Not lost in translation

The institution where I worked was, back in the sixties, benevolent. It did not totally abandon the loyal ones in its lowest hierarchy, either after their death or retirement, often giving a job to a dependent.

Our office gardener, who looked anywhere between 50 and 60 when I joined, opted for premature retirement, “bequeathing” the position to his son. The boy’s upper chamber vacuum was offset by his will power and physical prowess. Then came “outsourcing,” when gardening was mandated for entrustment to competing contractors. Our “cub” gardener trembled on the edge of getting dislodged but the employer entertained him as a cook in the subsidised office canteen.

Now feeding humans instead of plants, he played his role to everyone’s satisfaction as even “tough jobs” like distinguishing sugar from salt —he could do this by tasting just a pinch of each — were well within his competence.

One day, the cook detected a small leak from a gas cylinder. Networked with several electrical gadgets, exposed wiring areas, etc., and capable of converting hearth fires into pyres at the slightest slip-up, the building risked an all-devouring conflagration. Unperturbed, the cook, on his own steam, accomplished 100% damage control solely on intuition.

After the “all clear” whistle, he gave his superiors a detailed account of the incident. Upon listening to him, they felt that a conduct so exemplary should not go unhonoured and unsung. The chief issued him a congratulatory letter, expressing the hope that he would continue to show such efficiency and resourcefulness in the future as well.

Unfortunately, the English letter carried no Malayalam translation, though there was one in Hindi. The cook had a mentor in his office, in whose case the upper storey was even more cavernous. He began where the other left off. The saying “there is plenty of room at the top” fit him perfectly. Further, the guru could not read or write his own mother tongue. Undeterred by such trifles, the disciple showed the letter to the wise man, humbly soliciting an explanation.

After giving the letter a once-over, the “sage”, quick at the uptake, sat up. (Rough details of the incident had reached him by word of mouth.) Blowing smoke rings from the leisurely beedi he was enjoying and with a sombre look clouding his face, he said in solemn tones, that the employer had condoned his lapse just this once, with a warning that any repetition of such a grave misconduct would be severely dealt with!

The cook heaved a sigh of relief. Solace was all he wanted and the interpreter had not stinted on it. And sublime, soul-lifting poetry is often a source of solace to many. Who said the translator’s job is tough? And that poetry gets lost in translation?

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