Lost in Translation


A common proverb in Hindi; Bhains ke aagey been bajana, fits perfectly with our discussion this week. Translated literally, it means playing the flute for a buffalo. Apart from providing a comical image in your head it would make no sense, whatsoever. But if I were to replace the situation with another very similar situation, we would have; Pearls before swine. When we place each proverb in the right context, it indicates the same moral: Tailor your speech to your audience. The reason each proverb sounds awkward in the other language is because buffalo is considered stupid more in one region than the other. On the other hand, a swine would never be considered stupid in India.

It is said that language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people came from and where its people are going. Things that are written in a language reflect the culture, the history and sometimes even stereotypes that the culture encourages. Hence, it is difficult to translate words and phrases that originate from one culture but have nothing to do with the culture that it needs to be translated into.

But there are times when certain words have no equivalent in another language. For example, technical words usually related to computers and information technology are left as it is but written in the Devnagri characters. One of the reasons may be simply that translating them into Hindi would be lengthy and tedious. Similarly, certain Hindi words are used as it is in English like Charpoy. It could be called a cot or a bed but it is not the same as the woven mat tied to the frame of a cot.

The fundamental problem with translating anything from one language to another is the fact that there are some words in a language that you simply cannot find a replacement for in another language. One may try to explain the context and use a sentence instead of the word but the flavour or the tone of the literature is lost.

Kal ke do pehlu hain: Ek jo beet gaya aur ek jo aanewala hai.

This Hindi idiom cannot be literally translated at all. Roughly translated it means, ‘kal’ has two sides: One that has gone by and one that is to come. It is essential to know the meaning of the word ‘kal’ to understand this sentence. Kal could either mean yesterday or tomorrow. That is to say, the word for yesterday and tomorrow is the same in Hindi. The saying mainly tries to bring to focus the fact that if we think too much about the past or the future, they will, put together, ruin your present. By playing on the similar words for yesterday and tomorrow, the idiom subtly but sarcastically makes a philosophical point.

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