Translation Essentials: Interesting Facts About Indian Translation

When most people in the west think about India, their primary reference is Rudyard Kipling or Gandhi. Yet, the famed American author Mark Twain referred to India as the “birthplace of human speech.” Thoreau thought the Vedas were the greatest writings in existence. Access to the works of the great Indian authors to the west was made possible by prolific translators.

The demand for Hindi books, literature, and translation services are going to increase. Despite being spoken by only 40 percent of the country, Hindi is the fourth most spoken language in the world behind Mandarin, English, and Spanish. As India continues to surge in the technical fields of the global economy, translation to and from Hindi is going to be of increased importance.

India is a nation which has grown like few others in terms of literacy. At the end of British rule in 1947, nearly 90 percent of Indians were short of the literacy line. Less than a century later, the number is down to 30 percent. While the literacy rate in India is below the global average of 84 percent, those that are literate are extremely so. One reason is that in India literature is easily accessible, another reason is that translation is a way of life.

Part of what makes literacy such a challenge in this land of over a billion people is the nearly 1,700 languages represented, with 30 of those languages being spoken by at least a million people. Each of the states in India has several “official” languages, but of all India’s languages, only 23 are officially recognized by the Indian central government.

Hindi is the official language of India, although half of the country does not speak it. In fact, statistically, more people speak English in India than Hindi. That said, in a world where many people struggle to learn two languages, and the western world is impressed with any bilingual education, most educated Indians speak at least three different languages. In order for the country to survive, translation between all of these conflicting languages is not just important, it is a necessity.

One event that aims to bolster literacy and translation in India is the Jaipur Literature Festival, which boasts “the best of Indian-language and English writing from India.” The festival is meant to expose the people of India to the breadth of their own literature while exposing the world to the thoughts of great Indian writers. Among the authors featured are Nobel laureates and winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

Translations into or from modern Hindi, or Hindustani, can be complex. The language may be called “modern” but it dates back to the 17th century. The language may have a more up-to-date grammatical structure, but it is heavily rooted in culture and tradition. The Hindi alphabet (Devanagari script) is the one most commonly associated with Sanskrit.

Hindustani as a language is a combination of Hindi and Urdu. Urdu is a nearly identical language in many aspects but is predominately spoken by Muslims and is most common in the area now known as Pakistan. The informal Hindi and Urdu languages share more commonalities than differences and at times are nearly impossible to tell part. However, the formal languages present a major split in grammar and vocabulary. Formal Hindi is based on Sanskrit while Urdu adopted many Arabic and Persian elements.

When translating into an Indian language, it is very important to know if the language, especially Hindustani, is to be formal or informal. While the spoken language of Urdu and Hindi are familiar in their informal variations, their scripts are entirely different. Urdu script is based on Arabic and is read right to left. Hindi has its roots in Sanskrit and is read left to right. If you have a choice between the two scripts, you will likely save time and money going with Hindi because Urdu is one of the most difficult languages to typeset.

One of the most common challenges you may face when dealing with Indian language translation are the contrasts between literacy, bilingualism, and bilingual fluency. As previously noted, many Indians are polyglots, but it is imperative to remember that there is a large difference between speaking two languages and being able to translate between those two languages. This is of particular concern with the Hindustani languages and English because these languages are effectively spoken by so many people.

In order to ensure your translations are perfect, be certain that your translators are not simply bilingual, but linguistic experts in the source and target languages with field-specific credentials in the area of the text that is to be translated.

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