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English Words With Special Meanings That Need Care In English-Vietnamese Translation

Imagine a translator is like an adventurer, and the text that needs his or her expertise is like an uncharted territory. The translation from start to finish of a text is like the journey of an adventurer through an alien land, full of risks and unpleasant surprises; in a text that needs to be translated from English into Vietnamese, those risks and surprises are like the English words with special meanings. This blog post will take a look at the typical examples of auto-antonyms (or contronyms) in English, English words that may have different meanings in different varieties of English and English words whose meanings become completely different in their plural forms that need care in English-Vietnamese translation.

Auto-antonyms (or contronyms) are words with multiple meanings, of which one is the reverse of another. Auto-antonym and contronym are relatively new terms, respectively coined several decades ago by Joseph Twadell Shipley and Jack Herring (specifically in 1960 and 1962).

Some typical examples:

Comprise, word sense (1): to include (parts); word sense (2): to be a part, form a part of (something)

  • Example sentences:
  1. The house comprises two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. (This house includes two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room.)
  2. Older people comprise a large a proportion of those living in poverty. (Older people form a large proportion of those living in poverty.) 

Dust, word sense (1): to remove dust (from something); word sense (2): to put a fine powder over something

  • Example sentences:
  1. I was dusting in the bedroom when the phone rang. (I was removing dust from things in the bedroom when the phone rang.)
  2. Dust the cake with sugar. (Put some sugar on the cake.)

Oversight, word sense (1): the state of being in charge of (something); word sense (2): a mistake (in which you forget something or do not notice something)

  • Example sentences:

  1. This committee has oversight of finance and general policy. (This committee is in charge of finance and general policy.)
  2. Employees were paid late due to an oversight in the accounting department. (Employees were paid late due to a mistake in the accounting department.)

Meanwhile, some English words may have different, or even contradictory, meanings in different varieties of English, for example:

To table, as in table a debate, means to put it up for debate in British English, while it means to remove it from debate in American English. There’s a fascinating historical anecdote of World War II about an angry and frustrated group of British officers trying to table a proposal while their silent American colleagues didn’t utter a single word (that’s understandable though, because the Americans must have thought to table the debate is to shelve it).

Pants, a classic example, meaning a piece of clothing that covers you from your waist to your feet and has a separate part for each leg in American English, while in British English it means a piece of underwear that covers the area between your waist and the top of your legs.

First, as in first floor, meaning the first floor from the ground in American English, while it actually means the second floor from the ground in British English (British English equivalent for first floor is ground floor).

The third case is English words whose meanings become completely different in plural forms, for example:

Spectacle, meaning a very impressive show or scene, which is an abstract word, while spectacles means a pair of glasses that helps you see better, signifying a particular object.

Wood, meaning the substance that forms the main part of a tree and is used for making things such as furniture, signifying a type of material, while woods means a small forest, signifying a place.

Or force, meaning the power or energy produced by one thing hitting another, while forces means a group of people doing military or police work.

Above are some common examples of English words with special meanings. This is a fascinating phenomenon, but can also lead to confusion that may result in mistranslations, which is why the words really do deserve particular care in English-Vietnamese translation.

Truong Nguyen

Truong Nguyen

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