Foreign-language signs risk becoming lost in translation

Next Week

In the future, tourists travelling to Viet Nam, Thailand and Cambodia may only need one visa instead of three different visas required in previous years.

The Prime Minister has requested the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism; Ministry of Foreign Affairs and relevant agencies to conduct research into a single visa for the three countries.

Since late December 2012, Thailand and Cambodia have agreed that tourists from up to 35 countries may use a single visa to enter both countries, similar to the visa policy used in European countries. International tourists can now obtain visas at respective embassies or border gates in Thailand or Cambodia.

Tourism experts have said that Viet Nam’s cooperation with Thailand and Cambodia will be the first step in implementing a single visa scheme for ASEAN countries.

It is also expected to help Viet Nam attract more international tourists.

What do you think of the idea? In your opinion, how would the policy, if it comes into effect, motivate tourists to come to Viet Nam and the two other countries?

Please reply by email to: opinion@vnsmail.com, or by fax to (84-4) 3 933 2311. Letters can be sent to The Editor, Viet Nam News, 79 Ly Thuong Kiet Street, Ha Noi. Replies to next week’s questions must be received by Thursday morning, September 5, 2013.

Last week, Viet Nam News asked its readers what they thought about the Department of Culture’s move to tighten management of business sign boards across the country, especially those in foreign languages. The intention is to make sure all signs also contain Vietnamese.
We also ask them for what they thought about some foreign business owners who claim they only use their own languages to attract selected customers.

Here are some of the responses we received.

Laeticia Ock, Korean, Ha Noi

Hundreds of shops with simple sign boards saying “Made in Vietnam” flourish as locals and expats look for quality cloths at reasonable price.

The signage is to-the-point, clearly demonstrating what can be found in the shop. No additional description in Vietnamese seems necessary.

Most signs are meant to attract customers and promote sales. Design, colour, shape and even the language on the signs are chosen for a reason.

That’s why forcing merchants to add Vietnamese to signs seems like an attempt to limit other ways of attracting business.

A move to tighten regulations on signs will only discolour the image of Viet Nam as an open-minded and business-friendly country.

If businesses decide to appeal to specific clientele and put up signs in their language only, their choices should be embraced.

Still, the question remains, what if Vietnamese people feel left out or even discriminated against if certain shops refuse to serve locals or treat them in a different way? This is wrong and something must be done as Vietnamese people have every right to be welcomed at shops in their own country.

However, I can hardly see how the decision to impose stricter rules on signs can help the situation. It is a solution that only scratches the surface. Signs are just signs.

Rewriting them in Vietnamese will neither bring friendly attitudes towards locals nor create stronger cultural identity for Viet Nam.

Andrew Burden, Canadian, Ha Noi

Viet Nam needs to balance its cultural interests against the onslaught of international commercialism. As an expat however, I want to buy name brand products without being restricted by local prejudices.

It is said that we “vote with our feet” and also “‘vote with our wallets.”

I do not see what difference it makes if there are a few foreign language signs selling Russian Vodka or Mexican burritos. It is a sign of sophistication and cosmopolitan progress. It’s authentic and cool.

If you start to restrict or harass customers, you lose. Viet Nam needs to embrace the world, invite Viet kieu (overseas Vietnamese) back to invest and get as many upscale, foreign speaking global citizens as it can to visit.

When ASEAN enters 2015, the ASEAN Economic Community will allow workers to travel and work within other countries. Get a jump and headstart on regional and international linguistic and economic integration. After all, the people in only one country speak Vietnamese.

John Ball, Australian, Ha Noi

Of course, Viet Nam or any other country is free to insist that signboards for businesses, restaurants, travel agencies and bars be bilingual. Hopefully, this does not mean equal space, but simply a courteous and probably smaller translation for the people of the host nation.

One remembers Malaysia in the 1960s when the government clamped down on signs in Chinese. There was a huge hue and cry until people began to realise that while Chinese ran most of the shops and restaurants, about half of their customers were Malays and foreigners.

While they are extremely colourful, signs in Chinese are generally meaningless outside China. Unless accompanied by a few words in the host language or in the internationally accepted English language, they can serve to divide rather than inform people.

This is especially the case when whole streets are covered with signs in a foreign language, be it Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian or English. The dominating languages becomes a xenophobic statement rather than an advertisement. It’s rather like saying: “If you don’t know what we are offering, get lost.”

In countries where foreigners dominate or control most of the economy, foreign signage almost becomes a political statement. Take for example modern Phnom Penh. A visitor recently back from the Cambodian capital was alarmed to find whole blocks covered in unreadable signs in Chinese, Japanese and Korean. “It looked more like Kwangchow than Kampuchea,” he said. “It’s obvious who is running the economy.”

Even on the golf fields of 19th century Australia, Chinese were wise enough to insert a few words of English in deference to the people running the nation. These only said “goldsmith”, “jeweller” or “chop suey”, but the other 99 per cent got the message.

More than 100 years later, Australia went overboard in the opposite direction by insisting that all major city streets be labelled in the languages of the area. That is, English followed by Greek, Italian, Chinese or whatever other ethnic community dominated. From an English speaking nation. Australia quickly became multi-cultural – and a multitude of languages was the price to pay. But that is another story.

While there will always be complaints one way or another, to exclude the language of the host people or the dominant ethnic group from one’s advertising is not only rude, but usually counter productive.

The only counter argument I can think of is that the Vietnamese language itself tends to dominate on the packaging of goods at stores and supermarkets. One often sees Americans, Asians and Europeans wandering around the aisles trying to figure out what is soap and what is bleach, what is shampoo and what is conditioner. And a sausage may turn out to be a hot dog!

Unless Vietnamese manufacturers themselves capitalise by providing brief descriptions of their products in English, they will find many of their markets stolen by an incoming wave of foreign goods and foreign supermarkets.

Rie Watanabe, Japanese, Ha Noi

I travelled to Nha Trang last month where I saw many sign boards written completely in Russian. I only had a vague idea what they meant. I guess those shops or restaurants were just for Russians, not for Vietnamese or people from other countries.

However, I think they should follow the new regulations. Once they operate a business in Viet Nam, they must obey the laws that say sign boards must also be written in Vietnamese.

A Vietnamese friend who has a shop in the Czech Republic sells products mostly to Vietnamese. The shop is in a street full of Vietnamese people, but she still has to obey the law by having her sign boards in the local language.

And if you go to Japan, you will see all the sign boards are in Japanese, which make expats confused at the beginning. But gradually, people get to know what is what. —VNS

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