Breaking the wall: Translate for peace

Translation as a form of political activism

May 20, 2022 02:04 pm | Updated May 23, 2022 07:08 pm IST

“Pull over!” says the policeman authoritatively to the car he waves down in a Hollywood film.

“Hand me your sweater!” says the policeman to the driver of the car in an Italian dubbing of the same film.

“I’m bringing my date,” says the young man on the phone to his family in another American film.

“I’m bringing dry fruit,” says the same person in a Portuguese dubbing of this film.

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Mistranslations are both common and funny to those who know the original language.

Since most people are not linguists, they tend to think that every word in language A has an equivalent in language B. Another brick wall that translators or bilingualists hit is when something that is commonplace in language A is completely unknown to speakers and users of language B: for instance, madiley poonay literally means ‘the cat on your lap’ in Tamil but is meant to indicate someone who moves intimately with you and is beyond suspicion but is actually capable of stealthy hostility.

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“Mistranslations or miscommunications have sometimes changed the course of history”

Likewise, caste and casteism are unique to India. So refusals to eat what is offered by a person from a lower caste — which needs no explanation to Indian readers — would call for laborious scaffolding for those without our DNA. Then, consider desert communities who cannot possibly have equivalents for maritime words like anchor, starboard, etc. In a translation of the New Testament meant for Peruvians, Jesus curses a banana plant because the fig tree doesn’t grow in Peru.

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Beyond borders

Mistranslations or miscommunications have sometimes changed the course of history. In July 1945, when Truman, Stalin, Churchill and Chiang kai-Shek were waiting anxiously for an answer to their steely letter to Japan (the Potsdam Declaration) demanding surrender and stating that a negative response would bring forth “prompt and utter destruction,” the Japanese word mokusatsu reached the U.S. army base. When asked for his opinion by the press, the Japanese premier Suzuki had used this word, which literally means ‘silence’ or ‘no comment’ but can also mean ‘ignore contemptuously’.

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Sadly for humanity and tragically for Japan, news agencies all over the world reported that for the Japanese, the message from the Allied leaders was not worthy of comment. Within 10 days, enraged by what they saw as a huge insult, America flattened Hiroshima.

In our troubled times (I hesitate to say “in our troubled times” because there have hardly been any untroubled times and the future looks even grimmer than it did last year), translations between cultures and civilisations demonstrate again and again that it is a form of political activism militating against the boundaries used to control people and strengthening the connections all human beings share. Why don’t we have Translation for Peace, for Anti-bias, and for Conflict Resolution as a course in Cultural and Language studies?

The writer is co-ordinating editor, Tamil Nadu Textbook And Educational Services Corporation.

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