One of the first problems I noticed with quốc ngữ translations is that they add the words “China” (nước Tàu or Trung Quốc) or “in China” (ở bên Tàu, etc.) when no such terms exist in the originals.

Let’s look, for instance, at Ngô Thì Sĩ’s (Ngô Thời Sỹ) late-eighteenth-century Model Cases of Việt History (Việt Sử Tiêu Án). This work was translated by the Hội Việt Nam Nghiên Cứu Liên Lạc Văn Hóa Á Châu and published in Saigon in 1960.

In this translation we can find the following simple sentence: “Nước ta bị ngoại thuộc vào nước Tàu từ đời Hán đến đời Đường.”

We could translate this sentence as “Our country was forcefully incorporated into China from the Han to the Tang.”

“Forcefully incorporated into China” is probably not the best translation for “bị ngoại thuộc vào nước Tàu,” but I think it captures the feeling. By using the term “bị” the translator is making it clear that “our country” was acted upon in a negative way.

What sentence is this a translation of? It is a translation of this sentence: “Ngã bang nội thuộc, lịch Hán ngật Đường (我邦内屬, 歷漢迄唐).”

Ok, so we have numerous problems here. First of all, there is no “China” (nước Tàu) in the original. Second, there is no “bị” in this sentence either.

The third problem is with the term “nội thuộc.” Admittedly this is a difficult term to translate, but it is difficult because it refers to a way of thinking that is unfamiliar to us. It is a term which was created by Chinese, and it literally means to “internally belong.” Keith Taylor has translated it as “belong inside.”

The idea behind it is that the Chinese court was at the center, and that other kingdoms and polities that submitted to its authority and jurisdiction then “belonged inside.”

So this is a Sino-centric term, and to our modern sentiments it seems arrogant, but there is nothing in Ngô Thì Sĩ’s sentence to indicate that he felt as we do today. He simply stated what he saw to be a fact, that from the Han to the Tang, his domain had “belonged inside.” It had been under the jurisdiction and administration of the Central Court.

So how can we translate this sentence? Well, again, “nội thuộc” is difficult to render into English, but something like the following might work: “Our domain belonged inside from the Han to the Tang” (with a footnote explaining what “belonged inside” means) or “Our domain was under internal jurisdiction from the Han to the Tang” (with a footnote explaining what “under internal jurisdiction” means).

Whatever terms one chooses, the feeling of the above translations, like the original, is very different from “Our country was forcefully incorporated into China from the Han to the Tang.”

As such, “Nước ta bị ngoại thuộc vào nước Tàu từ đời Hán đến đời Đường” is a horrible translation of this sentence. It does a beautiful job of projecting the views of modern Vietnamese in 1960 back into the pre-modern past. But if you really want to understand that past, then this sentence, like countless others in quốc ngữ translations, is an obstacle, not an aide.