Adventures in Hindi Part 2: The failed experiment of Have-English-can-translate-to-Hindi

Continuing my narration of my office-chair adventures related to Hindi. This is the second post of a four-post entry (see part 1 here); I’ll use today’s post to describe my (since aborted) forays into translation. It took me a few months to step past that (what I now think of as) translation trap.

My initial thinking was simple and clean. Here’s what I thought: I have a fairly exhaustive dementia care website in English. I know Hindi. Let me translate it myself. How difficult could that be? Or if it takes too much time (or, er, is difficult), I can get the translation done professionally. It is just (so I thought) a matter of being willing to spend either time or money—and people do say there is an equation whereby time is money🙂

I usually tackle any challenge in a two-pronged way: buy books, and start Googling. This was no different.

Within a week of my initial doodle recognizing this new self-imposed project, I had cleared out shelf-space, bought a Hindi grammar book, bought English-Hindi and Hindi-English dictionaries, bought a bunch of Hindi magazines and other health books. I had also located the Google transliteration facility and translation facility, installed the Indian language pack of my Microsoft Word (I hadn’t even noticed it had come bundled with the software). And I had even found a bunch of good online dictionaries for Hindi and Urdu.

It took some playing around to understand the basics of the transliteration package, and how it did not always work, and how to use the on-screen keyboard instead. It was interesting, for example, to see how the transliteration was not always the way Youtube songs are transliterated. “Ki” became कि, and not की (for which I needed to type “kee” ) And also, one can “train the transliteration software”; I trained mine to transliterate “dimenshia” to write out डिमेंशिया and reached a point where डिमेंशियाwould pop up as a choice even if I had just typed “dime”, which is a sort of tip-of-the-fingers way of speed-typing in a fairly different way.

Time to actually translate stuff, eh?

I knew, of course, that “Hindi” has many shades and versions. I remember the time it had taken me to orient from my Delhi Hindi to the Mumbai (then Bombay) “Hindi” and I even remember how years of living in Patna as a child had made my Hindi acquire the Bihari style (the effect took some months of Lucknow Hindi to go). Luckily, of course, we have Bollywood which gives us a range of Pakeezah to Munnabhai to educate us on diversity.

I did not realize how much that diversity would impact my attempts to translate. After all, people do translate stuff….

I surfed to locate bilingual sites, Hindi health-related documents, or sites created in Hindi. Not much choice existed. Many websites used impressive words that reminded me of news bulletins and Hindi exams. But if my intention was to retain the reader’s attention as well as communicate, I wondered how I could balance “brevity” and “purity” against “normal everyday Hindi”, whatever that was.

To begin with, I got stuck with the word “caregiver”.

The English word is clear, well-established, carries with it a packaged meaning, and is, in a way, a shortcut that communicates a lot of things. That’s what language must do, right? When I asked around for what the Hindi equivalent was, I got an amazing range of phrases. No single, crisp word.

One person said, परिवार वाले (parivaar waale, persons of the family) another said प्रियजन (priyajan, loved ones) many said देखभाल करने वाले (Those who look after someone). Some said आया (maid). I got the word शुभांकर and शुभार्थी (both words are forms of well-wisher). One person told me that some people used उपचारक and उपचारिका (both mean nurses) and cautioned me that these words are wrong. Other words people suggested were सहायक and स्वास्थ्य सहायक (health assistant/ helper/ attendant).

Strangely, no one I contacted suggested the words the websites/ Hindi documents used: देखभाल दाता and देखभाल प्रदाता (carer and caregiver.

I wondered whether the fact that I could not easily find a Hindi equivalent for the concept of “caregiver” depicted the invisibility of the role as such. The use of परिवार वाले (persons of the family) as equivalent of caregiver spoke volumes of how caregiving is not seen as anything different from normal living in a family, and how the responsibility was assumed to devolve on the family.

No one I spoke to seemed too bothered/ obsessed by this; they were mildly curious, perhaps, but not deeply concerned. Not even people working in the area of caregiver support. No one said, yes, how we can help caregivers if we haven’t yet even thought of a word by which to recognize and respect what they do. They had the word in English, and who cared about Hindi, anyway? I think when I persisted I came off sounding nitpicky and over-particular.

My situation was this. I am working on documents about caregiving. Suppose I say, देखभाल प्रदाता, which is the correct word. How easy would it be to read and subvocalize for a reader? On the other hand, using परिवार वाले would not convey the same meaning, and saying देखभाल करने वाले or देखभाल करने वाला परिवार is so long and excludes caregivers who are professionals (पेशेवर) (another word not used by people unless they are reading out Hindi news bulletins)

This problem was not just about one word, one role, one concept. Every important word I picked up had a story like that.

I had two choices:

  • I could use a pure Sanskrit-sounding word that conveyed the meaning and made for precise and concise translations but generated text that no one could read and understand (maybe I could include a link to an online dictionary and throw in a video on how to use a transliteration tool),
  • OR

  • I could use words people understood but which meant something else and was double the length of the original text.

What fun.

I wimped out.

I chose a third option: looking for professional translators. After all, these people did translations for a living, they must have it all sorted out in their minds. There must be conventions they followed…

I first located a reputed professional translator whom I had seen in one online group. I had translated one document to try out my hand, and I wrote to this translator to ask whether he could edit this translated presentation for me. I explained my overall project and need, and got back very enthusiastic replies. I asked for the current professional translation/ edit rates, and agreed to pay them. Then I sent along my translated presentation for Hindi edits, and he told me the format was compatible with what he needed, and he’d send me the edits in a few days. This was a deadline he chose himself. The day came and went. Repeated checking of the mail did not bring his response to my inbox. More days passed. A week passed. I sent a polite reminder. Got no response. Waited a couple of weeks more. Two reminders, three.

The problem of dealing with people over the Internet is that often one does not have any other way of contacting them. A missed deadline does not mean callousness or unprofessionalism; anything could have gone wrong. This person may have faced a major setback–an illness or accident in the family. Or this person could be incapacitated, even dead. So my reminders were polite, considerate. I got no response at all. Weeks passed, and then I (as polite as ever) emailed to withdraw the assignment.

Meanwhile, I had been trying to locate other translators. I wanted professional translators mainly because they would have experience about translation conventions, would have the speed, and would be set up for bulk jobs (hey, I’ve always been naïve). The pro rates, I had realized, were high but I could shuffle around other items in my budget to fit in some high-quality, bulk work.

Some people wrote back, many of them fellow Hindi-speakers who probably saw this as a small job I needed help with. Perhaps some got scared off when I explained what I was looking for, perhaps they got busy, perhaps they felt insulted that I asked them for their professional rates. Perhaps some never got my mails (Facebook swallows messages sometimes), but the pool of available persons who could help in translation/ editing reduced.

I did manage to contact a professional translator. This person ran an agency, and in addition to being a translator himself, he managed a pool of translators and had experience working for the “social sector.”

His replies to my emails were prompt, and I called him up to understand more of what he did. According to him, most translators do not know how to type Hindi on a computer. They needed the original English text as a printout, then they wrote their translation on paper, and a Hindi typist who knew how to type Hindi on a computer would then type it out. Translation charges therefore included “typing” charges.

I paid the advance, emailed the documents, received the translations exactly as per deadline, and paid up the rest of the fees.

Then I sat to evaluate the documents.

It was a cascade of insights.

I had sent two documents for translation; one was a brief introduction to dementia, and the other was a training note for a hired attendant that a family member could use to train the caregiver (the English versions of both are available at my website). When asking for the translations, I included clear instructions that (1) I wanted the translation to be in normal Hindi. I was not interested in a word by word literal translation but a translation that conveyed the sense to middle-class Hindi speakers with moderate, non-specialist vocabulary. The translator could use colloquial terms to improve understandability. (2) The form used to address the reader or the attendant being trained should be the respectful “aap” form, not the “tum” form.

Anyway, so as I read the translated stuff, many problems hit the eye immediately.

I’d thought conforming to the “aap” rule was simple enough, for example, but the “aap” form rule was violated at some places, and followed at others. There were paragraphs that started using the “aap” form, had one sentence in the middle of the “tum” form, and then switched back to the “aap” form.

The spellings were wrong at so many places I noticed even without putting on my editing cap. And this was with my rusty Hindi. I spotted some grammatical problems, too.

Clearly this translator/ coordinator had not done a “quality check” and I wondered what happened if the receiver did not know the language well enough to spot the mistakes. And what was the point getting stuff done if I ended up editing it?

But the problems that set me thinking were of a different sort: What I found was that there were subtle problems in some sentences that were possibly correctly translated as far as “translation” goes, but did not convey the full or correct meaning in the translated version.

I’ve heard that one way of checking the correctness of translation from language A to B is to get the text independently re-translated back to language A and see how well it matches the original in meaning. If a speaker of language A needs stuff translated in language B and does not know B, that is how one handles it.

Take this sentence: Normal people forget where they put their keys, but not what the keys are for.

And the translation, which was:

सामान्य लोग यह भूल सकते हैं कि उन्होंने अपनी चाबियां कहां रखी हैं पर वे यह नहीं भूल सकते कि वे चाबियां किसके लिए हैं

Which translates back to: Normal people may forget where they have placed their keys, but they cannot forget who the keys are for. OR even: Normal people may forget where they have placed their keys, but they cannot forget which (lock/ door/ object) the keys are for.

The वे चाबियां किसके लिए हैं could be interpreted as वे चाबियां किस व्यक्ति के लिए हैं OR वे चाबियां किस ताले के लिए हैं or वे चाबियां किस दरवाज़े के लिए हैं.

This sentence has been part of a set of examples contrasting normal memory loss and dementia, with the first part of each sentence saying what is normal, and the latter saying what is dementia (and not normal). The point that was being made in the original text was that the person with dementia may look at a key and wonder what this strange object was and what purpose it was meant for, something we would not expect a normal person to get confused about.

But the translation gets confusing because the second part of the sentence conveys something well within the range of normal forgetting, too. It would be quite normal for someone to look at a key and wonder who (which person) the key belongs to, or which lock or door it would open.

This switch in meaning was not really the translator’s fault as such. While the English sentence was likely to have been correctly understood by someone reading in English, there was scope for ambiguity during literal translation. A more foolproof sentence would have been: Normal people forget where they put their keys, but they do not forget that keys are things used to open locks.

So, for effective translation, I need

  • Translators who understand dementia well enough to interpret compacted sentences properly, AND/ OR
  • Original material that was crystal clear and written to be “translation-ready”

    Let me take another example of the translation. I had been (I forget why) foolishly trying to crunch the text to fit one page, and here was one sentence in English in the original text:

We cannot prevent irreversible dementias, but normal practices of good health (healthy food, staying active mentally and physically, staying stress-free) may delay the onset of dementia. Irreversible dementias cannot be cured, but medication helps some patients in early stages

The translation I got back was:

हम अपरिवर्तनीय डिमेंशिया को नहीं रोक सकते पर स्वस्थ रहने के लिए जरूरी आम बातों (जैसे स्वस्थ खाना, मानसिक और शारीरिक रूप से सक्रिय रहना, तनाव मुक्त रहना) से डिमेंशिया की शुरूआत होने में देरी हो सकती है। अपरिवर्तनीय डिमेंशिया को ठीक नहीं किया जा सकता लेकिन शुरूआती चरणों में दवाओं से कुछ रोगियों को लाभ होता है।

Firstly, अपरिवर्तनीय is not irreversible. My dictionary says it means inconvertible, unchangeable, steady. The word for irreversible is अनुत्क्रमणीय and I am still hunting for a simpler word that does not change the meaning. If one is forced to use a phrase instead of a word, that makes every sentence clumsy, or requires breaking up sentences to retain readability.

Also, note that the translated Hindi sentence structure sounds more convoluted because it strings together complex phrases.

Here is another sentence:

(The original English): The strange behaviour of patients is thought to be madness or a result of neglect by family.

This was translated as: रोगियों द्वारा किए जाने वाले अजीबोगरीब व्यवहार को पागलपन समझ लिया जाता है या इसे परिवार द्वारा उपेक्षा किए जाने के कारण होना मान लिया जाता है।

Now this is such a long sentence. Also, I haven’t conducted a survey, but I’m willing to bet a chocolate (a dark chocolate at that) that not too many people would understand the word “उपेक्षा”(upeksha). I remember we used to have a question “what is the difference between उपेक्षा and अपेक्षा” in school, and it always sent me into hysterical laughter because both words were too tough🙂

In English, the word neglect is well understood. It brings forth images (elders locked in a house without food, not being allowed to go out with the family, having to ask their children for money to buy some roasted peanuts). Say one word, and convey a picture.

What picture is conveyed to an average Hindi speaker, fan of Munnabhai movies, by the word “upeksha”?

My English-Hindi dictionary gives the meaning of neglect as “to give no care” and offers उपेक्षा, लापरवाही, and अवेहलना. Of these, I suspect only लापरवाही is well-known and that is more carelessness than neglect.

It struck me that I could have written fresh text in Hindi for the same topic instead. Something like:

रोगी के अजीबोगरीब व्यवहार को लोग कई बार पागलपन समझते हैं. या वे सोचते हैं कि ज़रूर इस व्यक्ति के परिवार वाले उसकी देखभाल सही तरह से नहीं कर रहे हैं. वे इसको घर पर दुःखी रखते हैं, शायद उसका निरादर करते हैं और ठीक खाना पीना नहीं देते हैं, इसीलिये यह व्यक्ति ऐसे पेश आ रहा है. दोष ज़रूर परिवार वालों का ही होगा.

That’s not translation, that’s not even rewriting; it is rethinking. And it’s not good enough yet, but only a beginning.

It was when I thought of this alternate wording that I felt that translation is not the way forward for me, even if I got a good translator.

I know that it is possible to obtain good translations. So okay, I did not have very happy experiences, but that does not rule out the option as such.

But is that what I want? Do I want a good, pure translation, or am I trying to make sure I convey something? Just because I had stuff available in English, did that mean that its translation would be useful in Hindi? Perhaps I was going about it the wrong way.

What I needed to do was think of the audience, about the sort of thing they typically read about, saw in movies, discussed, and were concerned about. And then I must think of ways to expose them to a different bundle of facts that (according to me) were relevant and useful for them

I believe that our thinking is shaped by the language and our language, in turn, reflects our thinking.

For example, “life style modifications” is very clear as a concept in English not because of the words, but because of the slew of articles published on that topic. Persons writing on that topic implicitly assume that prospective readers would know some of the related concepts. But we cannot assume such familiarity if we are writing about a topic in a language where no articles have been published on that topic. If we want to communicate a set of concepts, we have to also consider what potential readers already know about that topic and related concepts.

And also, some concepts are culture specific. Take “privacy”, for which the Hindi translations — एकान्तता and गोपनीयता (seclusion and secrecy) — just don’t convey the same meaning as the English word.

I’m not even daring to talk about “space” which every person now wants, as in, people need “space” in marriage. What would: हर शादी में जगह चाहिए mean?🙂

I am not saying that it is wrong to take stuff written in one language and then translate it into another language. I have read and thoroughly enjoyed some very superb story translations, read them in Hindi and English, and been amazed at how well the sense was conveyed in spite of the language switch. But then, the caliber of translators working on such translations is different; there is, if I remember right, even a Sahitya Academy award for best story translation. But I think that there are pros and cons of using translations in many non-fiction areas, because translations may not work for all topics, or all sorts of material. To convey an alien (and possibly uncomfortable, unbelievable, and depressing) concept to uninterested people we need to understand the audience and search for fresh explanations and examples that readers would relate to.

So there I was, back at the drawing board almost two months after I had first thought of creating material in Hindi.

I do not have pat answers that I will produce out of a top hat later, sorry. I am still thinking, trying, investigating. I would love to hear your thoughts, your ideas.

Next time, I will share my attempts to understand more about how people use (or may use later) Hindi on the Internet.

This is part 2 of a four-part post that shares observation on use of Hindi on the Internet and suggests ways to reach out to Hindi speakers over the web. The other parts are:

If you feel this “Adventures in Hindi” series of blog could be of interest to someone, please share the link.

Note added in Oct 2012:

Subsequent to this series of posts, I began work on a Hindi website for dementia care, and also created and uploaded more videos in Hindi. A brief update on the experience so far, along with links to the various uploaded material, is here: Creating online dementia care material in Hindi: my experience so far.

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India. I have also been a dementia caregiver for well over a decade, and am deeply concerned about dementia care in India; on this blog I share my personal caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care. For structured information on dementia, for discussions, tools and tips on caregiving issues, for resources in India, and for caregiver interviews, please check my website (or its Hindi version, For videos on dementia caregiving (English and Hindi), check the youtube channel here.

13 Responses to Adventures in Hindi Part 2: The failed experiment of Have-English-can-translate-to-Hindi

  1. Kalpana Malani says:

    Wouldn’t a person working in the media be able to translate English to Hindi in more lucid language? – after all advertising is all about communication. Couldn’t you also use some common words in English for E.G. tension, hospital, doctor, nurse which people use when speaking in Hindi? After all it has to be understood by lay persons who in the course of conversing use many English words.

    • swapnawrites says:

      Yes, true. But isn’t it funny that to design Hindi material one must understand the extent of the English vocabulary of the target audience🙂

      I wonder if there is a dictionary for Hinglish…

  2. austere says:

    If the idea is to inform lucidly, then your translator needs to be given that space🙂 to transliterate, go for the meaning rather than word to word.

    Your lines look very good.

    I have a tacit understanding with the Gujarati author whose work I tranlate, I can change lines etc etc, change sometimes because that isn’t the way one would say it in Angreji– so long as the meaning is kept intact, I have that freedom.

    Upeksha/ Apeksha touched a raw nerve. Hindi I, was it not?

    • swapnawrites says:

      It’s lovely to hear from a translator, and I remember with fondness reading one of your translated stories.

      I think fiction/ literary writing translation has come of age, and Ithat folks who translate fiction are not just in love with the genre they work in, they really want the translated work to touch the hearts of the reader the same way as the original story did.

      Some months back, when I was trying to locate good translators, I really did wonder whether non-fiction translators have the same degree of involvement and commitment (as fiction translators), and how to reach such persons. The whole feel I got was of a factory production, with the middleman agency and I almost pictured a sweat-shop type room with bespectacled translators poring over a printed page and scribbling the translation with a leaky ballpen, without having the time and energy to check a dictionary here or there, let alone waste time contacting the original author for clarifications. I don’t even think the guy read my instructions on top, or maybe the middleman did not bother to print them out and give them to the translator–why waste the ink cartridge?

      I suspect non-fiction translation may not have come of age yet….

      And talking of raw nerves, I recall Parinaam/ Parimaan, and Sameer/ samar too🙂

      Thanks, as ever, for dropping by and sharing your thoughts.

  3. Vijaya says:

    Your posts remind me of a time I had used Babel Fish to translate some correspondence and the result was highly entertaining. Even I could make out the spelling errors and had to make corrections by copy-pasting the ‘akshar’ with the vowels. I kept a word document open with the different ‘ee’ and ‘aa’ and ‘oo’ matras. It was a tedious exercise but fun anyway.
    Is there software that converts voice to script? Then you could just do the voice over in Hindi and the written matter would be generated in Devnagri script. I would agree with Kalpana that commonly used English words should be incorporated into it. Also consider that lots of young people today who ‘know’ English use Hindi language in their text messages because while they are more comfortable in spoken Hindi they also prefer the simplicity of the English script. So rather than saying ‘Where are we meeting?’ they might say ‘Kidhar aana hai” .
    To have the farthest reach and comprehension, I would suggest the resource material should probably be in audio-video form over the written form for the audience in this country,.

    • swapnawrites says:

      Ah, software and voice recognition….

      I tried using the youtube one to get a transcription of an English video and even that was absolutely unrecognizable…they don’t even have it for Hindi.

      The universality of Hinglish (as against Hindi or English) is undeniable, but the challenge is, will spoken Hindi be readable if scripted in Devnagari? And do people still read Devnagari? As you say, the audio-visual approach is probably what will work best….that is the conclusion I’ve reached, too. But some form of written Hindi will be needed to supplement it…

      I’ve also been trying to get an understanding of how Hindi readers and speakers use the Internet, and this week I’m dusting and cleaning my table in the hope of locating all the scraps of papers with my notes, to string together my next post on my observations….

      At least my working space will be clearer, if not my mind🙂

      Thanks, Vijaya…

  4. Pingback: Adventures in Hindi Part 3: India Shining, Internet, and the entertainment override « Swapna writes…

  5. ABHA IYENGAR says:

    Eventually will have to agree that articles will have to be written for readers in a particular language and in an understandable form of that language in order to reach them. Your trials with translations have shown this.
    Thanks for this, Swapna, really enlightening.
    The strange thing is that I am reading these adventures backwards, since I came across no 3. first.

  6. G.K.Subbarayudu says:

    The problems are very well presented. But one must understand that TRANSLATION of an English text and ‘terms’ into Hindi or any other language is never likely to provide adequate , workable solutions. The way forward will have to be to understand the English text, its aims/ target audience and simply rewrite in Hindi/Bangla/Telugu as we have known these languages. Where unavoidable USE the technical terms in the original with an explanatory note in brackets once. Or After writing , give a glossary of such terms explaining the meaning/range of possibilities. If words like Bus/Phone/Mobile/Rail/Insurance /Field Marshall can be used in all our languages , there is no reason why CAREGIVER can not be used as such with an explanatory note ( one can use ‘sahaayak’ comfortably without insisting that it means ‘attendant’ or ‘helper’ ; ,’sevak’ is an excellent term which carries enough connotations to choose from without it being equated with a peon). When we wish to write in Hindi or Telugu, we must stop thinking ONLY of the original English text. . From here, the next step would be the negotiation of what the KEY means to a normal person and it might ‘mean’ to a patient of dementia. This business is much greater in scope than ‘translation– there are cognitive-perceptual dimensions for which only a rewriting in ‘our’ language can provide solutions.
    ‘“life style modifications”’ for instance can be ‘dincharya mein parivartan’ or ‘dincharya mein pher/badal’ or ‘taur-tareekey main pher-badal’ instead of ‘Parivartit Jeevan shaili’
    ‘people need “space” in marriage” can be rewritten as ‘ shhadii mein bhi apne astitva ko kaayam rakhne ka adhikaar hona chaahiye’. Convolutions happen only if one chooses to retain the structure of another language in ones own language.

    • swapnawrites says:

      Yes, exactly! I just love the way you put it: “This business is much greater in scope than ‘translation– there are cognitive-perceptual dimensions for which only a rewriting in ‘our’ language can provide solutions.”

      Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts. Much appreciated.

  7. Pingback: Adventures in Hindi Part 4: In the end is the beginning, or, more observations, a summing up and a way forward. « Swapna writes…

  8. Pingback: Adventures in Hindi Part 1: A mother-tongue fading behind a veil « Swapna writes…

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