How Google Translates Love

For two married couples, language barriers were not a problem with the help of a free computer translation service.

If you’re looking for a truth universally acknowledged with regards to Western men in want of a Vietnamese wife, you’re likely to find most eligible bachelors putting “speaks my language” close to the top of the list of desirable attributes in a local woman. For most expat Romeos, a reasonable grasp of English on the part of their perfect match is a prerequisite to any long-term international relationship, let alone a lifelong commitment – and it’s hard to imagine real love breaking through such an intimate cultural barrier without the bride- to-be having comfortably made it through her ESL classes first.

There are, of course, always exceptions to the rule. When 58-year-old Franklin Atkins first landed in Ho Chi Minh City from the US five years ago, he had a single purpose – to “get me a wife” – with language ability not being an issue in the slightest.

“Really, the first two weeks, I was just having fun,” he says candidly, sitting with Cuc – whose significant limitations with English are surpassed only by Franklin’s non-existent Vietnamese. “I was like a kid in a candy store. But after that I thought, it’s time to do what I came here for. A friend of mine from the states called and asked how I was doing, and I said, ‘I’m having fun, but I haven’t found anybody yet.’ Then he said he had a niece. So he called her, and then she showed up.”


“The first day, we just talked,” he says. “It was funny because she didn’t speak a word of English. I’m talking to her in English and she’s talking in Vietnamese, and we’re looking at each other, laughing at each other. That’s how we met.”

With the help of a translator, Cuc managed to make a good enough impression on Franklin that his decision came fairly quickly. “I asked her to marry me, I gave her my word. I gave her my ring, and I said, as far as I’m concerned, we’re married. That was five years ago.”

For Cuc, the leap of faith was far more difficult. A country girl through and through, Cuc had never laid eyes on a foreigner before the night they met – and what was more, at 39, she’d never even had a boyfriend.

“I took her on a two-week vacation,” says Franklin. “We were sitting in the van, looking at each other, laughing, and she took my hand, and she started scrubbing it with a towel. So I asked the translator, will you ask her what she’s doing to my hand? She replied, ‘His hands are dirty, I’m trying to clean them.’ That told me right then that she’d never seen a black person’s hands. I told them that’s the first time I ever had a woman try to wash the black off of me!”

While Cuc’s initial interest in marrying an American was the chance to be closer to her uncle, things changed soon after accepting Franklin’s proposal – her uncle unexpectedly passed away just weeks after the couple met.

“As soon as my uncle died, I wanted to back out,” she says. “I didn’t have any other reason to go to the States. But then he really started to show me that he cared about me, and he was honestly making an effort to marry me. So I let things be. After he flew home, he called me five times a week, which showed me that he cared a lot. I appreciated that.”

“She had a limited vocabulary,” says Franklin about the phone conversations they’d go through on an almost nightly basis. “’Hello, how are you, I miss you. I love you.’ It was kind of like a script. But it got better. This was during the first two years. We used to laugh about that conversation, because you need to laugh. I would say my part, and then she would say her part. We’d talk for five minutes. We pretty much said the same thing.”

Not being able to fully communicate certainly tested the relationship, but Franklin was resolute in his decision to keep things going – largely because of the strong impression he had of Vietnamese women. “I had a lot of clients of mine that were Vietnamese,” he says. “All the way up to Illinois. and all of the women, I just stood back and I watched them. In different houses, and in different places. And they were all pretty much the same. They was all nice. so I said, I’ll take one of them, because I don’t want another wife that I gotta live with this issue and that issue.”

“The thing I liked about them was,” he adds, “they all was respectful. They tended to the needs of their husbands.”

Franklin visits Vietnam periodically, although the couple’s wedding has been indefinitely delayed by the local administration’s insistence that a husband and wife must be able to communicate on a satisfactory level before being issued with a marriage license. The pair now hope that the length of their relationship will be sufficient evidence of their romantic commitment. During this time, of course, their communication skills have significantly improved, although not so much in terms of spoken language.

“We got that Google thing,” says Franklin. “I got real good at typing. But that thing can change it around. I learned real quick that you don’t type no long letters. I typed this thing once, and she started to cry. So I had to call the translator, and she spent 30 to 45 minutes just trying to console her. She still cried all night long. All I’d said was, you need to stop acting like a kid. But Google said I’d called her a hooker. Now what I do is I just write one line at a time.”

“It’s the simple things in life that are important,” he says. “I knew she couldn’t speak English when I met her. It’s not like she could speak it and then all of a sudden she forgot it. To be honest, I don’t mind if she never speaks English. Or let me rephrase that – her knowing English, or not knowing English, isn’t going to change the way I feel about her. It doesn’t make a difference. That’s not what the relationship is based on.”


Read Till The End

For Moises Ornelas, who just married his local sweetheart earlier this year, the opposite is probably true – although in his case, the relationship has been largely reliant on his own progress in Vietnamese. A traveler and lover of languages by nature, Moises arrived in Ho Chi Minh City to further his studies, and ended up with a lot more than he bargained for.

“I wanted to learn a difficult language,” says Moises. “I spoke English and Spanish. I wanted to learn something different that people wouldn’t expect to come out of my mouth. I wasn’t interested in looking for girls. I like Vietnamese girls, but I prefer Vietnamese-American girls.”

When Moises first met his wife Thu, she was 18 and still in school. “She had no attraction to me,” he says. “I was a lot bigger then than I am now, just this fat American guy. My Vietnamese was horrible. There was nothing special there. But then I saw her in an ao dai at a convention. I just saw her there, and I thought wow. Gorgeous. The ao dai did it. She was beautiful. Just all good.”


Fortunately, Thu’s naturally friendly character saw the pair become Facebook friends, which opened the door to an online correspondence that began when Moises returned to the States. As Thu’s skills in English were so basic, Moises’ conversations with Thu became his major channel for studying Vietnamese.

“We just messaged each other randomly, just so I could improve,” says Moises. “Eventually it started to be every day, an hour or two hours. As we were talking, I wouldn’t know certain words she was asking me about, so I would use Google translate. Over about six months I’d go over every conversation, reread it, restudy it, take all the words out I didn’t know and check in a dictionary. If you look at my vocab list you can see everything we talked about, progressively. From the beginning when we were just friends, all the different things in our day.”

It wasn’t long before feelings began to develop between the two. “She took some convincing,” Moises says, “but I did really like her. So I decided to come back to Vietnam and see if our Internet conversation translated into something real. She warned me before I went, she said, well, I only like you 55 percent, and if you get here and your Vietnamese is crap, then we’re breaking up.”

What Moises didn’t know then was that Thu wasn’t about to enter into the most important relationship of her life without doing some digging first. She decided to send a letter to Moises’ church congregation in the States for an insight into his character.

“They really dogged me out,” he complains. “They wrote and said, he’s not really stable, he likes to move around a lot. He really likes to go out with a bunch of girls all the time. Then in the very last paragraph, they said but, he really takes care of the congregation, he spends time with the elderly, he watches what other people’s needs are, he’s got a great heart… it wasn’t until the last paragraph that they really represented the whole picture. so I was like, man, if you’d never gotten past paragraph three, four or five, that would have been it!”

When the couple eventually decided to marry, they also had difficulties with the application process – but fortunately, Moises’ language abilities made things a little easier. “We had to do a psych evaluation,” he explains. “When she did it, the fee was VND400,000. The doctor asked a bunch of questions, what’s your Mom’s birthday, what’s your dad’s birthday, and so on. But she couldn’t remember his birthday. So they said oh, you must be crazy. Go talk to the secretary. If you can’t remember your Dad’s birthday, it means you’re crazy. The secretary said oh, in order for us to file, I need VND50,000. And the doctor needs an extra VND200,000.

“So when I go in, she told me, just remember the birthday. I was thinking, this is ridiculous, because they don’t even speak Spanish or English. How are they going to test my mental health? So I go in, I pay the fee, I sit down, he’s like, ‘Uh, what your name. Birthday Mom Dad’. I tell him in Vietnamese. ‘What you do?’ so I tell him in Vietnamese. He says ‘OK, pay extra VND250,000 and all done’. At least he didn’t call me crazy.”

For the past several weeks since the wedding ceremony, the young couple have started their married life in a small hem in the Pham Ngu Lao area. As they still speak exclusively Vietnamese, Moises has started to see things from the perspective of a local. “We don’t see each other as foreigners,” he says. “I consider myself Vietnamese, really. I’ve changed a lot. I even point at foreigners. I say, ‘Look at the foreigner,’ and she says, ‘What do you think you are?’”

Going native may not have been Moises’ original plan, but for now, it seems to be working out. “There’s a lot that I agree to but I don’t like,” he admits. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, because we’re trying to make each other happy. I have to remember our vows all the time, to cherish, to love… there’s a lot of things here that I don’t agree with. But it’s not so important, it’s not the most important thing. I guess the most important thing is to show her that I love her. I always said that before, but it wasn’t until we were married that I realized I really had to express that.”

Images by Adam Robert Young

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