obediently yoursPrime Minister Narendra Modi is known for his oratory, particularly the way he keeps the audience fully engrossed in his word play.But the difference between the 3 Ds - Democracy, Demography and Demand - speech at Madison Square Garden in the heart of Manhattan, which was cheered by some 20,000 NRIs and the 3 D - Disrupt, Destruct and Demolish- speech targeting Congress at Thekkinkadu Maidan in Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala was that the latter was lost in a T. Translation.

K Surendran, BJP general secretary in Kerala, got the Malayalam translation all wrong of the very opening sentence of Prime Minister’s Hindi speech. A heart-felt apology from Modi for his late arrival in Kerala after becoming the PM was translated as “I am very happy to arrive here in Kerala”. The translator’s 'expertise' was in full display when he added an entire part on his own which Modi did not even mention in his Hindi speech. Other leaders on the dais realized the mistake in translation. Surendran was quickly replaced by state BJP president V Muraleedharan, who translated the speech correctly. But the damage was already done and the social media discourse ‘trolling’ started in no time in Facebook, Twitter and Whats App. This faux-pas is a classic example in recent times of what really is lost in translation. But the controversy also helped to put the big T in the public conscience.This is not the first time Kerala is witnessing the translation goof up.When Indian President Giani Zail Singh came to Kerala in1983 for stonelaying function of the then SNDP Yogam building at Kaithamukku in Thiruvananthapuram, which is now housing the Regional Passport Office, the translator, a linguist expert from a state institute in Kerala committed the same mistake. “Then an alert Zail Singh reading faces of the audience understood that the translation is going wrong. He asked the translator to stop and continued his speech in Hindi, which the audience applauded,” recalls R K Manoj, a TV Journalist who covered the event for Keltron. It happened at a time when there were no TV channels in Kerala and Keltron was one of the major TV set manufacturer in India.

The crowd at the BJP public meeting venue/ J Philip

Found in Translation

Translation is not an easy job at all. Southeast Asia Correspondent for The New York Times points out in his article as how when Myanmar is embracing change, the country do not understand a concept like ‘democracy’ simply because Burmese has a far poorer political vocabulary than English. The English word democracy was subsumed into the Burmese language decades ago — it is pronounced dee-mock-rah-SEE — but for many Burmese it remains a foreign and somewhat abstract concept.He attributes it to the strict censorship of publications, limited access to global media and creaking connections to the Internet when the rest of the world was hurtling into the information age. It may be one of the reasons that founding fathers of India long before the Internet age designated a bilingual approach for official language, employing use of Hindi, as well as English in a country with linguistic diversity. States within India were also given the liberty and powers to specify their own official language.As per the Official Languages Act, 1969, in Kerala English and Malayalam were the official languages. This week, the Kerala Assembly passed the Malayalam Bhasha (language) Bill, which aims to make Malayalam the official language.The decision will effect a change which will make Malayalam official medium of communication in secretariat, government, quasi-government and autonomous institutions. This also means that English- Malayalam translators will be in good demand in Kerala.

M R Thampan
M.R. Thampan, Director, State Institute of Languages

To make the transition hassle-free, works are underway in government run institutions to develop the right tool with all technological support. State Institute of Languages, is playing a pivotal role to popularise Malayalam. “One of the initiatives that we are undertaking is to teach Malayalam to civil servants and NRIs students who are inclined to learn Malayalam.We are coming up with a software ‘Malayalam Tutor’ for this. Also we are working on another software “Kavitha Chollam” which helps children to recite poetry. Both will be released next month by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy ,” said MR Thampan, director, State Institute of Languages.

The Institute is also giving thrust to language computing and has already developed spelling and grammar checking system, new Malayalam fonts and a complete translation software. Partnering with Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) it has developed a software ‘Paribhashika’ (Translator), which is the first attempt to customize AnglaBharati machine-aided translation (MAT) engine for a Dravidian language. “We are also developing an online Malayalam dictionary which will be available for free download.This will be integrated in the mobile platform and the launch is scheduled in February,” said Thampan. With the ‘Digital India’ getting a big push, Kerala is making fast strides in language computing so as not to lag behind in the digital race. Even Google is working on improving its English-Malayalam translation.


Google has kicked off its second 'translatathon' in India, this time for nine languages — Hindi, Malayalam, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Gujarati, Kannada and Punjabi. An user can acess Google Translate Community on phone, laptop or computer. One can either translate phrases directly, or validate existing translations. “"The Internet today is still predominantly an English only medium in India. But many of the next 100 to 200 million Indians who come online won’t speak English. We’ve been working with 30 partners on the Indian Language Internet Alliance (ILIA) to make the web more useful to Indic language speakers. Our vision is to get 300M highly-engaged Indian language internet users over 3 years. It’s an incredible challenge for a single company to do it all and hence we have an alliance of members in the ecosystem, who will be able to build out the Indic language internet,” said a Google India spokesperson.

The big ticket annoucement from Google comes at a time when Internet base in the country has crossed the 300 million users out of the population of 1.3bn, making India world’s second-biggest internet customer base after China. "Here again the growth and adoption of smartphones in India has enabled a lot of things - close to half of the total Internet population in India have smartphones, and there’s an explosion of language activity on mobile. India is leapfrogging the desktop internet and is living in a mobile-first world. With over 300 million plus Internet users in the country, over 65% of people coming online access internet on their smartphones," he said.

In the second 'translatathon' Google is hoping a good participation from across the country as several languages are included. “Last year 20,000 people contributed over one million new Hindi translations, helping improve the overall quality of Hindi content online. We’re now including all the Indic languages that Google Translate is available in, and we look forward to seeing how people from across the country can help,” said the company spokesperson.

Why T is big?

GoogleRavi Kumar, president, Indian Translators Association based in New Delhi says that the translation industry is witnessing a paradigm shift with the demand of translators multiplying manifold. According to him the Indian translation industry, which was pegged at $ 500 million five years back is witnessing a tenfold increase.“ The impeteus given to‘Digital India’ after Narendra Modi came to power has fuelled the demand for professional translators with many companies planning their operations in India. Earlier it was one way –translation from Indian languages to foreign languages- but now it has become a two way- from foreign languages to Indian. The growing nationalism in India is also contributing, as many companies and state governments now demand materials in their mother tongue. In a way we can say Modi has acted as a catalyst for translation industry’s growth,” said Kumar.

According to him, if earlier the demand of foreign language professionals was in the Indian offshoring (IT, BPO and KPO) industry now it has opened up with high requirement for domestic direct consumers. This has opened new avenues for language professionals who are bilingual. When a product, be it a software or an automobile hit the market it comes with a manual of at least 12-15 languages depending on region.Now, with the “Make in India’ campaign the translation is witnessing a reverse flow as companies are providing all written materials in local languages.

“The high social media penetration and local language websites that are mushrooming mean that the demand will be high for language professionals. Technology can only aid translation and skilled professionals are required in the field as there are unlimited opportunities. The demand and supply gap is big and we are now reaching out to attract more talented people to the industry,” says Kumar, who did a project on translation for Punjab Technical University, which now offers courses on translation.

The Indian Translators Association is getting ready to host a World Congress on translation next year in Delhi with participation from all major countries which aims to provide a platform to bring linguistic experts, aspiring translators and various companies together. “We are planning to conduct the event every two years,” he said.

The art of T

Translators have always played a pivotal role in social and cultural change in society and they have left behind valuable footmarks in the history. Translation is not only needed for the creation of national identity but it is also an essential tool for keeping pace with cultural and artistic progress happenng around the world. Many poets and writers in the country learned more than one language and worked tirelessly to bring literature from all around the globe to the country. India with its 22 official languages and its rich cultural diversity is a sea for a translator to explore.