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Updated on March 16, 2012

Translation, they say, is a tricky teaser. The truism inherent in the statement dawns on me as I attempt to translate two lines of a simple Hindi maxim in English while writing an article. ( Of course, it was not at all necessary, but somehow at the spur of the moment, without knowing what possessed me, I thought of giving it a try. And once, I had it in me, it was difficult to shirk off the idea) After repeated attempts at it, the translated version still looked crude and rudimentary, and not conveying the finer quiddity of the two-line Hindi maxim . Finally, I consulted a friend of mine. He, however, opined, “It’s okay Yaar; we are not professional translators after all, so why worry? I bet nobody is going to notice this minor trip up. Let it stay like that only.” He proved right. None did. May be they had been over-courteous; I don’t know. What I know, however, is that by then the bug had already bitten me, and quite unconsciously, one had already embarked up on a translation trip. The journey turned out not only educative and informative , but also quite enlightening and hilariously entertaining.

The legend has it that late Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, once enlisted the services of late Dr. Harvansh Rai Bachchan for translating his English notes and letters etc. in Hindi, whenever so required. He once dictated a full-page file- note and desired Dr.Bachchan to translate it in Hindi. After sometime, Dr. Bachchan presented the translated Hindi version of the note for the Prime Minister’s approval. The effort, however, did not amuse Mr. Nehru much. He read it; mulled over it for some time, and then said, “Bachchan, I think it does not exactly capture the spirit of the original text. Would you like to improve upon it?” A crestfallen Dr. Bachchan rewrote it, made some changes and corrections here and there, and again sent the Hindi translated version of the note to Mr. Nehru; by now fully confident and convinced that that would surely meet the Prime Minister’s approval . For, “was it not a simple official file-note, the translation of which in Hindi should not, after-all, be such a big deal as to cause bother to a professor of English and a renowned Hindi poet- the two rolled in one”, so he thought. However, that was not to be for the poor Dr. Bachchan, as he was in for a surprise. One can imagine his consternation when the file came back with a slip pinned on it which said, ‘ I am afraid, the Hindi version lacks beauty and grace. Pl. Improve and resubmit.’ The down and distraught Professor recalled an old oft repeated cliché’ about translation and quoted it on the slip: “Well, Sir, translation is like a woman, who, if beautiful , is not faithful and, if faithful , not beautiful.”

It is said that soon thereafter, the dejected Professor was seen making anxious and frantic enquiries about the earliest available train leaving for Allahabad!

Thanks to the howlers, that more often than not, creep into them, the literal translations make for the hilarious experiences that trigger toothy smiles. Blame it on the translator’s blissful ignorance of the intrinsic real meaning of the original text that he translates into another language or, whatever; they, at times, would leave a reader doubled-up with laughter. Sample these: (1) Voh merey peechhey haath dhokar pad gai hai. The genius translates it to read as: ‘She is lying behind me after washing her hands’. Again,(2) ‘Is khabar ko sunkar mera dil baag baag ho gaya.’ ‘On listening this news, my heart became garden garden’. Further sample the wonder rendering of this sentence in Hindi: (3)‘Those who settle abroad sometimes suffer from home-sickness’ , the Hindi translation reads: ‘Jo log videshon men bas jaatey hain unehen kabhi kabhi ghareyloo bimaariyan ho jaati hain’. What takes the cake, however, is this beautiful translation in English: ‘ I was not happy with this division of monkey’, of the original Hindi sentence: : ‘Is bander baant sey main khush nahin hua.’ The “howler”, created on being translated into English, by the genius. The list is long.

After all said and done, translation is not everybody’s piece of cake.


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