Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
Vietnamese title: Nghiệp Ác
English to Vietnamese. Translated 2016, first printed 2017. Tre Publishing.
The third instalment of the Cormoran Strike series.
Evil as a translation project is a very good illustration for the lack of neutrality in Vietnamese personal pronouns, especially in third person.
For those of you who don’t speak the language, to start with, there is no such thing as just “he” or “she”. In fact it isn’t exactly any better for the rest of the pronouns.
He can be: anh ấy, anh ta, anh, gã, hắn, lão, y, nó, ông, ông ấy, chú, bác, chú ấy, bác ấy, cậu, chàng, etc..
She can be: chị ấy, cô ấy, chị, cô, ả, y thị, thị, cô ta, chị ta, bà, bà ta, bà ấy, mụ, mụ ta, mụ ấy, nó, nàng, etc…
Each of these options comes with an underlying assumption about age, social background and importantly how much affection the readers should have for the character.
Evil is told in two narrative strands. One of these follows the detective and his sidekick, the other follows the villain.
My choice of third person pronoun for the detective in the first two books didn’t please everyone. Some readers did not like Strike to be referred to in the third person as “hắn”, complaining that it has a negative connotation.
I can see why they said that. “Hắn”, especially in northern Vietnamese colloquial is certainly more villain than hero. However if you are from the Central or South, it is a perfectly normal way to refer to a male (of the same generation, most likely same rank) as “hắn”. I stick with my choice, Strike remains “Hắn”, because that is how I always picture him – with a certain darkness, both in past life and in personality. It also fits in with the general South-ish accent of the translation.
This meant when it came to Evil, I cannot use “hắn” in the narrative strand that follows the villain. My choice then is “y”, which how the press normally refers to the defendant in a criminal case. This gives the narrative the quality of a prosecutor’s statement. I am not even sure how to feel about this.
So, do I wish we had neutral pronouns in Vietnamese?
Yes, as it would make my work a lot easier.
And no, as it would make my work a lot easier.