The last one week had been hectic for me with all this planning around the women’s day celebrations. For our organization it was a nation wide campaign around dispelling those myths that I had written about in my last post. Each state that we work in took up the responsibility of creating awareness about those myths in our own ways- a central thinking expressed in a locally relevant manner!
Therefore, the first thing that we ( the core team involved in the Chennai celebrations) set out to do was to start translation of the key messages. Though we did not realize this initially, we found that it was probably the most difficult and challenging part of the entire exercise- let me explain this!
Have you heard of the saying in Tamil- “Kall irundal mangai illa, mangai irundhal, kall ille?” – roughly translated it means “When you have the stone there is no mango and when the mango is in sight we cannot find the stone” This was exactly what happened with us! Colleagues who were touted as “language experts” internally had no clue about the spirit behind these messages!
As one of the key persons on the core team, I found myself completely lost because, I do not know Tamil! It is my mother tongue but having spent my student years outside this state, I had no opportunity to learn to read and write the language. During the last few years I had managed to pick up some words through reading the various cinema posters around but that just about suffices to read bus boards and street signs- So here I was who understood the context behind the messages we wanted to give but I was unable to contribute to the translation. Colleagues who were with me on the core team understood the spirit behind the messages , had reasonably good language skills but were not confident enough to stress on what they believed was the right / wrong translation! But when I tried to convey their feedback I was told that I did not understand the language well enough.
Now, you may wonder what is so difficult about translating these five sentences
- It is a man’s world
- Girls belong in marriage not in schools
- Women are too soft and emotional
- Women cannot be leaders
- She asked for it
Well the first four statements were actually quite easy. But it was when we came to the last sentence that the problems started. And ofcourse the biggest problem came with the translation of the pledge statement!
People like us who work in non profits are not exactly one tribe. We have various areas of specializations. There are those who work on financial services, others on livelihoods, health and education. Each sector has its jargon. And there are words that are strongly linked to strategies which are rights based- which deal with oppression and marginalization around caste, class and gender. Though it is expected of all us to understand these issues as they are the underlying causes around our interventions, I realized during the course of the last week that while people have general sensitivities to poverty etc, they tend to only limit themselves to knowledge around their sectors. Therefore colleagues would know a lot of correct words to translate terms like “ artificial insemination”, “Value chain”, “financial services” etc but few would know how to translate something like “She asked for it”! In terms of English it is very simple. But you will be surprised to note that people who write reams of technical papers around poverty were absolutely clueless when it came to this simple sentence. Actually some even thought it was a positive sentence – “She wanted something and she knew she would get it only if asked . So she developed the courage to ask” !!! I tried to explain the context – the issue of violence against women –rape , domestic violence etc. But continued to draw a blank there.
I wondered if there was something wrong with my communication skills or in the larger thinking of the organization that was unable to get this message across to its key staff at Chennai? So I put up a request on face book and lo.. I got a dozen responses! . .I noticed a trend among those who responded- they were all from persons who were sensitive to issues around rights of women.
So my first lesson was that unless you understand an issue you cannot use language effectively to communicate it! Language by itself is only a tool for communication. The message comes from our ability to understand the context and the values being communicated- so obviously few people were able to understand in depth the the question of violence against women. Also realized that when it comes to gender people are unable to contextualize issue to their perception of reality.
There are also words which are considered to be “politically incorrect” but which are used very freely even within our sector. . Sometimes I wonder if it is unfamiliarity with English as a language that is a problem? After the experience last week, I realize it is not so- it is lack of understanding or sensitivity- many people don’t know sensitive words even in the language they had their education in. When we do, we will be able to use language effectively to communicate it.
Today with the enormous exchange of information that is happening across different regions of the world, I see a big role for translation – but translation without a soul is nothing but food without salt! Imagine what would have happened to Tagore’s “Gitanjali” without good translation?
I see the subtitling in some of the films today and I am shocked by what I see. My earliest memories of this was in the late 1980s while watching an Assamese film on Doordarshan. This film made by NFDC was something about Dushyant and Shakuntala where in one of the scene Dushyant looks very lovingly at Shakuntala holding her hand and asks” Why this temperature? Why this shivering”!!! One would be inclined to think that she was suffering from Malaria. And again there was the film “Main Tulsi tere angan ki” that I saw on a flight from Delhi to Chennai where there was a title song that got translated like this “ I am the basil plant in your courtyard” Yes, I agree that there may be no other way to translate it but consider this line “Maang bhi tera sindoor bhi tera sab kuch tera kuchh nahi mera” being translated “The parting is yours, so is the vermilion, everything is yours nothing is mine” My god..!!! I think I laughed so much that I woke up some fellow passengers. May be the people who subtitle songs should just stick to putting the spirit of it into the words rather than translating the words literally!!!” Ofcourse while agreeing that songs like poetry may be difficult what about abuses? When I found somewhere the word “sala” ( a swear word in Hindi which is also used for “brother in law”) translated as “you brother-in- law” I was dumbstruck!
I think somewhere along the way, there is a deterioration of language and vocabulary and their effective use. We can communicate a lot in a well written sentence with the correct words. We have poets and writers in so many regional languages but who reads them even in their own language? So people like me who want to read literature in other languages will never have an opportunity because translations and translations of high caliber are dying out. We just do not have people who are able to understand and appreciate contexts and values in a culture and convey it effectively in another using language as a vehicle.
We are becoming a generation of robots who will ultimately only understand software programs prepared and administered by a central server somewhere on this universe!! Sad!.