A soft drink advertisement that portrays a Kathakali artiste breaking into a dance after consuming the beverage has triggered heated arguments on social networking platforms on the Internet.

“To make an impact, what depths of degradation will advertisers and ad agencies descend to?” wonders writer Anita Nair in her Facebook post. A long debate on the pros and cons of the trend follows. Participating in the discussion, poet K. Satchidanandan notes, “Nothing remains sacred in the market place. And nothing respectable, art or man or woman or child.”

This disregard for indigenous culture is also reflected in the way language is used in popular advertisements. Most television commercials for Fast Moving Commercial Goods (FMCG) use mechanical translations of films made either in Hindi or Tamil.

Economical

“The logic is to be economical. Most clients go for pan-Indian versions and choose to shoot in Hindi and Tamil. This is done so that most North Indian language versions can have characters lip syncing with the Hindi variant, while South Indian versions can use Tamil,” says Gajraj Rao, ad filmmaker of Code Red Films based in Mumbai.

The client prefers to invest more on the base film and less on regional versions. “The ideation happens in Mumbai; concepts are evolved in Hindi or English. So there is no separate budget for regional language versions. The practice is not just restricted to Malayalam,” says Jabbar Kallarackal, an ad filmmaker based in Kerala.

But what about the poor quality of the translations? “With all due respect to those who have been in the industry for a long time, the average age of translators available here is 67 years. They are all settled in Mumbai and have little connect to the contemporary trends happening in language in home turf. So they go for a literal translation of the Hindi copy,” says Manohar Nayak of Bangalore-based Lingo India.

Literal translation

However, literal translations have their inherent flaws. As Mr. Nayak points out, “Mostly Hindi copies to be translated are written down in English and the real meaning is lost. Once the copy of an advertisement for a car said galiyon ki dhun as the car moves along alleys, which means ‘music of the alleys’. But the translator read gali as gaali and came out with the translation ‘music of expletives’! A number of such incidents happen in the industry everyday.”

However, no one seems to be really bothered about these slips.

“The studios in Mumbai rarely go hunting for good voices that match the character onscreen. They rely on customary voices and that is why we have a man sounding in his 60s giving voice to characters ranging from college-goers to old men. The underlying truth is that products do sell irrespective of the quality of the language used in the regional advertisements,” says ad filmmaker Mathew Paul.

While those like Mr. Nayak say that meagre payment for translators leads the industry to the doorsteps of retired professionals, people who actually do the job take a different stand. “Even if we give the right translation, the clients who are not competent enough to handle the language change it. And the filmmakers and studios go by the dictum that the client is always right. Most errors happen during such interventions,” says M.G. Radhakrishnan Pillai of Mumbai, who has been doing translations for advertisements.

In another instance, a Malayalam television commercial for a leading dairy brand claims that their ice-cream is rich in malai, whereas there is a better word for ‘cream’ in Malayalam. The copywriter obviously went by the Hindi script. In the world of advertisement, the rule of thumb continues to be that ‘any publicity is good publicity’. So, a commercial that triggers heated debates due to an insensitive portrayal of reality might end up being rated high in the industry.

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