existing Vietnamese equivalents. One of the strategies he employs is to choose a Sino-Vietnamese word which he thinks has the advantage of being simple and concise, as well as suitable in the formal context in which it is used. One of these new words he chose was bệnh liệt-kháng (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS) which previously had been rendered into a lengthy equivalent (Hội-chứng Suy giảm Miễn-dịch Mắc phải). His coined term bệnh liệt-kháng was used in a 20-minute video on AIDS which was made by the NSW Department of Health in 1988. My recommendation to use him as a translator was approved after the first two translated versions of the original English script were found to leave much to be desired. The term has common currency today and has been circulated throughout the Vietnamese communities in the USA, Australia and even Vietnam itself. Recently, however, in Vietnam the French acronym SIDA has been used to refer to AIDS. 

When he was asked to review a 4000-word translated health information brochure which had the title Infertility, and which had been translated as Sự mất khả-năng sinh-sản (The loss of reproductive capability) he suggested that it be changed to Hiếm muộn (which literally means ‘rarity and lateness’) because, as he explained, it suits the intention of the text, and also is appropriate to Vietnamese culture. He often said that there are instances when we have to render a translation in such a way that ‘to be faithful we have to be unfaithful’, that is, we have to sometimes be inaccurate in order to be accurately understood by the reader. Therefore, translation in these circumstances is that of translating the ‘idea’ rather than the ‘word’.

He has done so many different things relating to the subject of words and meanings, that people might call him a writer, an author, a newspaperman, an academic or a scholar, but the title he likes most to be called is ‘a journalist’. This is perhaps understandable, because for over 40 years, he has been writing for Western as well as Vietnamese newspapers using his real name Nguyễn Ngọc Phách, and also the ‘noms de plume’ of John Draw, Nguyen Nam Phong, Ngụy-lão, Thường-đức and Lực-sĩ Ghế Bành.

In 1985, I was required interstate to serve for six weeks as an interpreter in the Supreme Court of Victoria on a murder case which touched on some very delicate issues affecting the local Vietnamese community, ‘Old’ Phách and his daughter, who is now a lawyer, attended Court to act as my supporters and observers. In the early stages of my research on ‘collocation in translation’, every time I had the opportunity to go to Melbourne on business or on conferences, I would often visit him at what he would jokingly call ‘my humble abode’. On these occasions I often consulted him on the topic of translation research. This research project has lasted a decade, and will be completed this year in the form of a doctorate degree in linguistics.

Recently, ‘Old’ Phách has been enthusiastically preparing a book on Chữ Nho và Ðờii Sống Mới (Sino-Vietnamese Script and the New Life) in the hope that it will help the younger generations who were brought up outside of Vietnam to go back to their roots and learn to write and read Vietnamese books, as well as have additional material for reference. In the meantime, whilst waiting for the book to be published he has undertaken to write a column in the bi-weekly Việt Luận (The Vietnamese Herald). Many readers have expressed their appreciation of and interest in the English rendering of the Sino-Vietnamese expressions which are difficult to translate. 

‘Old’ Phách’s interest and desire to have dialogue on words and meanings, as well as the art of translation, has been expressed by himself in the 1998 Việt Luận Vietnamese New Year edition: ‘Whether you agree with my argument or not, I’m not to know. But whosoever does not agree, particularly those who work as interpreters and translators, then let me know the reasons why. I would whole-heartedly love to respond. Who knows? -- most likely we will have a fruitful discussion, not only from those working as interpreters and translators, but from those interested in the future of the Vietnamese language outside Vietnam.’

Frank Trinh 
Sydney, 1998

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