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

  1. It is a man’s world
  2. Girls belong in marriage not in schools
  3. Women are too soft and emotional
  4. Women cannot be leaders
  5. 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!.


  1. So, so true! I found myself nodding at a lot of places. Even on good channels, when one sees subtitles one cringes, bad spellings and meaningless sentences. Agree that sometimes context can be very difficult to explain in subtitles. And yes, you are absolutely right -- sensitivity is the key to correct understanding and translation. For eg. yesterday, I was telling my son that you don't use "poocha" (ask) in the context of asking for food, water etc.; one uses "maanga." Poocha is only used in a question like ask for directions, address. Even though, he is a native Hindi speaker, he has picked this from his South Indian friends. "She asked for it" would be something like "aa bael mujhe maar" in Hindi or asking for trouble. But, literally translated, it would be a disaster.

  2. The last para said it all.
    The so called cyber age has been the bane. But why blame technology? There are still incorrigible antediluvians like a few of us who would devour a printed book than an abridged version in i- book-and keep vanity at bay.
    The art of reading has dwindled and is insipid for many. when you are glued to the epidemic called fb and the nonsenses aired on TV channels like "Coffee with Karan" for instance,or a blood churning video game, what sensibility and organ in you is provoked? Not your brain for sure.
    I'm not decrying these in Toto , but certainly there is an excess , a far too much in excess of these.
    I recall now an incident that someone narrated. A few film personalities from Kerala once were host to Mr V.K.Krishna Menon, the high profile former defence minister in the Jawaharlal Nehru cabinet. Mr Menon was the guest of honour at the dramatics /play conducted by the Thespians. He enquired the name of the play. One of the leading names then in the industry told him the name was " arrow bed" . The literal translation of the Maharbratha chapter , "shara shaiyya". Mr Menon corrected and said it has to be not "arrow bed" but "bed of arrows".

    The spirit makes a lot of difference in conveying the essence.

    And with the waning art of reading the spirit is lost.

  3. Meera,

    Very rightly said. Translation of a sensitive topic done badly kills the spirit behind it. What is the use of a beautiful body if the soul is missing?

    Take care

  4. Interesting observation,Meera. Language holds the key to understanding. When it comes to subtitles, yes, i agree with you, the spirit of the original is lost:(

  5. Literal translation can really cause a havoc ans you illustrated so well, Meera! I am following your blog as it surely stands out:)

  6. Totally agree with you.

    I can barely speak my mother's tongue, just
    english *covers face in shame* but there are some words we cannot translate in English to give the true meaning without 'distorting' it. Like some adages or it happens in films. My Hubby is Yourba and am Edo, and when watching Yoruba films, the translation can be so wrong atimes, hubby would shake his head and tell me what they really said...yes, i don't understand Yoruba either. *covers myself with blanket out of shame*


  7. Ibhade it is so nice to have you back! Rahul thanks for the kind words. Rachna- true what you tell me. Thanks to all others for agreeing with me. Anil I think you have hit the nail right on the head- the loss of the reading habit is a big reason for poor translation.

  8. Very interesting post Meera, thanks.
    The good translators are not dying out, they struggle all the time, as they must have done in the past. Last year one of my Norwegian friend had come to India to understand how Indians who speak 3-4 languges, one at home, one at work and another with sabziwala on the road, manage translations.
    Every morning for my photoblog in 3 languages (english, hindi and italian) I spend some time on this issue. Last year, I did Italian subtitles for Onir's film "I am" and I grappled so much with these translations. And, last year, for a research in Karnataka, I grappled constantly with English-Kannada translations! It is very challenging and you need to keep your attention always sharp!

  9. Excellent post. "translation without a soul is nothing but food without salt" Very true. I blog in Hindi as also occasionally in English and very often I have problems. I have understood that terms used in a particular language may not be appropriate elsewhere because of Socio/cultural differences. Incidentally there is one Latha Venkatesh, AIR Chennai an MPhil and engaged in such things.

  10. After reading this post, I would love to watch Bol.


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