Memories of an Interpreter

By Site Admin | Apr 28, 2021
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One of my childhood memories that still imprints in my mind took place in the early 1990s. When I first entered first grade, I was led to the Saigon Floating Hotel by my mother on Christmas eve. I still remember that day vividly: the cool Saigon air after a rain, shimmering lights shine through the hotel windows, in the lobby a glass box containing a small castle made completely of biscuits and sugar!

In the eyes of a child who grew up in the years when Vietnam just opened up and was still very poor, the scene was impressive. It was even more special when I watched my mother having dinner and talking with Japanese businessmen. Those Japanese were very friendly. We had a warm talk and they gave my family a small box of confectionary, beautifully packaged and decorated with patterns that I had never seen before in Vietnam.

Only later did I find out that my mother was not doing anything so impressive. She was just an interpreter for Japanese businesses looking for business opportunities in Southern Vietnam. At that time, there were no multinational corporations such as Toyota, Aeon, or powerful business associations like today. Vietnam was still under embargo by the United States, and Japanese businesses were also very conservative in doing business in our country. Only a few trading companies came to set up representative offices and built the foundations for their projects in the future. Japanese businessmen could not even fly directly to Vietnam but had to transit in Bangkok.

In 1990, the cost per day of Japanese-Vietnamese interpretation was about 25 USD. You can imagine with the exchange rate of 7,500 VND per USD at a time when a bowl of “banh canh” on the sidewalk only cost 500 VND, how valuable was that money.

But what's precious to my family was not just cash. With her expertise, my mother had the opportunity to accompany state-owned enterprises to Japan for training and trade connections. Thanks to that, my family bought a color JVC TV, a Nintendo console, and many valuable items that many of my peers had never dreamed of.

Mid '80s JVC TV/monitor | Audiokarma Home Audio Stereo Discussion Forums

Actually, the word "bought" here is a bit too exaggerated. During a business trip in Japan, my mother's group was arranged to stay in a trainee center next to an apartment complex. Nearby was the electronic waste gathering area. Some of the guys in the delegation were engineers. Everyone in the delegation discussed with each other to bring the equipment to the hotel to try and keep the things that were still usable. After that, everyone asked their Japanese partners to send them to Vietnam by seaway. The products my mother brought back in that time were so good that by the time I finished middle school, they were still running well.

In addition to the income and products, my mother also received gifts from Japanese businessmen. They would often give us confectionery, clothing, alcohol, and especially cigarettes. Knowing that "555" cigarettes are very valuable in Vietnam, our Japanese clients often brought them to my mother. Sometimes they did not finish a pack of cigarettes and left us a few. At that time, a 555 cigarette could still be sold to the market for a bunch of money.

For me, the most valuable gift is dinner parties at luxury hotels. These days, we will never see an interpreter taking a family member over to dinner with a customer. But at that time, perhaps partly due to the unstandardized interpretation rules, and partly due to the good relationship my mother had built with Japanese businessmen that I went out to eat with them quite often. It was there that I learned how to use cutlery properly. We were so close that I used to play the piano for a Japanese uncle, who decades later met and still asked my mother, "Does your child still play the piano?"

Time passed quickly. Five-star hotels in Saigon were upgraded or rebuilt such as the Continental, Majestic, Caravelle or later, Equatorial and New World. As an inevitable consequence, the once-famous Floating Hotel pulled up its anchor to leave Saigon in 1997. A year later, I left Vietnam to study abroad, partly thanks to the interpretation money my mother earned.

After more than 15 years, I returned to Vietnam on the advice of my mother. For some reason, fate led me to the job of interpreting! With my own efforts, my interpretation skills gradually improved. After three years, I started to do simultaneous interpretation, a goal that every new interpreter is aiming for. And when the 4.0 era exploded with the development of sharing economy applications such as Uber, Grab, I and my colleagues built the website, the first platform for connecting interpreters and clients in Vietnam and around the world.

The interpretation industry has changed a lot since my mother's time. The cost of 25 USD in ancient days has increased to 200 USD per day prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the pandemic has seriously affected the life of the interpreter community in Vietnam. According to our survey, more than 80% of interpreters claimed that COVID-19 has reduced their total income, with 15% noting that nothing has changed. Only 5% think their income has improved, but I guess this extra income comes from other jobs (like trading on the stock market) that interpreters are required to learn in their spare time.

On the other hand, the growth of Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, and translation/interpretation tools have narrowed the role of interpreters. Through research, I found that Chinese enterprises coming to Vietnam to explore the market almost only use translation software on mobile phones. Only Japanese and Korean businesses are actually using interpreters, but competition pressure is forcing them to reduce costs, and many of them have switched to using English in business.

To be fair, the pandemic and the advancement of technology not only presented challenges but also opportunities for the interpretation and translation industry. As remote meetings become increasingly popular, remote interpretation also rides the wave. This trend provides a huge customer source and a level playing field for interpreters. With the advantage of the low costs of living, good interpreters in Vietnam can compete squarely with their peers around the world. In fact, the Freelensia platform is also witnessing a proliferation of such cross-country, cross-time-zone interpretation events.

On weekends, temporarily putting aside my busy work, I often sit and reminisce about old memories with my mother. She is older and her Japanese knowledge has faded a lot. From time to time, we receive postcards or inquiring emails from past clients. There are people who have not been to Vietnam for decades, others have died of cancer or stroke and their relatives were the writers. Sometimes I wish I could see again and thank these entrepreneurs, show them how Vietnam has grown over the years, and tell them about my plans for the future. Life goes on in Vietnam and Japan, and I firmly believe that interpreters will have a new, very different but equally important role in the post-COVID-19 world economy.


-Peter Nguyen

Interpreter, Co-founder of Freelensia