“And is?” and Other Joys of Translations

A perennial joke has been around peculiar translations in Hindi of English words. For example shwet-vasanaa dhoomra paan shalaka ( श्वेत-वसना धूम्रपान शलाका). Before your head reels with this assault, let me explain: श्वेत= white, वसना= clothed; श्वेत वसना= white clothed, धूम्र= smoke, पान= consumption; धूम्रपान= smoking. Get the picture? Ok, the last one, शलाका: stick. So there you have: a white-clothed smoking stick. A cigarette, of course! What a nice romantic name for the coffin nail! The cigarette’s poorer- but more popular- cousin the humble beedi (बीड़ी) has an equally esoteric name: just the shwet is replaced by peet (पीत)- peet-vasanaa dhoomrapaan shalaka (पीत-वसना धूम्रपान शलाका). Peet (पीत) meaning yellow and alludes to the yellowish-brown leaf wrapping of a beedi. I suppose the more stately cheroot could be called shyam vasanaa श्याम-वसना …… (By the way, this vasanaa वसना not to be confused with a somewhat similar looking word, vaasana वासना!)

Or consider this utterly romantic and dreamy लौह पथ गामिनी. Can you imagine a young nubile thing (गामिनी is delectably close to कामिनी!) treading the treacherous ferrous path (to meet her lover, you wonder!). By the way that is the so-called Hindi-speak for a train.

Often this translation mania would go to ridiculous lengths specially for more mundane and common words. I suspect often to denigrate a language and its seeming inadequacies. Like for lawn tennis: हरी घास पर ले दनादन दे दनादन.”

A great translation could elevate a seemingly modest craft to the practice of art. From a mundane “hair cutting saloon” where you would expect to be assaulted by bored and smelly barber to a “केश कर्तनालय” where you would expect to bow to the ministrations of a hair sculptor. See the difference? Both mean the same. केश= hair, कर्तन= cutting, आलय= house. A hair cutting house.

The most unwittingly hilarious translators are those who work for English film distributors in the North. In many of the interior markets of the hinterland, English movies are seen by the audience for either the action sequences or the titillation they would promise. People would not bother about understanding the dialogues. However, they needed to at least know the name of the movie. And if this could stoke their expectations even more, that was more money at the box-office. So the translators would get on the job of finding colourful names.

The classic World War II movie, “The Dirty Dozen” got rechristened “दर्ज़न लफंगे”. A pretty neat name for a movie about a dozen criminals convicted to either life imprisonment or death being sent on a suicidal mission to Germany. Or take this C-grade 1970’s film about a female undercover Federal drug agent out to bust a gang of narcotics smugglers. This film, “Scorchy”, which was shown as “कातिल हसीना”.  Promises of violence and sex neatly encapsulated in this brilliant translation. As was the case with the name of the Jet Li’s movie “Kiss of the Dragon”.  “मौत का चुम्मा”. Action and tiltillation both assured!

In case you missed the point, there is a slogan on virtually every piece of communication on any such movie, with a call to immediate action: मार-धाड़ सेक्स से भरपूर, आज ही देखें!

One great source of entertainment for language aficionados is the sub-title of movies. Like this one which I saw a few years ago on TV. The movie name I do no remember- and that’s not important, but the translations were too funny. Take this for example: “Please get your ass outta here”. Screams the woman to her man. The quick and helpful translation: “कृपया यहाँ से अपने कूल्हे हटाओ”. “कूल्हा” being the Hindi for hips!

Sub-titles bring me to the Hindi to English translations of film dialogues, more interesting is the treatment of lyrics. The other day I was watching “Sahab Bibi aur Gulam”. While the overall sub-titling was good, there were some, though technically correct translations, which did not quite evoke the feeling of the original. Sample this: “The bee is very naive” (भंवरा बड़ा नादान है). While naive does mean नादान, perhaps innocent could be a better choice. Or this one: “Heard that yours is a whole night party today”. (सुना है तेरी महफिल में रतजगा है). रतजगा has a different feel to it compared with “whole night party”.

Indians mostly think in their mother tongue and what they speak in English is often a literal translation of the way they construct a thought into words in their minds. Often the result is hilarious. Like this reverential reference to the boss from an awe-struck subordinate: “They are very brilliant”. “They” emanates from the literal translation of the respectful वे of Hindi.

And to end this piece, a classic Hindi-thought-English-spoken-words incident.

This story is about a (not-so- young) upcoming student neta in my BHU days. My engineering college (IT-BHU) within the campus had a significant number of voters and all the Students’ Union office bearer aspirants would work hard to win this “vote bank”. But the hitch for most of them was that while they were essentially Hindi speaking, IT-BHU attracted students from all over India and many were not conversant with Hindi.

This neta, while on a campaign round at the IT-BHU hostels would try to speak to all only in English, at least his version of English. Once, in order to to get chummy with a student who was having a puff in the hostel corridor, this neta sidled up to him and here is how the conversation went:

Netaji (नेताजी): “Suniye (सुनिए)! Listen!!

Student: “Jee, netaji?” (जी नेताजी?)

Netaji (नेताजी): And is?

Student  (flummoxed for a bit, soon gathers his wits): Is, is!

I will not translate this conversation but on literal translation you would have got a gist of this chat, the neta was trying to cadge a cigarette off this unsuspecting student, asking if he had a cigarette to spare!


3 Responses to “And is?” and Other Joys of Translations

  1. Amit Das says:

    Like typewriter in Hindi – Khat Khata Khat Ka Kha Ga gha swachalit yantra… Good One Santosh ! Amit

  2. Ghostlady says:

    Reblogged this on painting and poems and commented:
    This is too hilarious, not to be posted again.specially “is , is!” Bit. Thanks Santosh Ojha for this gem of a blog

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