As a child, I always used to be in splits when my father recounted a tale of the three Bengalis who were caught stealing in Mumbai. They were taken to the police station, where their names were asked. Chatterjee, said one. Bannerjee, said the second.
Mukherjee, said the last. An incensed inspector rebuked them: “Chori karte ho aur naam ke peechhe ‘jee’ lagate ho! (Turning to the constable) Likho in ka naam: Chatter, Banner, Mukher!” Clearly, this Marathi manoos was angry because he could not understand why three people, who had been caught red-handed while committing a crime, wanted to use a common honorific after their names. It was a classic case of ‘lost in translation’.
As I grew up, I came across more of them, but the difference was they happened in front of my eyes, and I learnt to see them for what they really are. Years spent in different parts of the country—Nagpur in Central India, Jaipur in the Northwest and Delhi in the North—has taught me to respect the peculiarities that creep in within Hindi, the nation’s supposed lingua fracas, in different regions. Thus it is that I no more laugh when someone from Maharashtra, especially the eastern part, talks of saying a song instead of singing it.
I have also learnt to rein in the language Nazi in me when a Bengali, who has stayed away from Bengal for a long time or has been born and brought up in a place that is, well, not Bengal, butchers the language by peppering Hindi substitutes of Bengali words. But I have to admit that it takes a great amount of restraint on my part to withstand what is happening to my mother tongue.
Then there’s the occasional visit to websites that provide etymological origins of words, phrases and alphabets, and sometimes even the apparently eccentric turns in certain languages. They have come to teach me that languages, though thousands of miles apart, may share characteristics brought about due to linguistic evolution. An example here is the hard ‘r’ sound that Tamils pronounce when they encounter a ‘zh’ written in English, like in Ezhava or Kozhikode. Apparently, Greek, from the fourth to the 10th century, used to do the same for the character that represented a similar sound for them!
And finally, translations! I picked up the first volume of Bibek Debroy’s English translation of Mahabharat, only to find that he may have transliterated the Sanskrit phrases from the epic’s critical edition, published by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Maharashtra. And yet, I soldier on, for my quest to uncover the layers under the simple narrative of the world’s longest poem is fuelled by a notion about translation that I happened to imbibe from Gulzar sahab himself!
At the 2011 edition of the Jaipur Lit Fest, the noted polymath was reading out a series of his poems, with each poem being followed by a translation into English, when he sensed that some in the audience were clearly enjoying the original more than the translation. Indeed, they seemed to be losing respect for the translation, done by someone else, with every passing phrase! That’s when Gulzar dropped this gem: “A translation is like a mistress. If she is faithful, she is not beautiful. And if she is beautiful, she is not faithful.” Yours truly, present among the audience, managed to snag this gem, and has been using it to generate more tolerance towards translations ever since!