Library of India

What is untranslatable? Ten translators from Indian languages list their candidates

From auditory effects to cultural back stories, a range of things that translators find almost impossible to express in another language.

Expressing an idea to someone in their own language can be hard enough, considering not just differences in connotations of words and phrases but also the different ways in which people relate to a language. So trying to liaison between a writer and a reader who come from two entirely different worlds and speak two different languages requires a whole other level of creativity and skill.

Sometimes the languages are so far apart that translators end up creating entirely new works – a fact that a lot of us happily ignore. Jay Rubin, famous for translating Haruki Murakami’s work, once said in an interview, “When you read Haruki Murakami, you’re reading me, at least ninety-five per cent of the time”.

It is a translator’s skilled manoeuvring through cultural contexts, dialects, direct speech, idioms and syntax that we are able to access ideas, not just from around the world (Ferrante, Dostoevsky, Camus) but also from different parts of our own country, exploring works by writers such as Dharamvir Bharati (Hindi), Mahashweta Devi (Bengali) and KR Meera (Malayalam).

In an effort to understand the struggles and the ingenuity that goes behind translating literature, we asked some of India’s best-known translators about the things they have found the hardest to translate.

Aruni Kashyap: Assamese

Recently, I translated Arunachali writer Yeshe Dorje Thongchi’s short story The Smell of Bamboo Blossoms to English, written in Assamese. I found the first line of the short story very hard to translate: Kameng noit enduror uzan uthise.

Now, “uzan uthise” in Assamese refers to a very specific phenomenon during the monsoon, when freshwater fish start to breed after the first showers. When this happens, mature fish swim up to the surface of the water bodies, making it very easy to catch them. People choose this time to catch fish with their nets because it ensures high yields.

This makes the phrase difficult to translate to English. Literally, it means the river/pond is swarming with fish because when they want to breed, they come to the surface, making them look voluminous. But “uzan uthise” means not just the swarming of a large number of fishes to the surface, but also their behaviour during breeding.

In this short story, Thongchi uses this phrase to describe the growth in the population of rats in Arunachal after consuming bamboo flowers. He wasn’t necessary referring to the activity of reproduction, but after consuming bamboo flowers the rats were reproducing in enormous numbers anyway, forcing them to cross the river in thousands in search of food and consume everything on their way. The opening sentence describes this phenomenon of rats crossing the river en masse.

V Ramaswamy: Bengali

Of course there are words or expressions in Bangla, including slang, that simply don’t have an English equivalent, and so one tries to convey the sense through other words. Like many south Asian languages, Bangla also uses onomatopoeia extensively, and so one has to convey that through particular adjectives and adverbs. All this can be challenging.

One can experience a feeling of great satisfaction when one translates a sculpted piece of text, a sentence even. It’s something like solving a difficult problem in algebra.

But for me, the biggest challenge – in the face of which a word becomes too trivial – or rather hapless surrender, is with dialect. In the original, the use of dialect makes the work polychromatic, while even the best translation only conveys a small part of the totality of the cognition that the original triggers.

Take Manik Bandopadhyay’s great novel Padma Nodir Majhi (The Boatman on the River Padma). For me the novel is the language, not the plot, which is merely a device through which the language is expressed. A little bit of the nature and quality of that language can be conveyed in translation but the auditory experience is entirely lost.

Similarly, in Bangla there are two registers of writing the language, shuddha or formal, and cholti or spoken. So when you have the two registers appearing next to each other, you can do this or that to render it in English, but the fact is that it achieves nothing. The nature of the act of reading this in the original can be explained, but it is not experienced in its details, with all its cognitive linkages.

Rita Kothari: Gujarati

When I look back, I stop at many junctures and remember feeling helpless, bereft of creativity. For instance in my early years as a translator, I had my first encounter with a philosophical situation underlying a ghazal in Gujarati. The poet was Ramesh Parekh and the ghazal was titled “Na thaya”, which means “It did not happen”.

So what did not happen? The poem goes on to describe an ironic and poignant predicament when “we” (in Gujarati, ame) were tantalisingly close to fulfilment, but “it did not happen”. Festivals at our home did not becomes ours, we dipped our hands in flowers but they did not become fragrant. And the last line: “Don’t say Ramesh it did not rain today, say, it must have, we did not get drenched.”

The passive construction, the collective we, the arrangement of opening and closing lines, and the philosophical view that we may try, but it may not be in our hands – all of this that came together in Gujarati was difficult to achieve in English. Who is to be blamed if we did not get drenched? The Indian philosophical mode is to say, well it did not happen, it wasn’t fated to. English is a language of agency and it was difficult to make English reconcile with the passive and philosophical stance of the poem.

Poonam Saxena: Hindi

Translation is always difficult and challenging, especially because often English seems too prosaic to handle certain sentences – passages about the internal conflicts of characters, for instance (as happened with me with Gunahon ka Devta by Dharamvir Bharati). It was also very difficult to translate certain words and phrases which may appear simple on the surface but are so culture-specific that it’s impossible to communicate the feelings they evoke in Hindi into English.

For example, the sentence “Tez purvaiya chal rahi thi.” You just cannot translate “purvaiya” in a word or couple of words. You would need a paragraph to explain what a “purvaiya” really is. Or take the phrase “Ekadashi ka chandrama”’ How do you communicate the poetic beauty of that phrase in English?”

For “tez purvaiya” I had to go with the very inadequate “strong easterly breeze” because otherwise I would have had to put in a paragraph explaining what exactly a purvaiya is, which obviously I couldn’t do. Or a footnote which is very annoying for a reader (I’m not a fan of footnotes in a translation, unless absolutely necessary). With this serviceable translation of purvaiya, the reader understands that there was a strong breeze. But they won’t be able to understand the cultural connotations of a purvaiya.

These are eternal problems. In Gunahon ka Devta, there is another such reference which Bharati actually explains to the reader: This is the word “dhurva”. He doesn’t just use the word, he also explains what it means – when the clouds are near, when the sound of raindrops falling some distance away permeates the air, that is referred to as “dhurva”. So even a Hindi writer had to explain to his Hindi readers what a term that was in currency in a part of the Hindi-speaking belt meant!

Pratibha Umashanker Nadiger: Kannada

I have recently translated Shikari, a Kannada masterpiece by Yashwant Chittal, with the English title Shikari The Hunt. Kannada is rich in onomatopoeic words, and Chittal uses them as auditory metaphors. These do not lend themselves well to translation in English. If I retained the words in the original, I would risk exoticising the language. For example, thall denotes the sound of glass breaking. There is no English equivalent to it. One can say, the shattering of glass. However, a non-auditory word does not carry the same impact as an auditory one. It was a tough choice. How can you translate the untranslatable?

J Devika: Malayalam

Capturing the colloquial language and accent in all its nuances, and transferring the rhetorical energy of poetry – these are the two hardest tasks in translation for me. Of these, the latter is thoroughly enjoyable, because poets often leave a clue for the translator.

For example, in Anitha Thampi’s beautiful poem Mojito Song, the mention that it is a song is a clue. So I followed it. (Read it on Kafila, I put it up as an anthem for kerala).

The former is very difficult usually. Sometimes, if you are lucky, the people who speak Malayalam in a certain colloquial variant may also have a certain way of speaking English – like there is not only a pala (a town in Kerala’s midlands, dominated by Syrian Christians) in Malayalam, there is also a Pala in English. But not always. Then you have to listen carefully to the language and note where vowels get dropped, consonants harden, etc., and craft an approximation in English.

Jerry Pinto: Marathi

There have been many challenges in translating Marathi into English, and then recently Hindi and Punjabi (which come together in Swadesh Deepak’s Maine Mandi Nahin Dekha which I have just finished translating). Sometimes it’s a grace note, like the tag “re” that is used in Marathi in a peculiar way to suggest affection, understanding and a tinge of displeasure (in some instances). This occurs in Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar.

At another level, there is the problem of poetry which would turn up in the middle of Baluta since Daya Pawar, its author, also wrote poetry. There you must shift your sensibility, change your gears and see whether you can take the much more fragile word-artefact that is the poem into another language, another sensibility, another register and another set of emotional temperatures within which poetry can live.

A final thought: In Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha, which is an account of Swadesh Deepak’s mental illness, one of the symptoms of the eruption of his symptoms was his use of English. Deepak was a teacher of English at the post-graduate level; it was his occupation and now it was a symptom. How does one now translate the whole of a book in which the English – often transcribed in Roman – stands out on the page in stark contrast to the Devnagari around it?

Aniruddhan Vasudevan: Tamil

Some of the hardest ones to translate are the direct speech. This is because often there is a difference between the surrounding authorial voice and the speeches of the character. The latter often have individualised speech styles, or they mark regional or class or caste speech variations or dialects – they often tell us what kind of people they are. It is difficult to bring that out in translation.

Also, the fascinating translation issues are not just those we immediately recognise as challenges. Sometimes it is the simple things. Here is an interesting example: among Perumal Murugan’s poems of exile in Songs of a Coward’ there are a few that work with the imagery of the sheep and the shepherd. In fact, in Tamil, he had used the word “aadu”, which could mean either sheep (semmari aadu) or goat (vellaadu). And for someone like me who grew up seeing more goats than sheep in Kumbakonam and then in Madras, aadu immediately conjures the image of a goat. So I had translated them as goats and goatherds.

But while combing through the drafts, I had some doubt about this, although it was not because I realised that for Perumal Murugan, in the landscape he comes from, aadu almost immediately meant semmari aadu or sheep. But I wanted to check with him because sheep and shepherd neatly summoned forth religious metaphors in my head, and I wanted to share that with him. And that’s when I found out it is sheep!

T Vijay Kumar, Telugu

Each translation attempt presents a different challenge. While translating an early 20th century classic, Gurazada’s Kanyasulkam, the most difficult (in fact, impossible) thing was to translate the linguistic variations – among regions, classes, and castes – of the original into English.

In the more recent case of a feminist work, Volga’s The Liberation of Sita, it was neither words nor lines, not even concepts. It was in fact a peculiar grammatical (sentence) structure in which a character muses about her situation and refers to herself in the third person! Imagine a situation where a character reflects upon her own situation and says: “What is to happen to her! What shall she do now!” In such a sentence, the subject and the object being the same person creates huge confusion. While such a structure is not unusual in the original language, it has no equivalent in English.

Rakhshanda Jalil, Urdu

In translating Urdu poetry, the difficulty has always been jigar, which literally refers to the liver but is used to mean the rough area around the heart – a mythical, imaginary space actually.

In Translating Urdu prose, I have learnt to let the word “yaar” stay instead of fumbling for English possibilities: buddy, bud, or pal sound impossibly American; mate, which is close, sounds terribly Australian; bro is too adolescent. So it seems best to let yaar stay without giving its meaning and let people figure it out, just like the exclamation arre, which increasingly I retain in English translation because I can’t think of an approximation that covers the gamut of expressions. Arre can convey surprise, wonder, bemusement, anger, and so on.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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