Translation The curious case of Indian English: Why do Indian texts mystify translators?

Indian English
Indian English | Photo: © Bernhard Ludewig

Translators don’t always have it easy. Often, a mere glance at the dictionary doesn’t suffice for translating certain passages from a text. In order to understand all the subtleties and nuances, one must be equally acquainted with the culture and the country in which the language is spoken. That holds true, above all, for English that is used in different cultures differently.     

“The English spoken and written in India has in any case become an Indian language”, says the famous Indian author Anita Desai. According to a study conducted by the Indian linguist Braj B. Kachru, 55% of Indian college graduates describe their English explicitly as ‘Indian English’.

Eating-Leaves and Loincloths

In fact, there are various English expressions which exist only in India or which are used differently elsewhere e.g. in England, America or Australia. ‘Loincloth’ for example exists in British English but in India it is used widely to describe the different kinds of traditional skirts for men which are wrapped around the waist and are of varying lengths.  Also, the question “What is your good name?” can lead to misunderstanding. It is actually an ingratiatingly polite way to ask one’s name. In contrast, ‘good name’ in Standard English refers to one’s reputation. Another example is ‘godown’ which is often used in the Indian subcontinent in place of ‘warehouse’. And instead of a ‘lunchbox’, Indian schoolchildren have a ‘tiffin box’.  It is also difficult for a translator who is not so familiar with the daily life in India to translate ‘eating leaves’ which means banana leaves that are sometimes used in place of a plate.
One also has to be careful about the measurement units: The German ‘Milliarde’ is in India, as in many other countries, one billion. A ‘crore’ is often used in lieu of 10 millions, ‘lakh’ for 100,000 and the square measure ‘bigha’ (around 2800 square meters) is also common. All these terms stem from Hindi and have found their way into English usage. Interestingly, the old English measure of length ‘furlong’ (around 200 meters) is still used in India. Many old-fashioned words and phrases from other fields are also still in use, like the expression “she is in the family way” instead of “she is pregnant”. “Mostly, such language is used by old people, who have been educated in the traditional Anglo-Indian convent schools”, says Reinhold Schein, who has lived in India for 12 years as a lecturer for German language and literature and has specialized in the translation of Indian literature. 

Peculiar grammatical usages

If you are not acquainted with the country, you’ll also make mistakes in the usage of formal ‘you’ (Sie) and informal ‘you’ (Du). Normally translators of English texts apply the German rules for the usage of Du and Sie but this would be misleading if the text is about Hindi speaking people. “A normal reader is not able to perceive how complicated the situation in the Indian context actually is – that the father and the paternal relatives are addressed with the formal ‘you’ while the informal ‘you’ is often used for the mother, and that in a traditional context, a woman would address her husband with a formal ‘you’ to show respect whereas a man uses the informal ‘you’ with her”, explains Schein.
Particularly irritating for readers and translators is also the grammar used in India and other South Asian nations, which often deviates from the standard English. For example, the tag question “isn’t it?” is frequently used even when correct British English actually demands “doesn’t he?” or “aren’t you?”.
Also the words ‘only’ and ‘itself’ have gained new usages in certain areas independent of Standard English as the Indian linguist S. N. Sridhar has established in a study conducted in Bangalore. Both words are used, in addition to their regular functions, to emphasize, reinforce or limit a statement. For example: “I got homework, but I forgot it only”. ‘Only’ is not really required here although some Indians use it, perhaps because in Hindi such a statement would be made stronger with the word ‘hi’, which can be translated as ‘only’ in certain contexts. Moreover, ‘itself’, originally reflexive, is used in India to stress something or to show contrast with the intended result: “I thought he would win the marathon, but he was tired after 2 km itself.” Also the way people introduce themselves to each other can sound idiosyncratic: Instead of “I am Peter”, one often hears “Myself Peter”.

Retaining the regional touch

Such deviations from Standard English are to be found mainly in conversational language. Translators are confronted with these cases when the author intentionally sprinkles these ‘mistakes’ in fiction, in order to lend it a realistic or regional touch. If a translator irons out these errors, this touch is lost and with it a piece of the character of that figure.
Among the challenges in the translation of Indian texts, one can also count the expressions from Hindi and regional languages that are interspersed in the English text. The translators often have to face the fact that there might not be any corresponding single word or expression in the target language. Difficult to translate are, for example, the food varieties and dishes like paneer (a kind of fresh cheese), ghee (an oil derived from milk fat) or pan (a tobacco mixture for chewing wrapped in betel leaves), as well as traditional Indian wear such as sari and kurta.
Indian translator Namita Khare translates Indian writers into German and famous German books, including many from Herta Müller into Hindi and English. She puts the challenge that the translator encounters in these words: “A language is formed by the culture it is used in. Other than syntactical and semantic errors, one has to pay attention to the entire baggage that a word carries with it and whether that baggage would be unloaded in the same way in the target language.”
And in India there are many words which come with a whole package of meanings and connotations. Foremost among them are the many religious terms. Havan, for example, is the blessing ceremony for a newly built house carried out by a Hindu priest; mundan is the ritual of the first haircut of a baby. These comprehensive terms are hard to encapsulate in the catchy, concise words that a translator may choose in his re-writing, thereby placing the text in the danger losing some of its layers of meanings. 

Three words for the dot on the forehead

Another good example of this is the typical Indian dot on the forehead, for which there are three different words: sindoor, bindi and tikka. ‘Sindoor’ is the vermilion mark at the beginning of the parting of hair. It stands for the married status of the woman wearing it. ‘Bindi’, on the other hand, is the dot that is worn by women (not necessarily married) between the eyebrows. It represents femininity and its color is often matched with the dress. ‘Tikka’ is a mark put by the priest on an individual’s forehead during a religious ceremony. It can be worn by men too. The translator has to face the dilemma: Do I leave the readers in the dark as to the exact meaning or do I add a whole new sentence to elaborate the meaning of a single word?
One way out – at least in scientific texts and books – are footnotes and glossaries. But even these can be grossly inadequate, as the indologist Christina Oesterheld demonstrates in her analysis of Premchand’s translations. In one particular glossary for example, the Hindi word dupatta is explained simply as ‘a piece of clothing’. That it is a long scarf which Indian women wear on their shoulders to show their modesty remains concealed from the reader. 

Like a cumin seed in a camel’s mouth

Among the greatest challenges for the translator are proverbs and idioms, which are so typical to that region that they don’t function in another language. In India for example, there is an expression ‘cumin seed in a camel’s mouth’ (from Hindi: oonth ke munh mein jeera). Not only does it sound odd and completely awkward in English and German, it also has no meaning in a culture where the spice cumin doesn’t belong in the everyday life, and even less so the camel. An Indian would, however, perceive immediately that a small black cumin seed won’t feel like much in the mouth of a camel, and is absolutely inadequate as a meal for the big animal. Since literal translation of this expression would only bewilder a reader, the translator may look for a similar idiom. In this case, a German translator could get lucky – the expression ‘Tropfen auf den heißen Stein’ (tears on a hot stone) sums up the Indian counterpart pretty well.
It’s more difficult, however, to translate the Hindi proverb ‘bhains ke aage been bajana’ (playing a flute in front of a buffalo). With a flute one can charm a snake; the same action, however, is likely to prove futile with a buffalo. The connection will be immediately clear to a reader from the Indian sub-continent. For the German reader another witty formulation has to be found. The only question is: Which?
In other cases, the meaning of an expression is completely skewed. For example, if one tried to translate the popular Hindi romantic song “Tu hai” from the movie ‘Jannat’, one would stumble upon the phrase ‘kadi dhoop mein saaya diya’ (to offer shade in harsh sunshine). In the overwhelming heat of the Indian summer, some shade is a welcome rescue from the burning sun. In Germany, on the contrary, sunshine is always positive and is an object of desire as it’s often too cold or cloudy. A shade-giver is therefore, not quite as desirable as in India – if we were to translate the song literally, a good chunk of the romance would be distorted.
“It’s clear that translation requires not just linguistic but also cultural competence”, explains expert Reinhold Schein. And as author and literary translator Ursula Gräfe puts it: “In fact, I believe that the difficulties are less of the linguistic kind, and more about transferring a complicated and perhaps foreign worldview”.