What does your Hindi accent sound like?

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What is "Indian English"? Texts from India are a challenge for translators

Indian English | Photo: © Bernhard Ludewig

It is not always easy for translators. A look at the dictionary is often not enough to translate certain passages of text. In order to properly understand all the linguistic subtleties, one must also know the culture and the country in which the language is spoken. This is especially true of English, which is used differently in different cultures.

"The English spoken and written in India has become an Indian language in every respect," says the well-known Indian author Anita Desai. According to a study by the Indian linguist Braj B. Kachru, 55% of Indian academics would explicitly describe their English as “Indian English”.

Eating leaves and loin cloths

In fact, there are many expressions that only occur in India, or that are used differently in India than, for example, in England, America or Australia. For example, “loin cloth” means “loincloth” in British English. In India the term is broader and describes traditional wraparound skirts for men. The question “What is your good name?” Can also lead to misunderstandings. The question is asked for the first name, which in other English-speaking countries is called "first name" or "given name". “Good name”, on the other hand, means rather “good reputation” in conventional English. Another example is “godown”, which is widely used in India and the region instead of “warehouse”. And instead of a “lunch box”, Indian schoolchildren have a “tiffin box” with them. It becomes difficult for translators who are not so familiar with everyday Indian life, even with “eating leaves”, banana leaves that are used as plates in some places.
Caution also applies to units of measurement and quantities: In India, as in some other countries, one billion is “one billion”. Also common are “Crore” for 10 million, “Lakh” for 100,000 and the area measure “bigha” (around 2800 square meters), all terms that come from Hindi and have found their way into English usage. The old English measure of length “furlong” (around 200 meters) is still in use in India. Old-fashioned terms from other areas have also persisted, such as the phrase “she is in the family way” instead of “she is pregnant”. "This is mostly how older people express themselves who have enjoyed a schooling in the tradition of the Anglo-Indian Convent Schools," explains Reinhold Schein, who lived in India for 12 years as a lecturer for German language, literature and cultural studies and specializes in translation specialized in Indian literature.

Fathers are married

Anyone who does not know everyday life in the country also makes mistakes when using you and you. When translating English texts, the usual rules in Germany are usually applied. “The normal reader does not even suspect that the situation in the Indian context is far more complicated, for example that the father and relatives on the paternal side are married, but the mother is mostly used, and that - at least in a traditional context - the husband is his wife , but she sucks it, ”explains Schein.
The grammar that deviates from standard English in India and other South Asian countries can be irritating for readers and translators. For example, the confirmation question “Isn’t it?” Is often used when British English actually requires “doesn’t he?” Or “aren’t you?”.
The words “only” and “itself” have also become independent in the linguistic usage of some regions, as the Indian linguist S. N. Sridhar found in a study in Bangalore. Both words are therefore also used to reinforce a statement or to emphasize something. For example: "I got homework, but I forgot it only". “Only” is actually not necessary here, but some Indians use it anyway. The reason could be that such a statement is supplemented with a reinforcing word "hi" in Hindi, which can be translated as "only". Also "itself" - in the original English reflexive - is used in India to emphasize something: "I thought he would win the marathon, but he was tired after 2 km itself." You hear another peculiarity when people introduce each other. Instead of “I am Peter” it is often called “Myself Peter”.

Keeping the regional touch

Such deviations from standard English are mainly found in colloquial language. Translators run into problems with such cases if the author deliberately intersperses such “errors” in order to give characters a regional touch. If the translator ironed out the mistakes, this touch and with it part of the character of the character is lost.
In addition to the challenges of translating texts from India, there are also expressions from Hindi and the regional languages ​​that are also incorporated into English texts, for which there is no equivalent in English and German, but which translators are also tasked with explaining. These include dishes typical of the country such as paneer (a type of cream cheese), ghee (an oil made from milk fat) or pan (a chewing tobacco mixture wrapped in palm leaves), as well as traditional Indian clothing, such as the robes “sari” and “kurta”.
Namita Khare from India translates Indian writers into German and well-known German-language literature, including those by Herta Müller, into Hindi and English. She describes the challenge that translators face as follows: “Language is shaped by the culture in which it is used. In addition to syntax and semantics, you have to pay attention to the whole package of meanings that a word has and whether it is possible to unpack this package in the target language. "
And in India there are many words that carry a whole package of meanings with them. Above all the many religious expressions. “Havan”, for example, is a blessing ceremony performed by a Hindu priest on a newly built house; "Mundan" is a ritual first haircut for babies. Such terms can hardly be translated in their full meaning. In the search for catchy and short paraphrases, the translator runs the risk of losing important elements of what a word conveys.

Three words for the point on the forehead

A good example of this is the typical Indian point on the forehead. There are three different words for him: "Sindoor", "Bindi" and "Tikka". "Sindoor" is a vermilion point on the hairline. It stands for being married for women. “Bindi”, on the other hand, is the name women wear between their eyebrows. It represents femininity and can be color coordinated with clothing. "Tikka" is the name of the point that participants in a religious ceremony receive from the priest. Men can wear it too. So the translator has a choice: do I leave the reader in the dark about the exact meaning or do I add a whole sentence to explain a single word?
One way out - at least with academic texts and in books - are footnotes and glossaries. But even there there are shortcomings, as the Heidelberg Indologist Christina Oesterheld discovered when analyzing Premchand translations. In one of the glossaries, for example, the Hindi word “Dupatta” is simply explained as “a piece of clothing”. The fact that it is a long scarf that Indian women put over their shoulders, often to demonstrate their modesty, remains hidden from the reader of the glossary.

Like a cumin seed in a camel's mouth

One of the biggest challenges for translators are proverbs and idioms that are so typical of the country that they just don't work in German. In India, for example, there is the expression: "It's like a cumin seed in a camel's mouth". Not only does it sound strange in German, it is also difficult to understand if you live in a country where the spice cumin and especially camels are not part of everyday life. An Indian knows immediately: a camel would probably not even feel a small black grain of cumin in its mouth, under any circumstances it is not enough to fill it up. Since direct translation would cause confusion, the translator can look for a similar saying. In this case he is lucky - the "drop in the bucket" corresponds to the meaning of the Indian proverb relatively well.
It becomes more difficult with the phrase "standing in front of a buffalo playing the flute". You can beguile a rattlesnake with a flute; but to try the same with a buffalo is hopeless. The connection is immediately clear to the reader on the Indian subcontinent. For the German reader, a different formulation has to be found. The only question is: which one?
In other examples, the meaning of linguistic expressions is completely twisted. For example, if you try to translate the Hindi love song “tu hai” from the film “Jannat”, you come across the line “You give me shade in the sunlight”. In the predominantly hot India, every shadow is a relief from the scorching sun. In Germany, however, the sunshine has only positive connotations. We crave the sun because it is often cold or cloudy. A shadow donor is therefore often not desired and by far not as positive as in India - the literal translation of these lines threatens to lose a good deal of romance.
“It goes without saying that translation also requires cultural competence in addition to linguistic competence,” says Reinhold Schein, an India expert. And the author and literary translator Ursula Gräfe also says: "In fact, I believe that the difficulties are less of a linguistic nature, but rather are due to the complicated and perhaps strange worldview".