I was looking at the “nhu viễn” 柔遠 (cherishing men from afar) section of the Khâm định Đại Nam hội diển sự lệ 欽定大南會典事例 and I noticed that there is a section on translation (tượng dịch 象譯).
It is interesting to see that there were numerous efforts made by the Nguyễn Dynasty during the nineteenth century to get people who were well enough versed in foreign languages to be able to translate and interpret.
Like so many other aspects of state building, much of this really got underway during the reign of Minh Mạng.
We find for instance that in 1836 an edict was issued ordering that an official in Hà Nội find two or there people from the Qing Kingdom and to then get them to teach ten bright children of scholars (sĩ dân 士民) the spoken language of the Qing Kingdom. After two or three years, these students were then to be sent to the capital.
Similarly, an order was issued for another official in Tuyên Quang to find a couple of “thổ nhân” 土人, or speakers of some minority language(s), there who would also teach the children of some scholars their language(s).
Finally, yet another order was issued to find one or two people among the Cham who knew Chinese characters (Hoa tự 華字), and they too were to teach the children of scholars.
It is interesting that this order specified that the Cham know Chinese while the same requirement was not mentioned for the “thổ nhân” in Tuyên Quang. My guess would be that by this point in time many of the elite families in that region of the empire were probably already at least somewhat proficient in classical Chinese. This is suggested by the fact that the Viện Hán Nôm has collected numerous materials in classical Chinese from that area.
In any case, reading this reminded me of these pictures that I’ve seen (here) that Charles Edouard Hocquard took in the 1880s. Both of these photographs are of Vietnamese interpreters in Hà Nội. There is clearly a Chinese man (with the shaved head and queue) there as well. I don’t know if he is a teacher (this probably has to do with negotiations), but this appears to be more or less what Minh Mạng envisioned back in the 1830s – getting foreigners to teach the children of Vietnamese scholars their languages, so that the court could have translators and interpreters at its disposal.