Will national leaders ever stop being at the mercy of "unqualified" translators? Not any soon, for the unintentional goof-ups continue to happen over and again, with the election season setting up the stage for more such abominable spectacles.
Not learning from mistakes
In 2018, “micro-irrigation” became “urine-fed” when a BJP leader translated the party president Amit Shah's speech in Chennai. The incident prompted a wave of trolls online and became a butt of the joke offline. But, neither the saffron party nor the translator himself seems to have learned from their mistakes.
History repeated itself on March 1, 2021, when Shah visited Villupuram to garner support ahead of the Assembly polls. BJP went for the same translator, once again, only to let "the king of translators" face the ignominy for his mistranslations. A shrewd Shah discerned the incorrectness of the translator's
interpretation of "2G, 3G and 4G all in Tamil Nadu" statement and smirkingly asked the latter to do his translation job properly.
This is not all. And, it is also too early to conceive that accurate translation of a prolific political speech will translate into votes for national parties.
Another recent gaffe picked up by news satire channels in Tamil is that of former Puducherry Chief Minister V Narayanasamy. He was quick to fib when a fisherwoman complained to Rahul Gandhi, during his visit to the Union Territory in February, that even the CM did not visit them during Cyclone Nivar. In the then CM’s version, “During Nivar, I visited the area and gave relief to them, so she is saying that.” The entire event was live-streamed on Facebook, and little did Narayanasamy know before “lying in translation” that a clarification clip has to be circulated to fight the indelible shame.
Social media, the villain?
Such uncalled-for comical outcomes get more visibility in the digital age, leaving no chance for the leaders to correct as memes and trolls spread like wildfire on social media, says poet and political analyst Manushyaputhiran.
“Some regional leaders consider translation as an important task and want to take it up for their party high command. Though they have been confidently managing so far, it is not working in reality,” he says.
Stressing on the need for professional translators, he adds, “For a long time, even parliament has designated people to do the job. So, it is high time that parties understand translators need not be politicians and change their culture.”
Echoing similar thoughts, political commentator Sumanth C Raman claims that there is a big competition among state leaders to translate for their netas as they see it as an opportunity to display their proximity with the latter. “There is no dearth for translators in regional languages. In fact, we have people to translate English into various Tamil dialects. However, a change in the translation scene will happen only if the party high command addresses the issue by laying down orders to use professional translators.”
On BJP opting the same translator even after his 2018 goof-up, Sumanth says, “He has been sidelined and dropped from the national secretary post. So, this chance could have been given, considering his long-time association with the saffron party.”
A future in the making
While one section of people see Rahul Gandhi inviting students to translate his speeches as an attempt to attract first-time voters, many appreciate the move, which is also perceived as a step towards preparing the future generation to create a level-playing field in politics.
Roping in students to translate has its own perks, begins Kavitha Muralidharan, an independent journalist cum translator. “Even if they commit mistakes, it shall not be blown out of proportion as in the case of politicians. Besides, the translation field has a high potential for jobs. So, such opportunities will
make students explore it in the coming days,” she asserts.
From her experiences, she says on-the-spot translation is a tough nut to crack even for professionals. “Knowing the source and the target languages is not enough. One needs a set of skills and a basic knowledge of the speaker’s ideas.
Usually, mistakes happen while translating data. Besides, not many politicians hand out written speeches to their translators beforehand. Though doing this could bring down the instances of goof-ups, hiring a translator is the only way
‘Mind presence of mind’
Pointing out that most translators make the elementary mistake of not writing down significant points during live translations, former journalist R Rangaraj says being abreast of current affairs and avoiding literal translation are other things that will save the day for a translator.
Citing presence of mind as crucial for the job, he takes cognisance of former chief minister C N Annadurai, also called as South India’s George Bernard Shaw. “When a leader once said Robert Clive came to India and became Robber Clive, a witty Anna translated it as Thiru Robert Clive India virkku vandhar, Thirudan Robert Clive aaga mari vittar.”
Rangaraj also welcomes the Gandhi scion for making a departure from the conventional way of translation. “Some people consciously speak in senthamil while translating speeches and fail to strike a chord with the modern-day audience. At times, they end up taking more time than the original speech. So, having one from the crowd who is aware of the local lingo will help connect better.”
The other side of the coin
Stating that a little exaggeration is no harm in translating speeches of national leaders, a senior journalist contends the need for a professional. “When Rahul expresses his interest in learning Tamil, his translator quotes Mahakavi Bharathiyar and extols the language’s legacy before saying that our leader wants to educate himself of the oldest language.”
Such instances show that local leaders know the pulse of people, he says, adding, “For a professional translator, it is a mechanical task. But, local leaders see this as a lucrative chance to connect with the masses in the presence of the party behemoths. They are also in a well-off position to translate their
leaders’ energy and expressions. The mistranslations, however, can be addressed by identifying eligible and knowledgeable local leaders.”
It’s not the same
Differentiating translations in a government function and a party meeting, former BJP Propaganda Cell State President A Saravanan says, while the forme involves reproduction of the content, the latter will engage the audience, making them experience the party’s grandeur and power through the highs and lows in the speech.
The translation issues, though not peculiar to Tamil Nadu, is predominant in the State, he observes. “People understand Hindi even in Bengal and Assam, states with three-language policy. In Kerala, though many know Hindi, they prefer to hear the speeches translated in Malayalam,” he adds.
At the party level, Saravanan explains, a need for a translator arises when national leaders address functionaries and cadre during their state-level training camps. “It is also the ground for the netas to identify capable and eloquent orators whom they could eventually entrust with the task of translation.”
In BJP, translation for top leaders is taken care of by H Raja, Srinivasan and Vanathi Srinivasan while C B Raman does it for the next-level leaders like J P Nadda and Nitin Gadkari, briefs Saravanan, adding, “Every time L K Advani toured in Tamil Nadu, he would ask for H Raja to translate. Once S R Sekhar was roped in for the job but Advani opted Raja, who he always trusted to rightly communicate his thoughts.”
Recollecting the demand for former BJP president Jana Krishnamurthy, he says, “When the late chief minister M Karunanidhi organized Tamil Elam Supporters Organisation’s (TESO) meeting in Madurai, national leaders including N T Rama Rao, Surjit Singh Barnala and Atal Bihari Vajpayee took part to address the Ceylon issue. Then, Karunanidhi invited Jana to translate for Vajpayee saying he has
the same zeal and zest of the leader, which cannot be achieved by a hired translator at any point.”
Magic lost in translation
Despite being in the party for over 30 years, Congress spokesperson Americai Narayanan says he got a chance to translate his party leader's speech only recently. "Every party has some insecure leaders at the helm, who hamper the growth of a few talented people. Tamil Nadu Congress Chief K S Alagiri, however, is secure enough to have given me this opportunity."
Certain that only a party representative can do a “magic” in translation, Narayanan explains, “Tone, tenor and delivery are as important as words. A professional may translate the words but a party leader will translate the message with emotion.”
'Eye for talents essential'
Former editor-in-charge of Theekathir, A Kumaresan asks when political parties could outsource their works to private players, why not employ a translator?
“Ideally, all party works have to be shared among its members. Also, there will be language enthusiasts in all parties. It is upon the high command to identify and develop them instead of adhering to hierarchy. The prominence given to improve oratory skills of a leader should also be for bettering translation skills of such enthusiasts,” adds Kumaresan, who has translated over 20 books on various subjects.
Some hits, a few misses
Having translated leaders’ speeches since 2011, BJP Mahila Morcha President Vanathi Srinivasan opines translation flops happen rarely, mostly due to audio issues and so, a need for hiring professionals has not come calling. Exuding confidence that people will not mistake such goof-ups as the party’s inefficiency or negligence, she urges them to take it lightly and pass it over.
Clearing the air of rumours that party members clamour for a chance to translate, she says the saffron party has been giving opportunities to all and identifies BJP State Secretary of Propaganda Wing Renuka Devi from Madurai and party member Victoria Gowri from Kanyakumari as their upcoming translators.
Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu, Muralidhara Rao and Smriti Irani are some leaders for whom Vanathi has translated.
Congress already tried taking the help of professional translators in 2019 for Rahul’s address in Krishnagiri but the experiment was unsuccessful, says former Congress MLA Peter Alphonse, who derives inspiration from the late Dravidian movement leader EVK Sampath and former finance minister P Chidambaram. Peter, however, does not mind hiring professionals in the absence of a good hand in the party.
“I find translating for Rahul the toughest as it is difficult to know which topic he will start when and where he will finish. So, I keep a track of his speeches and understand the season. Recently, I translated "nickerwallas" as "liquorwallas" by mistake. After the meeting, Rahul asked if he was not audible
and assured to speak in a direction that will not be difficult to grab the words.
To his credit, Alphonse has translated the speeches of Manmohan Singh and P V Narasimha Rao.
Need to address the elephant in the room
Politics today is inundated with uninformed and unskilled job seekers, laments a senior politician from a national party seeking anonymity. “Some people with access to a party leader get into the field thinking that money and caste are sufficient to bag a post and sustain. This is also a reason for the quality of
Assembly debates to have dropped over time. The scenario is such that most of the 39 MPs from Tamil Nadu are not conversant in English. So, there is a need to encourage qualified and talented people to enter politics. Until then, changes will remain a distant dream.”
Summing it up by borrowing Thiruvalluvar’s couplet (517), in all true sense not to catch up with politicians growing “fondness” for him: Edhanai edhanal evanmudikkum endraaindhu, adhanai avankan vidal; meaning: the performance problem can be averted if the right person with relevant skills is roped in for the job.