For those occasions when a translator was not available, we were provided with a pocket-sized phrase card supplied by the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – the MACV Phrasebook. It contained useful words and phrases written in English and Vietnamese. You only had to point to something you want to say in English and hold it up to a Vietnamese-speaker who couldn't read his version. Most people living in the rural areas were illiterate.
No problem. Between each English/Vietnamese pair of phrases was a transliteration – an English approximation of what you wanted to say or ask. This brings us back to my earlier point about the importance of inflection in Asian languages. Also, there was the fact that there were many sounds which we had never heard and which could not be enciphered into English letters. Besides which, how many of us can even interpret those that represent English. Read the pronunciation guides in an English dictionary and get back to me.
- This village is surrounded (Right. I had one man with me, but he was really fast)
- Bring the village chief
- You will not be harmed (How about me?)
- How many VC are there (There? How about here?)
- Where are the weapons hidden? (Like they're going to tell me)
- Where are the tunnels? (In the ground - stupid question)
- Where are the booby traps? (I need to know -- I'm a booby)
- Come outside (The most useless phrase inasmuch as I wasn't about to go inside anywhere with them)
- Enter first (I'm not coming)
- When was the attack (Like I would be caught dead anyplace anyone wanted to attack)
Of course, the guard at the entrance to the village was illiterate. Thus, I was reduced to reading the transliteration aloud, hoping that he understood – "yon sa trong ton." (How the hell do you get 'yon' out of "mang?"
Now, that may be wrong. You see, my card had been soaked through from sweat and humidity, the ink ran, and I was quite sure that is what it said. However, I took a breath and read it aloud to the best of my ability. I was met by a very puzzled look. So I tried a variation. Here's another game: How many ways can you pronounce that combination of letters? Please, add your list to the comments section below.
After many attempts, I had attracted a large crowd of Vietnamese who sat on the ground around me and laughed uproariously at everything that came out of my mouth. I believe that there were a few Viet Cong among them who could have shot me but felt that my embarrassment was a superior form of torture.
An American unit arrived, led by a major who explained that the village chief had been sitting on the ground next to me the whole time.
đó là cuộc sống*