Translation Travails: Inept or outdated guidebooks that only provoke hilarity (IANS Column: Bookends)

As humanity evolved sufficiently to communicate articulately with each other, the foundations of language — and all its benefits — were laid.

At this time, it is generally believed that there was one common tongue, but as increasing population led to migrations, languages began diverging and proliferating. So did the scope for mutual unintelligibility and misunderstanding.

Of current languages, take Macedonian and Marathi, Spanish and Sinhala, or say, Punjabi and Portuguese. They appear all different and are even spoken on different continents, but they all happen to be members of the Indo-European family that accounts for most languages — primary, recognised, or used — across all world.

All stem from various historical languages, developing from different proto-languages, said to originate from one common language — Proto-Indo-European, in this case.

But due to their succeeding levels of divergence, and other influences and impacts, only linguists and philologists can point out the similarities, and for the common speaker, other Indo-European family languages may seem as mysterious, as those from other families, such as Sino-Tibetan (Chinese, Japanese, and so on) or Afro-Asiatic (Arabic), or even fairly contiguous ones like Uralic (Finnish).

So, despite being an essential attribute of humanity and serving the purpose of communication, their multiplicity and variations make languages more liable to creating barriers to understanding, than demolishing them. Though human ingenuity evolved translation to bridge the gap, this didn’t entirely solve the problem, given the differences in syntax, idioms, and connotation — or even mindsets for that matter.

In the world of technological distractions and limited attention spans that we are in, the interest in learning foreign languages is seeing a decline too. While there are online translation tools and even websites with key phrases for tourists — and these are far advanced from the time when the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” was translated into another language, and on translation back into English, came out as “invisible lunatic”, these can only help to an extent.

There are good and reliable phrasebooks, say by the likes of Berlitz or Lonely Planet, with pronunciation guides or even transliterations, what happens when the translators are inept, or have not kept pace with times? Let us see some examples, when they make for uproarious humour — and incredulous disbelief.

British reporter and author Trevor Fishlock, in his travelogue “India File” (1987), tells us about coming across a Raj-era Hindustani phrasebook for newly arrived British visitors. In this, he tells us, he found that the Indian equivalent of “Hark, our postillion has just been struck by lightning” (which he encountered in a book for travellers to Norway) was “Look, our ostler has been eaten by a tiger”.

Among other gems he found in this were “Your cuirass is dirty” and “He will be hanged tomorrow morning”.

There is a manual for learning Pushto — compiled by a British Army surgeon-cum-Political Officer somewhere in the mid-19th century, but even well into the 21st century, apparently the only English primer available.

In Henry Walter Bellew’s “A Grammar of the Pukkhto Or Pukhto Language” (1867) has examples of phrases, and dialogues, like “What has become of my sword? I don’t see it. I put it under the bed before I went to sleep” or even “Don’t shoot at the people, fire your matchlocks above their heads”.

Conversational dialogues range from instructions to servants about what to take for a hunt, and convincing local maliks to hand over fugitives, and so on.

Then there is G.G. Rogers’ “Colloquial Nepali”, whose 2006 reprint’s cover page says that it “is not a run-of-the-mill tourist handbook. It teaches you how to communicate with anyone, anywhere in Nepal.”

Especially, if you are still fighting in the Second World War.

Sample phrases, mostly in the imperative tone, in it include “Our soldiers will beat the Japanese” (or alternatively, what the outcome of a clash with the enemy in the jungle was). Then, there are more helpful dialogues, such as “Fall in, in lines of 10 men each”, “No. 7 Platoon is advancing”, “Has the General Sahab arrived yet?”, “If you do this, the Colonel sahab will get angry”), and so on .

All this is understandable when we learn Lt Col Rogers, who wrote the book in 1950, was the Nepali Instructor with the Gurkha Brigade during World War II.

But the ace as it happens to be is Portuguese author Pedro Carolino’s “O novo guia da conversacao em portuguez e inglez” (1855), intended as a Portuguese-English conversational guide. Its quality became apparent when it was translated as “English as She is Spoke” (1883).

As its introduction said, it was incredible for the author to “perpetrate — at his own expense — the monstrous joke of publishing a Guide to Conversation in a language of which it is only too evident that every word is utterly strange to him.

“A little consideration of the shaping of our author’s English phrases leads to the conclusion that the materials used have been a Portuguese-French phrase book and a French-English dictionary. With these slight impedimenta has the daring Lusitanian ventured upon the unknown deep of a strange language, and the result, to quote again from the Preface, ‘May be worth the acceptation of the studious persons, and especially of the Youth, at which we dedicate him particularly’…”

We learn that in it, “among what are denominated ‘Eatings’ we find ‘some wigs’, ‘a dainty dishes’, ‘a mutton shoulder’, ‘a little mine’ … the menu is scarcely appetising, especially when among ‘Fishes and Shellfishes’ our Portuguese Lucullus sets down the ‘hedgehog’, ‘snail’ and ‘wolf’.”

We can also find compliments: “This girl have a beauty edge”, or maybe “He is valuable his weight’s gold”, as well as puzzlement: “I am confused all yours civilities”, or despair: “I dead myself in envy to see her”, and advice: “Take out the live coals with the hand of the cat”.

Carolino’s spirit lived in the Correctly English Society of Shanghai, which produced “How to Correctly English in Hundred Day” (1934), “prepared for the Chinese young man who wishes to served for the foreign firm”.

Jerome K. Jerome also deals with inept translators in his “Three Men on a Bummel” (1900), the lesser-known sequel to his “Three Men in a Boat” (1889), about the trio planning a bicycling trip through the (then) German Empire.

His friend George picks up a phrase book intended for German tourists to England, and proposes that they use it the other way round on their travels.

Jerome is sceptical, noting “its longest chapter being devoted to conversation in a railway carriage, among, apparently, a compartment load of quarrelsome and ill-mannered lunatics” and he feels “some educated idiot, misunderstanding seven languages, would appear to go about writing these books for the misinformation and false guidance of modern Europe”.

Yet, they resolve to try it out and hilarity ensues, when a coachman outdoes them, a boot-seller gets angrily agitated, and in a hat shop, they are again outsmarted, but somehow, complete the purchase. Still, “comparing views in the train, we agreed that we had lost the game by two points to one; and George, who was evidently disappointed, threw the book out of the window.”

In the same book, Jerome also offers some wise insights into why his countrymen did not make efforts to learn foreign languages and why even those who try do not succeed as much as they should — with the example of a leading textbook of the time.

But this passage about a clever Frenchman, with a book of gentle satire, and a perceptive but positively amoral publisher, and their diabolical agreement, needs reading in its entirety to appreciate.

And finally, there is the “Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook” — from which we have the invaluable phrase for all occasions: “My hovercraft is full of eels”. Too bad, it was just a Monty Python sketch.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at




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