Section 19 == *more help*

19.1 = General advice

In this section I want to discuss some common cross-language problems encountered when translating from Urdu/Hindi to English, and some of the ways these might be dealt with. I will add things as they occur to me, and as I have time. These will be helpful if you want to translate, and will sometimes come in handy if you're reading translations and notice problems in them.

19.2 = Direct discourse and kih

In older Urdu texts, punctuation is minimal and haphazard. The main quotation introducer is kih ; there is no mark for the end of a quotation. And it's important to keep in mind that direct discourse, in which actual speech is quoted ("He told me, 'You're crazy'"), is overwhelmingly preferred over indirect discourse, in which reported speech is paraphrased as it most often is in English ("He told me [that] I was crazy"). This preference is so marked that it holds up even in cases of quoted unspoken thought ("I said in my heart, 'Come on, let's go see him'" as opposed to "I decided to go see him"). Because of the absence (or nowadays sometimes the sporadic, unreliable use) of quotation marks, the translator has to decide what exactly is going on with the apparent quotation, and how best to frame it in English. Sometimes translators are awkward or sloppy about this.

An additional dimension of the problem is the ambiguity caused by the other, non-quote-introducing ways that kih can be used. When you're translating, be attuned to the subtleties! Some of these ways are very slippery and hard to categorize on the fly. Here's *Naim's account*; and some *examples from Ghalib*.

19.3 = Do the tenses really correspond?

It's almost suspiciously tidy and convenient, how the tenses seem to correspond in Urdu and English, especially the perfect forms: dekhaa hai for "has seen," dekhaa for "saw," dekhaa thaa for "had seen." And yet in practice, differences are at once apparent. An Urdu speaker will normally tell you, kal mai;N ne film dekhii thii ; an English speaker will never say (in isolation) "Yesterday I had seen a film." Clearly the use of the past perfect in Urdu is often marking something different from what it would mark in English-- something more like an emphatic, wrapped-up pastness and completeness, rather than the comparatively greater degree of pastness that it marks in English. Examples of this kind could be multiplied and elaborated. Some Ghalibian examples: G{38,1}. A particularly good example is a verse by Shauq Qidva'i, cited in M{1219,6}:

hu))aa chaaro;N :taraf aq.saa-e ((aalam me;N pukaar aa))ii
bahaar aa))ii bahaar aa))ii bahaar aa))ii bahaar aa))ii

[it happened that in all directions, to the ends of the world, a call came--
'spring has come, spring has come, spring has come, spring has come!']

In such spontaneous rejoicing, no English speaker would cry out, in the perfect tense of the Urdu, 'spring came!'.

In fact, it's a general truth that in Urdu you often feel that you're one degree further in the past than you would be in English. (Or even sometimes two degrees: nobody would translate abhii aayaa , "I'll come at once," literally into English as "I just now came.")

Nowadays the pressure of English on Urdu is so intense, and the number of bilingual speakers who privilege English over Urdu is so rapidly increasing, that I predict that eventually this difference of usage will be ironed out, as Urdu tenses increasingly come to be used exactly like their English counterparts. But when reading older texts, the difference should always be kept in mind.

19.4 = Other common confusions

==The nah problem in subjunctives: When I was learning Hindi/Urdu it used to confuse me very much to encounter forms like mujhe ;Dar thaa kih kahii;N vuh nah gire . It looked as if that would mean "I was afraid that somehow he might not fall." My (American) teacher agreed that such forms were commonplace and also, to him, inexplicable. Finally, much later, I figured out what was going on: this situation was one facet of the larger problem of the direct discourse that is assumed in Urdu, versus the indirect discourse that is assumed in English. The actual grammar of such utterances is, "I was afraid, [saying/thinking] that [kih]: 'May he not somehow fall!'". The speaker is quoting the exact words of his/her own thought (not even necessarily spoken aloud) at the time-- which is the essence of direct discourse. So the "least marked" translation would be "I was afraid [that] he might fall." Translators who don't know English well sometimes retain the negative, thus producing a reversed meaning.

==The tak problem: Another small but common problem is the different ways that "until" is commonly expressed in Urdu and English. "Until this happens" most often takes the form in Urdu of jab tak yih nah ho jaa))e . This form could be rendered most literally as "As long as this does not happen," but that usually sounds clumsy, so a good translator would probably substitute "Until this happens." The problem comes when translators who don't know English perfectly get confused and produce something like "Until this does not happen." An example: "'Till, therefore, the Hindi version is not received, I'll postpone the Urdu version'" (Madan Gopal, Munshi Premchand: A Literary Biography, Delhi, 1964, p. 279). Here's another problematical little example with tak : M{1421,1}; and here's one with the similarly-used Persianized taa : M{401,3}.

=="Since" and se : There's not only an "until" problem, but also a "since" one. I've often heard Urdu speakers say, in English, "since long" instead of "for a long time," or "I am here since two years." In the latter case, they're literally translating mai;N do saal se yahaa;N huu;N . Obviously, a translator with the ear of a native English speaker would use "I've been here for two years." There's also a more sophisticated way to say it in Urdu: mujhe yahaa;N aaye hu))e do saal ho ga))e hai;N -- literally, "to me, having come here, two years have occurred." I remember being taught this phrase in my elementary Hindi class; it was my first encounter with a participle, and I really wrestled with it before it fitted into my mind. But nowadays you rarely hear this more complex pattern anyway. For a Ghalibian example with kih , see G{169,2}. And here's an example of the simple pattern in the melancholy past tense, from Mir: M{28,5}; a more amusing one: M{485,7}.

Another common simplification involving se : nowadays people who are asked where they're from also use se : mai;N nyuu yaark se huu;N . I was taught to use the more intimate possessive mai;N nyuu yaark kii huu;N , "I am of New York," when naming a home place, and se only when describing travel routes: shikaago se ho kar aa))ii , "I came via Chicago," and the like.

=="Your thought": In English we're accustomed to an easily marked distinction: "your thought" is the one in your head, while "the thought of you" is located in someone else's head; "your picture" is probably one that you own, while a "picture of you" may belong to anybody. This distinction is not absolute, since the first form can sometimes be used as a shorthand for the second form (though never vice versa); but on the whole it's pretty well established. In Urdu, by contrast, teraa ;xayaal and terii ta.sviir (and so on for many similar cases) have to do double duty. This ambiguity is greatly to the advantage of ghazal poets, who often exploit it for complex effects of "meaning-creation" (for some Ghalibian examples, see G{41,6}; for a clever Mirian example, see M{328,6}); but it can confuse translators and readers of translations. Since many translations from Urdu to English are made by people whose first language is Urdu, the reader often sees the Urdu-inflected "your thought" where the author's intention would be less confusingly rendered in English as "the thought of you." A striking example of such problems: a person whose English is not very strong recently sent me an email called "idiom's inquiry," meaning an inquiry about an idiom.

=="his son" and "her daughter": In Urdu, such possessive pronouns agree in gender with the person they modify: us kaa be;Taa means "his/her son" and us kii be;Tii means "his/her daughter." The problem comes when the Urdu pattern is erroneously transferred into English, where pronoun gender agrees with the possessor. The result can be sentences like this one (composed in English recently by a native speaker of Urdu): "How can a father be moved to killing her own teen-age daughter?"

==The problem of over-the-top "too": Fascinatingly, it's impossible to translate the over-the-topness of the English "too" into Urdu/Hindi. I was alerted to this gap by hearing Urdu speakers say, in English, things like "Oh, she is too beautiful" or "He is too intelligent." ("For what?" I always wanted to ask.) When I inquired further, it always turned out that the speakers simply meant "very very." Mostly they didn't even realize that an isolated "too" in such sentences often has a negative flavor, of excess and even undesirableness. When I consulted my Urdu ustads, the best anybody could come up with was bahut hii ziyaadah -- which comes close, but doesn't really do it. So if you see an odd-looking usage of "too" in a translation, it's probably an artifact of the translator's English, and doesn't reflect anything special in the original Urdu.

==When bhii doesn't mean "even, also": The little word bhii means a variety of things. When it means "even X" or "X too," it's usually present with both items: vuh bhii gayaa , yih bhii gayaa ; in English, of course, the first of these should be dropped. But on many other occasions it means something much more idiomatic, and not "even" or "also" at all, even though overly literal translators often throw in the "too's" with a lavish hand. A colloquial expression like yih bhii ko))ii baat hai can convey a wide range of (sarcastic, astonished) reactions, but in none of them is the bhii present in its normal sense. A Ghalibian example: G{104,1}. A Mirian example, explained by S. R. Faruqi: M{601,1}.

==The fallibility of samajhnaa : In English, "to understand" generally (though not always) suggests accuracy of comprension. In Urdu, however, samajhnaa often has no such associations. It's an unusual verb in that it can be used either transitively or intransitively. It's often translated as "to understand," which is often appropriate for its (rarer) intransitive form. But for its transitive form, it's much better to think of it as meaning "to consider," and to translate it accordingly. Here's the perfect example, from Faiz: mai;N ne samjhaa thaa kih tuu hai to dara;xshaa;N hai ;hayaat , "I had considered that if you exist, then life is radiant." The poem proceeds to makes clear that this view was wrong. In addition, the causative samjhaanaa , which is taken to mean "to explain, to cause to understand," is more like "to try to persuade" (not necessarily intellectual, but usually emotional: it might involve cajoling, etc.); it's really more like manaanaa .

=="Seeing" vs. "looking at": The differentiation we make in English between "to see" and "to look at," and similarly between "to hear" and "to listen," can't at all be captured in Urdu/Hindi. Translators with imperfect English often create imperatives like "Please see" when they mean "Please look at."

=="Putting on" vs. "wearing": In Urdu, some key verbs are what I call "one-shot actions with continuing effects." Often the English counterparts work differently. Since pahan'naa means "to put on" rather than "to wear," you can only compliment someone on the clothes that they are "in a state of having put on" [pahne hu))e]; if you use the present progressive, the implication is that they're getting dressed before your eyes. Urdu speakers will often say (and write) things in English like "Please wear" when they mean "Please put on." Usually there's no major confusion involved, but a really elegant translator will be alert for such small cross-language divergences.

Similarly, bai;Thnaa applies to the moment when one's posterior lands on the chair: that's the only time you can use bai;Th rahe hai;N . After that, while the person remains in the chair s/he is "in a state of having sat down" [bai;The hu))e], or is "seated." In English usage, this can conveniently also be called "sitting," which is often a better choice; I don't want to go into the subtleties of the English side of this right now.

In another and similar case, rakhnaa applies to the moment when something is placed somewhere; after that it is "in a state of having been placed" [rakhe hu))e]. Urdu speakers often translate this verb, wrongly, as the habitual "to keep." The result is wrongly habitual-sounding sentences like "Please keep it on the top shelf," when the intended meaning is the strictly one-shot "Please put it on the top shelf." When babies are named, that is naam rakhnaa , and that too is a one-shot action with continuing effects; its intransitive form is naam rahnaa . (For an interesting example see Mir's verse M{74,9}.

==How to fill things up: In English we 'fill X with Y'. In Urdu, however, one often 'fills Y into X'. There's nothing particularly confusing about either one; but translators sometimes conflate them in erroneous ways. An excellent example of the Urdu usage: M{352,8}. Remember too that bharnaa can be, without any change in spelling, both transitive and intransitive.

A few other small back-and-forth sources of confusion:

Indian English American English
alphabets letters of the alphabet
communalism 'religious chauvinism' is perhaps the best rendering; no connection with communes or communal living
to 'give' an exam [imti;haan denaa] to take an exam (what a student does)
to 'take' an exam [imti;haan lenaa] to give an exam (what a teacher does)
to be 'fired' by one's boss to receive a strong rebuke or tongue-lashing (not to be confused with losing one's job)
football soccer
to 'gherao' someone to surround a bureaucrat in his office and prevent him from leaving, as a form of protest
homely homey, domestic (meant as a compliment)
to 'take' a kiss [bosah lenaa] to kiss someone (what a kisser does, perhaps unilaterally)
to 'give' a kiss [bosah denaa] to permit or participate in a kiss (what a willing kissee does)
maize corn
to 'make love' this is sometimes wrongly used to translate pyaar karnaa , which really means 'to show affection toward' and is often used for interactions with small children
to 'overlook' to oversee (to inspect, not to ignore)
to 'pressurize' to put pressure on [someone]; not to be confused with pressurizing an airplane cabin
'the police is coming' 'the police are coming'; pulis is fem. sing. in Hindi/Urdu
to 'revise' to review (what a reader does, not what an author does)
tank a rectangular artificial pond with steps leading down into the water

Bilingual jokes my students recently told me:

What did the pitcher say to the milk? --What's up, duudh ?

How do you make an Indian pizza go away? --You say 'Pizza, ha;T !'

How do Indian peas talk? --They matar .

Which reminds me of a long-ago cartoon I saw in India Today. Indira Gandhi was emerging from a half-peeled banana. She was saying, desh ko ma.zbuu:t banaanaa hai ! ;Gariib ko amiir banaanaa hai !' And the caption was, 'Banana republic'.


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