When I was at university I had two friends who were doing degrees in languages. They would always get stressed out when they had something due for a translation class. I never really understood what the big deal was. After all, if you speak two languages, shouldn’t translating be pretty easy?
I now would like to apologize for ever having such a thought. Because it is hard. Translating and finding the right words – without being overly literal and while capturing the essence of what someone is trying to say – is really hard. It’s even harder when you can’t do it yourself.
I have spent the last week finally starting the edit for my film about the women I’ve met and followed in Dharavi. It was already going to be a challenge for me – I only have access to a computer with Final Cut and I really am most comfortable on an Avid (I know this means nothing to those of you who who don’t edit, but I explained to it Daniel as such: imagine using excel, or some other program, on a PC for years. Then imagine getting a Mac and having to learn all new keystrokes and shortcuts. You know how the program is supposed to work, but you can’t make it work. VERY frustrating). But this challenge paled in comparison to the translating.
The words had already been ‘translated’. I had written a script based on this translation. I’d had all the interviews transcribed fully in Hindi and then translated so that I could write this script. But even while writing the script and putting it together I was keenly aware that this ‘translation’ was a guideline at best. If you read it out loud it sounded like a person whose grasp of English wasn’t very good. It was often overly specific, which meant the translator was probably being too literal. But alternately it was frequently vague, as though the meaning had been lost. I just couldn’t sure how bad the translation was until I got a Hindi speaker to listen and compare.
I also had a second challenge facing me: my translator had quit. It’s not an interesting story (well, it kind of is… but its not really my business to write about it!) – she quit because she was unhappy with her job in general and another opportunity came up (Ie: it had nothing to do with me or this project!), but it was definitely a blow. She had been there every step of the way. She had conducted the interviews. She would know what the intentions of the subjects were because she had sat there in person and listened as they spoke. But she wasn’t coming back.
So instead, the organization sponsoring the film had another person, K, come to help me. I had spent a lot of time with K initially because in her role she actually does a lot of work with the domestic violence prevention center that the film is about. So at least she’s very familiar with the subject and all the people we are following. I figured it would be alright.
But right from the beginning it was clear that this was not going to be an easy ride. I’ll give you some examples:
Translation: “And then I got an explanation that will you work over here”
Actual translation: “And then I was offered a job”
Translation: “It was there in some place on my inside to do work in social sector but I did not know how to do.”
Actual translation: “It was always in me to do social work, but I didn’t know how to go about it.”
Translation: “Sometimes when we talk in groups if we say even one word then that can break the group.”
Actual translation: ” When we speak with the different community groups, if we say something that can be construed as offensive, that can cause people to leave the group.”
You get the picture. So every single sentence had to be re-thought and re-worked. We had to really consider what it was that the person was trying to say. A word’s literal meaning might not translate properly to English. So for each sentence – or even half of a sentence – we had to sit, think about it, debate over every word and then write it in and put the subtitle on the video. For a film that is 20 minutes long every 5 second chunk took two to five minutes of discussion, deliberation and editing.
We sat like this for two full days. K would always ask me, “What do you think she meant?” and I would have to laughingly remind her that I don’t speak Hindi and couldn’t give insight into the meaning. I could only help through suggesting words once she had already told me what the gist of the sentence was. At times it was incredibly frustrating: how can we put that sentiment into one sentence? How can this translate properly?
My favorite Hindi phrase is “dhīrē, dhīrē” (roll your r’s when making the sound) which literally means “slowly, slowly.” I use it a lot in rickshaws when I’m near the place I’m going but not quite sure exactly where it is. But it also has a certain calming effect- maybe I just like the way the words sound. For me, it gives the phrase a double meaning. Everything in India happens slowly, slowly. You have to say it twice to emphasize that its not merely slow, it just might take a little bit of time to get it right. So, dhīrē, dhīrē, we got it done. We slogged our way through but in the end, we had the makings of a movie.
Slowly but surely might be the proper translation.