Volume 10, No. 4 
October 2006

  Thanh Ngo

Front Page  
Select one of the previous 36 issues.

  Translation Journal

Nuts & Bolts  

Translation of Vietnamese Terms of Address and Reference

by Thanh Ngo


This paper resulted from the author's study of the translation into English of the Vietnamese terms of address and reference used in four short stories, "A Marker on the Side of the Boat," "A Very Late Afternoon," "The General Retires," "Without a King," and selected chapters of two novels, "The Sorrow of War" and "A Novel Without a Name." The study investigates the strategies adopted in the translation of the terms and the degree to which these strategies are effective in conveying the rich nuances of the terms. It was found that both the source language (SL)-oriented and target language (TL)-oriented approaches were utilized. However, the translations of all the texts adhered more extensively to the principles of the TL- oriented translation approach. This resulted in a substantial loss of the socio-cultural meanings and pragmatic implications of the richly nuanced Vietnamese terms of address and reference. Those meanings and implications were found to be essential for an adequate understanding of the original texts. In rare cases, however, where the translators adopted the SL-oriented strategy to transfer the linguistic and socio-cultural elements of the original terms, they were successful in conveying the meanings and implications intended by the original writers through their use of the terms, thus helping the target readers develop a similar understanding of the target texts as the original readers would have of the source texts. The study raised the need for translators of Vietnamese-English literary texts, especially in treating terms of address and reference, to pay close attention to the linguistic and cultural elements of the source texts.

Keywords: translation strategies, formal equivalence, dynamic equivalence, equivalent effect, foreignization, domestication, literary translation, Vietnamese terms of address and reference.


1. Introduction

ranslating from one language into another is no easy task. A certain degree of meaning loss is a norm due to differences between languages and cultures. The more disparities that exist between any two languages, the greater the meaning loss in the translation. This is especially so when the translations are done according to the principles of domesticating translation, i.e., target language (TL)-oriented approach. In translation between closely related languages, the TL-oriented strategy does not seem to cause much distortion of the textual meaning of the source text (ST). By contrast, in translations between such distant languages as Vietnamese and English, this strategy leads to an enormous loss of original textual meaning. In Vietnamese-English literary translation, much meaning loss is caused by the non-translation of Vietnamese terms of address and reference. This is so because the Vietnamese system of address and reference is significantly different from, and very much more complex than, the English system, as will be illustrated in section 2 below.

one reason why people turn to translated literary texts is because they seek to understand more about other cultures.
Most of the differences or disparities between the two systems are overlooked in translations when the domesticating approach is used. This is because this approach pays very little attention to the source language's linguistic and cultural elements that are alien to the TL. It was found that, when the translators did pay a closer attention to the linguistic and cultural features of the Vietnamese address and reference terms by seeking equivalent forms or using other lexical items (such as adjectives) in the target language, the translations were able to convey the meanings and implications intended by the use of the original terms, as will be illustrated in Section 5. Before going any further, it is necessary to give some details of the two translation approaches: target language- and source language-oriented.

2. Source language-oriented and target language-oriented translation approaches

2.1. The target language (domesticating) translation approach

Target language-oriented, or domesticating, translation is the type of translation that involves "an ethnocentric reduction of the foreign text to target-language cultural values" (Venuti 1995: 20). It allows the tailoring of the source message to the linguistic needs and cultural expectations of the receptors. The typical characteristics of this type of translation are "fluency," "naturalness," "transparency," and "readability" (Venuti 1995). According to Nida, naturalness is a key requirement in this type of translation, to such a degree that it "bear[s] no obvious trace of foreign origin" (Nida 1964: 167) and gives the illusion that the text is not a translation, but appears as if it were written in the TL.

The concern with fluency and naturalness in TL-oriented translation means that it allows alterations or adaptations of the SL items, such as "shifting word order, using verbs in place of nouns, and substituting nouns for pronouns" (Nida 1964: 167). In other words, in this type of translation the translator seeks dynamic equivalence (hence also referred to as "dynamic-equivalence" translation (Nida 1964: 159)). Domestication also permits adjustments to "special literary forms," "semantically exocentric expressions," "intraorganismic meanings" (Nida 1964: 170) and expansion of linguistic forms. If the source text contains linguistic and cultural elements alien to the target language and culture, they are likely to be avoided in the translation. In Anglo-Saxon translation this approach is the predominant one, since English readers seem to be reluctant to read texts that appear to be translations (Bassnett 1997).

2.2. The source language (foreignizing) translation approach

The source language-oriented method puts "an ethnodeviant pressure on [target-language cultural] values to register the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text, sending the [target] reader abroad" (Venuti 1995: 20). Using this method, the translator is expected to preserve the foreign identity of the source text or, in other words, to preserve the linguistic and cultural differences of the source text by seeking the "purely 'formal' replacement of one word or phrase in the SL by another in the TL" (Hatim & Munday 2004: 40). Nida refers to this type of translation as "gloss translation," which is "designed to permit the [TL] reader to identify himself as fully as possible with a person in the source-language context, and to understand as much as he can of the customs, manner of thought, and means of expression" and which may "require numerous footnotes in order to make the text fully comprehensible" (Nida 1964: 159). Such footnotes can disrupt the flow of the text. For this reason, the foreignizing approach is not commonly utilized. However, formal-equivalence translations are useful in situations where essential elements of the narrative would be lost by use of the dynamic-equivalence approach. Detailed illustrations are provided in Section 4 below, but first, it is necessary to provide a brief overview of the Vietnamese system of address and reference.

Overview of the Vietnamese system of address and reference

In comparison with English, the Vietnamese system of address and reference is much more diversified and intricate. According to Luong, for example, English I and you, "have as their counterparts in the Vietnamese system dozens of linguistic forms of various grammatical subclasses" (Luong 1990: 2). These include personal pronouns, kinship terms, status terms, and proper nouns (personal names) (Luong 1990; Cooke 1968; Nguyen 1999; Cu 2001). All can be "alternatively used to refer to the addressor, the addressee(s), as well as third parties in social interactions" (Luong 1990: 4).

2.1. Personal pronouns

In the domain of the personal pronouns, Vietnamese has more forms than English does, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Vietnamese personal pronouns



P1 (addressor) (English "I/we")

P2 (addressee) (English "you")

P3 (third person referent) (English "he, she, it/they")



no, han, y



may, mi









chung toi


chung no, chung, ho


chung tao

chung may, bay, chung bay

ta/ chung ta

chung to


minh, chung minh



As can be seen from Table 1, there are five common pronouns for 1st person singular reference. The corresponding plural forms for the five singular pronouns are created by the addition of chung to the singular forms, except for minh and ta, which can also be used in plural reference. In the 2nd person, there are three singular and three corresponding plural forms. Not all 1st person personal pronouns have corresponding personal pronouns in the 2nd person reference system. Except for tao, which can be used reciprocally with 2nd person pronoun (may or mi), the others are commonly paired with kinship terms, status terms, or even personal names. The 3rd person reference includes four commonly used pronouns in the singular forms and three in plural.

In most cases, the use of Vietnamese personal pronouns pragmatically implies either intimacy/familiarity, among close friends of the same age, or a lack of deference and high degree of arrogance towards the addressee and/or third-party pronominal referent of superior age. As such, they are normally used in informal situations. The only personal pronoun that can be used in formal situations is toi. This is the most neutral term to be used in social situations. However, according to Luong, if used among family members, toi as well as the other Vietnamese personal pronouns "presuppose and imply not only the negation of solidarity but also the lack of deference towards the referent" (Luong 1990: 129).

2.2. Kinship terms

Kinship terms, used pronominally, constitute a much more important part of the Vietnamese system of address and reference than personal pronouns. According to Cooke, "these are nouns, most of which have a primary meaning denoting blood kin" (Cooke 1968: 125). They appear so frequently and are so varied and diversified that "not only do they impose difficulty for foreign learners of Vietnamese, but sometimes it is also hard for Vietnamese people to use them properly and appropriately" (Nguyễn 1999: 170) (my translation). Luong observes that "Vietnamese kinship terms are used not only for third-party reference, but pervasively also in address and self-reference" (Luong 1990: 37) among related people, as well as non-relatives, to express various degrees of meaning, from high disrespect to great respect, and from a high level of intimacy to extreme distance.

Vietnamese has equivalents of most of the kinship terms that are available in English. It also has many terms for which English does not have equivalents, such as those which translate as 'younger uncle', 'older aunt', 'maternal sister', 'paternal brother', and 'male cousin', to name just a few. It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide a detailed account of all the kinship terms available in Vietnamese. However, Table 2, adapted from Cooke (1968), summarizes the meanings and usages of the Vietnamese kinship terms.

Table 2: Meanings and usages of Vietnamese kin terms


Literal meaning


In both 1st & 2nd persons

In 1st person

In 2nd person


great-great grandparent

Very elderly person to or by much younger person


To a very elderly person


great grandparent

Very elderly person to or by much younger person


To a very elderly person



(great uncle)

Male about grandparent's age to or by young person

Male (arrogant)

Among male equals



(great aunt)

Female about grandparent's age to or by young person

Female (arrogant)

Among female equals




Father to or by offspring


Young man (humorous, ironical)



Mother to or by offspring


Young woman (humorous, ironical)


parent's elder sibling, or cousin

Person parent's age or above to or by young person


Person speaker's age or above

father's younger sister/female cousin

Woman parent's age or under to or by child


Woman younger than speaker


father's younger brother/male cousin

Man parent's age or under to or by child


Man younger than speaker


mother's younger brother/male cousin

Man parent's age or under to or by child


Intimate friends

Man younger than speaker


elder brother or male cousin

Husband to or by wife

Older male to or by younger person


Male equals (general)


elder sister or female cousin

Older female to or by younger person


Female equals (general)


younger sibling or cousin

Wife to or by husband

Younger female by or to older person

Younger to older

Man and woman younger than speaker (intimate)



To or by person about same age as offspring




grandchild, nephew, niece

To or by person much younger than speaker



(Adapted from Cooke 1968: 135)

(All these kinship terms can also be used for 3rd person reference).

Apart from personal pronouns and kinship terms, Vietnamese people also use status terms (occupational titles); e.g., dong chi ('comrade'), giao su ('professor'), or bac si ('doctor'), and personal names as modes of address and reference. In Vietnamese, status terms and personal names are used to address others and to refer to oneself more commonly than in English.

2.3. Socio-cultural features of the use of Vietnamese terms of address and reference

The use of Vietnamese terms of address and reference in actual communication is extremely intricate. As Luong points out:

Both the use and the meanings of Vietnamese person-referring forms are saliently and inextricably linked to the power, solidarity, and formality dimensions in the relations among the addressor, addressee, as well as the referred parties (Luong 1990: 5).

The appropriate choice of terms to utilize involves consideration of a wide range of sociolinguistic factors, such as the age, sex, social status, relationship (blood, intimate, or distant), attitudes (respectful or arrogant), and feelings of the speaker and addressee, as well as the formality of the communication context (Luong 1990; Nguyen 1999). The attitudes and feelings of the speaker and addressee also play an important role in the choice of address and reference terms. A shift in an interactant's choice of address or reference term will simultaneously signal a change in his/her attitude or feelings towards his/her interlocutor.

The use of Vietnamese terms of address and reference in literature is particularly interesting. A close study of four short stories and selected chapters from two novels found that the terms are utilized abundantly, flexibly, and with great talent to describe the characters' personalities and relationships between the characters, to signal the subtle changes in their relationships, as well as their attitudes towards each other, and to manipulate the writer's attitudes and feelings towards his/her characters. The meanings and implications conveyed by the writer through his/her use of address and reference terms contribute considerably to the overall complexity and subtlety of the text.

It was found that dynamic-equivalence translations of most of the terms made it impossible for target readers to have the same understanding and feeling about the target text as readers of the source text. Examples in section 4 below illustrate this. The examples are representatively taken from the data corpus of the study.

4. Failure of the target language oriented (dynamic-equivalence) translation to create an equivalence effect

As discussed in section 2.1 above, the TL-oriented translation approach claims to achieve an equivalence effect, i.e., the effect the target text has on the target readers is expected to be similar to that created by the source text on the original readers. However, most of the dynamic-equivalence translations of the Vietnamese terms of address and reference in the literary works analyzed resulted in a great loss of socio-cultural meanings and also, in many cases, pragmatic implications that were exclusively manipulated through the use of the terms, thus making equivalence effect impossible. The following examples show the failure of domesticating approach in creating an equivalence effect.

1a. Toikhong tha thu đau (WK)

I no forgive [negation particle]

I won't forgive

1b. Con xin loi bo (WK)

Child beg mistake/apologize father

I'm sorry, Father

Both 1a and 1b are from an exchange between the father and his son in the short story 'Without a King' after the son caught the father peeping at his daughter-in-law in the bath. Being really upset by, and angry at, the father's inappropriate behavior, the son uses the distant and disrespectful pronoun toi ('I') for self-reference at the beginning of their talk (1a). The use of the self-reference personal pronoun toi by a child to his/her parent implies a high degree of disrespect, a lack of solidarity, and a temporary negation of the blood relation. The son's use of toi in this situation expresses his extreme disgust towards his father's inappropriate behavior. After their man-to-man talk, which makes the son understand his father better and leads him to sympathize with and feel more love and respect for his father, he shifts to the intimate, respectful, and affectionate kinship term con ('child'). Since both toi and con are rendered as 'I', the target reader is unable to experience the shift. Although target readers may be able to understand the change in the son's attitude towards his father through his apology, it is impossible for them to comprehend the son's significant sway in his feeling in the same way as it could be understood by original readers, since the contrast between toi and con is not communicated in the translation.

In the following examples from "The Sorrow of War," the subtle change in the character's feeling and attitude is communicated exclusively through the shift of address and reference terms and there are no other clues in the text. The dynamic-equivalence translation of the terms leaves target readers completely unaware of the change. In these examples, Hanh, a female character who normally calls Kien, the main male character, 'younger brother' and refers to herself as 'older sister', which indicates that she normally treats him as a little friend or little brother, changes her address and reference terms to Kien to imply her wish to change their relationship.

2a. Nhung de chi thu xem da. Co khi phai nho em xe ho may bac de len xuong cho nhanh

But let older sister try see [final particle]. Maybe have to ask younger brother dig help some steps so go up down quickly

But let me try first. We might need some steps for me to get down into it easily

2b. Kien?... Cho minh len voi... Minh can noi voi Kien dieu nay ('Sorrow of War': 71)

Kiên? ... For self up [final particle]... Self need speak with Kiên thing this

Kiên, ... Please help me... There's something I want to tell you

In 2a Hanh refers to herself using chi ('older sister') and addresses Kien as em ('younger brother/sister'), still treating him as a close younger brother. After their accidental body contact inside the shelter, she suddenly shifts to pronoun minh ('self') as self-reference and addresses Kien by name. This abrupt shift is meant to eliminate the age gap between them and by it Hanh sends Kien a clear signal that she is interested in him and wants to establish a more-than-friendly relationship with him. While original readers can easily understand Hanh's intention through her shift of address and reference terms, the translation forms I and you result in the loss of all this information.

5. Source language oriented (formal-equivalence) translation and equivalent effect

Formal-equivalence translation, in most cases, succeeds not only in transferring the linguistic forms of the original terms, but also in conveying the intended meanings and implications of the terms, thus creating an equivalent effect. See examples 3 (taken from "A Marker on the Side of the Boat") and 4 (taken from "A Novel Without a Name") below.

3. Anh phai an di mot ti da

Older brother have to eat little already

Eat some, Brother (p 12)

4. Chao dong chi

Greet comrade

Hello, comrade

The interaction in 3 takes place between a young girl and a soldier in the Vietnam War against the Americans. The interactants barely know each other; the soldier collapses under the roof of the girl's house and is saved by her. The girl addresses him using the intimate and respectful term anh ('older brother'), showing her close feeling for him as that for a brother. The equivalent form brother given in the translation is successful in conveying not only the linguistic form, but also the implication of the original term; i.e., this translation form can give target readers a feeling that the girl is treating the soldier warmly as a family member.

Similarly, the formal-equivalence translation of the original term dong chi ('comrade') in example 4 is another successful attempt to transfer the linguistic and cultural elements of the original term.

Although these equivalent forms may not sound very natural in English in such situations, they do not make the target text (TT) non-fluent, neither do they cause any disruption to the flow of the text, yet they successfully accommodate the linguistic and cultural differences of the source text. However, a close study of the texts examined reveal that such attempts at producing formal-equivalence translations are very rare. This is understandable, since giving equivalent forms to all the original address and reference terms would produce a highly unnatural and non-fluent target text because doing so would frequently require numerous footnotes or bracketed explanations to make the TT comprehensible and intelligible. Nevertheless, where textual meaning of the source text (ST) is exclusively manipulated through shifts of terms such as the ones exemplified in 1 and 2 above, it is important that the linguistic elements, meanings, and pragmatic implications of the terms and/or the shifts be conveyed in the translation. How could this be done so that the translation is not excessively foreign sounding? Section 6 below offers a solution to this problem.

6. A suggested strategy when translating Vietnamese terms of address and reference to English

As stated in Section 2, the target language oriented translation approach permits expansion of linguistic forms. It is thus suggested that where there is a need for the linguistic and cultural elements of the original terms to be conveyed in the translation, it could be done by giving the equivalent forms in the target language and providing information about the meaning and implications of the use of the term (or change of terms) in the body of the text as part of it, instead of in footnotes or bracketed notes. Take for example the change of address and reference term by Hanh with Kien in "The Sorrow of War," exemplified in 2a and 2b.

As was seen, the shifts of Hanh's address term to Kien from em to Kien and reference term from chi to minh in the original are not reflected in the translation. These original shifts could be given equivalent forms in English, as shown in the gloss translation of the examples, thus having 2a and 2b translated as followed:

2a. "But let your older sister try first. I might need to ask my younger brother to dig some more steps for me to get down into it easily"

2b. "Kiên, ... Please help me (self) ... There's something I (self) want to tell you, Kiên"

2a could then be followed by something like "Hanh still treats Kien as a little younger brother, thus when speaking to him still considering herself as his sister." Since 'younger brother' used by Hanh to address Kien and 'sister' by Kien to address Hanh already appeared earlier in the translation version, their occurrence in these sentences would not be ambiguous and misleading to the target reader. After "Kien, ... Please help me (self)" in 2b, it would be necessary to add something like "here Hanh ceases to consider Kien as her 'younger brother' and herself as his 'older sister', beginning to call him by his name alone and using a different term, minh, to refer to herself, thus revealing a much more personal, intimate, and affectionate attitude, which clearly sends Kien a signal that she is interested in him and wants to have a closer, more-than-friendly relationship with him." Such a translation, although not as natural and transparent as a fully dynamically equivalent strategy, would not interrupt the flow of the narrative or be ambiguous, and it would successfully convey the subtle and important change signified by the shift of self-reference terms in the original. This is a type of translation where elements of the domesticating translation approach are brought into the foreignizing translation environment.

7. Conclusion

It is widely agreed that a certain degree of meaning loss in translation is, as Nida puts it, "inevitable," since "a translator can rarely do complete justice to the total cultural context of the communication, to the emotive features of meaning, and to the behavorial elements [of the source text]" (Nida 1964: 175). This is especially so if the translator uses the target language-oriented approach, which adheres closely to the linguistic and cultural norms of the target language and produce a natural and transparent target text which does not appear as translation, but rather as an original text. In translation between closely related languages and cultures, the loss may be minimal. However, between such distant languages and cultures as Vietnamese and English, the loss, as demonstrated above, can be significant. This is because much of the textual meaning of the Vietnamese texts is expressed through the use of the address and reference terms, which are very different from the English terms. The meanings and implications manipulated through the use of the Vietnamese terms play a crucial role in building an adequate understanding of the text. This is especially so when changes in the characters' feelings and attitudes towards each other or in their relationships are conveyed through changes in address and reference terms.

It is therefore suggested that practicing translators may need to pay more attention to the need to accommodate the linguistic and cultural elements of the source text in their translations. Not only will doing so lead to a better understanding of the original text, but it will also provide the target reader with enhanced knowledge of the customs and culture of another nation. After all, one reason that people turn to translated literary texts, apart from leisure reading, is because they seek to understand more about other cultures.


Bao Ninh. 1991. Than Phan Cua Tinh Yeu ('The Fate of Love') or Noi Buon Chien Tranh ('The Sorrow of War'), Hanoi: Nha Xuat ban Van nghe

Bao Ninh. 1994. The Sorrow of War, Translated from Vietnamese by Vo Bang Thanh and Phan Thanh Hao with Katerina Pierce, London: Secker &Warburg.

Bassnett, S. 1997. "Introduction." In Translating Literature, Bassnett (ed), Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Cooke, Joseph. 1968. The Pronominal Reference in Thai, Burmese, and Vietnamese, Berkley: University of California Press.

Cu, Dinh Tu. 2001. Phong Cach Hoc Va Dac Diem Tu Tu Tieng Viet ('Stylistics and Features of Vietnamese stylistics'), Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Giao Duc.

Duong, Thu Huong. 1991. Tieu Thuyet Vo De ('Novel Without a Name'), California: Van Nghe

Duong, Thu Huong. 1996. Novel Without a Name, translated from Vietnamese by McPherson, N. and Phan, H.D., New York: Penguin Group.

Hatim, B & Munday, J. 2004. Translation: An Advanced Resource Book, London and New York: Routledge.

Luong, Huy V. 1990. Discursive Practices and Linguistic Meanings: The Vietnamese System of Person Reference, Amsterdam and Philadenphia: John Benjamins.

Nguyen, Huy Thiep. 1986/2004. "Tuong Ve Huu" ('A General Retires'). In Nhung Truyen Thanh Thi ('Stories of the City'), Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Hoi Nha Van, pp. 7-34.

Nguyen, Huy Thiep. 1987/2004. "Khong Co Vua" ('Without a King'). In Nhung Truyen Thanh Thi ('Stories of the City'), Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Hoi Nha Van, pp. 35-67.

Nguyen, Huy Thiep. 1992. "The General Retires," translated from Vietnamese by Greg Lockhart. In The General Retires and other stories, Singapore, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 114-136.

Nguyen, Huy Thiep. 1996. "Without a King," translated from Vietnamese by Linh Dinh. In Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam, Linh Dinh (ed), New York: Seven Stories Press, pp. 27-48.

Nguyen, Thai Hoa. 1999. "Cac Phuong Tien Tu Tu Va Cac Bien Phap Tu Tu Cua Tieng Viet" ('Tools and Methods of Stylistics in Vietnamese'). In Phong Cach Hoc Tieng Viet ('Vietnamese Stylistics'), Dinh Trong Lac (ed.), Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Giao Duc.

Nida, E.A. 1964. Toward a Science of Translation, Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Venuti, L. 1995. The translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation, London and New York: Routledge.