Food for Though
Translations and Tribulations
There is no doubt about it - unbiased as I am, I maintain that Bangla is one of the most beautiful, layered, complex and subtle languages in the world. Of course, it is precisely that subtlety and complexity that makes it difficult for non-native speakers to get things right all the time. One of the funniest examples of this was offered by a very dear family friend, who was also a well-known lawyer and social activist. Speaking perfect Bangla was however not one of her many, many strengths.
On a work trip to distribute relief goods to women in a flood-affected area, she failed to realise the hostile response she was engendering among her audience when she referred to them as 'dushto mohila' ('naughty' women) instead of 'dustho mohila' ('distressed women')! Luckily one of her colleagues stepped in before things got any worse, but what an object lesson that provides in how important the accurate placement of that occasional wandering 'h' can be…
As for foreigners, even foreign nationals who have lived in Bangladesh for a long time occasionally find themselves facing an unexpected challenge or two. Like the Eastern European mother of a friend of a friend, who thoroughly puzzled her daughter Yana by informing her that she had been on a visit 'jontur bashay' (the home of animals). Initially, Yana wondered if her mother had made an impromptu visit to the zoo, but as it turned out she meant that she had spent the day visiting an acquaintance of theirs, Jhontu. That aberrant 'h' really does need to be watched carefully!
A more embarrassing incident occurred when the Hindi-speaking husband of a friend came home early from work to find his Bangali wife entertaining some guests. When she expressed surprise to see him back so soon, he attempted to showcase his Bangla, by saying, "Ami tomakey dhorshon kortey esheychhi'. As a way of saying he had come home to gladden his eyes by seeing his wife, the sentence was perhaps a little over the top. But it could probably be forgiven in an adoring husband, even considered quite endearing. However, if you note that once again that pesky 'h' appears uninvited in the word 'dorshon', it becomes evident that it changes the meaning of the sentence to something rather unsavoury.
Of course, Bangla is not the only language subject to misinterpretation or misspeaking. In fact, we Bangalis do a fairly good job of occasionally mangling the English language too, since it is the one that we most often used as an alternative means of communication. Dhaliwood films are clearly trying to communicate something to a wider audience when they translate their Bangla titles creatively into English. My favourites to date include 'Shanto Mastan' (unrecognisable in its English avatar as 'Domestic Animal Sometime Ferocious'), Ontorey Jhor ('1 Man, 7 Women' - clearly indicating a stormy forecast), 'Bhalobasha Dibi Kina Bol' ('Love Me or Kill Me'; from the tone of the title though, it sounds like it might more accurately read as 'Love Me or I'll Kill You'), and the translation most faithful to the practical meaning - if not the spirit - of the original title, 'Premer Mora Joley Dubey Na' ('Submarine').
Film titles are far from alone in abusing the imaginative possibilities opened up by translating between languages. I have worked as a professional translator for over 15 years, and some of the most "interesting" assignments I have come across involved re-doing botched translation jobs. A classic example was when I found that someone had translated 'gacher mathay' as, quite literally, 'on the head of the tree'. As you can imagine, editing that one took some time! But there are other, more unusual offerings out there, such as the rather polite translation of tigress as 'mohila bagh', or the wildly inaccurate description of 'bamboo building' for 'bashbhaban', not to mention my personal favourite, 'boiling flower' for 'phutanta phool'.
And you don't have to be fluent in English - or even think that you're fluent in English to (mis) use it; people of all backgrounds, including some who consider themselves official translators, as above, clearly do so on a regular basis. Anyway, my friend Khaleda, who works at a fertility clinic and is not fluent in English, was nevertheless amused to hear some of the ayahs working there happily misusing not one but three languages - English, Hindi and Bangla - as they discussed how some of the patients at the 'klini' (clinic) could be relied upon to pay them 'bokshi' (baksheesh), how the results of 'post-madams' (post-mortems) sometimes brought surprising information to light, and how you have to be careful with so-and-so because he was involved in local politics and 'rajnitik kora'. But the best example of hybrid dialogue came from one of the older female employees advising a younger one to dump her no-good boyfriend, saying "Tomar jiboner akta life asey na?" Talk about creativity with language - you've got to love it!
Advertisements in Dhaka frequently display some peculiar use of language, whether in English or Bangla. A recent effort put forward by a local beauty parlour offered its customers the opportunity for 'es-step cut' hair, 'chool es-tet kora' and 'boron facial'. Not that they are likely to lack customers anytime soon, thanks to the increasing preoccupation with beauty-enhancement services in Bangladesh which appear to be cutting not only across all social categories, but all ages as well.
A friend of mine confided in me recently about how difficult it was to insist that her 10-year-old daughter refrain from using make-up, particularly since her classmates could be seen doing so on various social occasions e.g. birthday parties. In an (unsuccessful) effort to persuade her unreasonable mother to give in, her clever daughter argued, "You know, Ma, how people say that 40 is the new 30. Where make-up is concerned, it's the same, just in the other direction. So girls can use make-up when they are younger - you see, 10 is the new 13"!
On the other hand, it's clear that there are still those who successfully buck the trend where beauty parlour brainwashing is concerned. When a non-resident Bangali friend of mine was visiting Dhaka last winter, she found that many people were appalled by the fact that she chooses not to dye her rather elegant salt and pepper hair. Luckily, her husband is on the same page, and disagrees with the hair-dye brigade. As he told her, "Thank God you have that kacha-paka chool - it means I can spot you from miles away, whenever I need to find you at some crowded biyebari"!
Getting back to the matter of how confusing language can be, there is also the undeniable fact that sometimes, even when your grammar and spelling are correct, your meaning can get lost. A recent news programme featured some people in Pakistan protesting against Taliban violence in the border areas. The placards they waved read "Go, Taliban, Go!" and it took me a moment to realise that they really meant it, and were not in fact cheering on the Taliban in the way that sports fans all around the world use the same terminology with their favourite teams to do precisely that.
Finally, sometimes the confusion is not simply over what is being said, but indeed, even what language it is being said in. This was the case with my friend's (then) four-year-old daughter, Joya. As almost any Bangladeshi parent these days is forced to admit, children are familiar - one might say too familiar! - with Hindi music and television shows. That is perhaps not so strange given that even Disney offerings are now translated into Hindi for a south Asian audience.
As a result, many of the parents I know find themselves increasingly worried by the way that Hindi is edging out Bangla in terms of musical and other influences in their children's lives. Anyway, during some kind of minor tiff, my friend Tina was not amused when her daughter somewhat cheekily warned her mother not to joke with her. It was about to get worse! When Tina retorted sharply, asking Joya if she even knew what “joke” meant, the unrepentant four-year-old responded chidingly, “Ma, don't you even understand Hindi?!”
(R) thedailystar.net 2010