Doing my translation homework, I looked up the Vietnamese word, “buc,” and found it had three meanings: picture, face, or sultry.

That’s not confusing.

While face and picture could sort of be related, sultry was definitely the odd man out. What’s worse, I tried substituting each of these words into the sentence, but none of them made sense. Which means that there is at least a fourth definition for this word, one which was not in my dictionary.

In translation school, back in Germany, a long time ago, we were taught that dictionaries were a necessary evil. While they are a necessity for understanding words you do not recognize, they can also lead you down the false path. The way they dealt with this issue in Germany was to wean students off of bilingual dictionaries as soon as possible. This means that when I don’t understand a word in my text, I should look it up in a mono-lingual Vietnamese dictionary, rather than a Vietnamese-English dictionary.

This method solves two problems; first of all, the monolingual dictionaries will usually have a much broader vocabulary, a larger total number of words. Next, the definitions are generally assumed to be correct, whereas the bilingual dictionaries often make no or little sense.

For example, translating a weather report, I looked up a Vietnamese word and found that it meant both ‘scattered’ and ‘isolated.’ In the context of a weather report, scattered showers and isolated showers would have meant pretty much the same thing. But what if it was a text about a prisoner being locked up in a scattered cell? While scattered and isolated sometimes have nearly the same meaning, they can also be dramatically different. A farmer doesn’t walk through the fields, isolating seeds. He scatters them.

If you look up the same word in a monolingual dictionary, then you would read the definition and truly understand the word. Next, you would decide, for yourself, which English word would best convey that meaning, given the context of the specific text at hand.

A primary rule of language learning is that language is communication, first and foremost. If you are not communicating the ideas, or if they are not understood by the listener, then the communication has failed.

The primary rule of translation is that the translated text must have the same meaning in the target language as it did in the source language. When I get really stuck in class, I ask my teachers to translate. Sometimes, the translations make no sense at all in English. Inevitably, the excuse the teacher gives is, “Well, Vietnamese is different than English.”

Clearly I knew that Vietnamese and English were different. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be investing so much money and time in learning it. I would already know it. So, given that we already know the languages are different, if you can’t give me an accurate translation, then I can’t understand the meaning of the sentence.

Example: My teacher once translated a sentence as, “We are already almost late.” And, an accompanying sentence was translated as, “We are not yet almost late.”

In English, neither of these sentences means anything to me. What I had to figure out for myself, and it took some thinking and some looking up, is that there is a Vietnamese verb, ‘sap’ used for predicting the very near future. By placing this verb before the main verb, you can convey the meaning of something happening soon. “Are we leaving soon? Or “Will he arrive soon?”  By this logic, you can ask the question, “Are we almost late?”

It’s a nice verb and very handy for everyday use. But the teacher didn’t translate it accurately. I would probably translate the question as “Are we late yet?” This conveys nearly the same meaning as the Vietnamese original, and it sounds like English.

My Vietnamese tutors are both college students. Each has told me that they have studied English for about ten years, although neither is particularly good at communicating in English. When I am reading a difficult text, and hit a word I don’t know, I ask the tutor. Seventy percent of the time, an English translation for the individual word pops out of the tutor’s mouth, almost instantly. This would suggest to me that my tutors, like most students in Asia, were made to memorize long lists of English vocabulary. I estimate that each of them possess a vocabulary of at least 3,000 words. And yet, neither of them can translate the texts I am translating now, only 20 weeks into my study of Vietnamese language.

They have the definitions, but not the communication. Similarly, my Vietnamese vocabulary is now much larger than my Chinese vocabulary, and yet I am 100% functional in Chinese but only barely functional, outside of translating texts, in Vietnamese. Once again, it is not the dictionary or the definitions that are paramount to mastering a language. It is communication. And I am still a long way off in Vietnamese.

The primary rule of translating Vietnamese: Vietnamese translations must make sense in English.

I looked up a Vietnamese word “thuot tha”. The dictionary said it meant, “lissome.” I have no idea what that word means. But any of my Vietnamese students, in my English class, or any of my Vietnamese teachers, in my Vietnamese class, would be happy to use that word, in spite of not knowing what it means. Both teachers and students here seem to take the first dictionary definition as Gospel and use it, regardless of the sentence having no meaning in English. If I challenge them, and point out that their sentence makes no sense, they use the standard excuses: “Vietnamese and English are different.” Or, “Some things can’t be translated.

Using a monolingual dictionary, I discovered that “lissome” means “easily bent; supple.” If the students or teachers had used a monolingual dictionary, they could have substituted either of these options and the sentence would have made sense in English.

Neither students nor teachers in Asia seem to be taught to use monolingual dictionaries. Neither are they taught to substitute a potential definition into the sentence to see if it makes sense.

In my English class, the English text said, “Johnny came home late one night, so mother was cross.”

I asked the class, “What is cross?” The first student said, “It means go through, like cross the street.”

“Yes, normally that’s what it means, but does that make sense in this story? Johnny was late so mother went through across the street?” I asked.

“Yes, teacher,” answered the student.

“No, actually that doesn’t make any sense,” I contradicted. Then, I explained to the class, “Here, ‘cross’ has another meaning. Can anyone guess what it is?”

“Cross the street teacher?” Two or three students asked.

“No,” I said, beginning to lose my patience.