Hindi is a widely-spoken language that presents specific challenges when paired with English in a translation setting.
With somewhere between 200 and 300 million speakers, Hindi is the fourth-most-spoken language in the world, centred on what’s known as the ‘Hindi Belt’ cutting through India and Pakistan and surrounding countries. As such it’s obviously a major language, even though in the Western world we rarely if ever encounter it – and it we do, stumbling, say, into an Indian-owned shop and catching a word or two of the language, we rarely realise what we’ve just heard.
Due to the huge number of native speakers and India’s slow emergence as an economic juggernaut, Hindi has also become one of the more profitable languages to work in translation, and due to the close relationship between India and England (and, to a lesser extent, the USA) English-Hindi translation services is a fast-growing sector of our industry, with plenty of younger linguists rushing to get into the area before it gets saturated. This brings with it some specific challenges – put simply, Hindi and English can be challenging to translate.
One thing that troubles plenty of neophyte translation professionals is how to bill their work when they charge by the word. Hindi simply requires more words than English to say the same things, which means you’ll see an expansion of about 1.5 times – if the English is 100 words, the Hindi will likely be 150. That tends to translate to outraged clients, who were quoted based on the English original but charged on the Hindi result.
Going the other way, we hit an alphabet problem. Hindi is written using the Devanagari script, which has 11 vowels and forty consonants – a lot more than English. This means you usually have to use several Latin letters in English to represent just one Hindi letter in personal names and place names and the like. And this is complicated by Hindi’s use of ‘vowel signs,’ a wholly different symbol used to represent a vowel when it follows a consonant. So even if you memorize the Devanagari script you can be confused when they suddenly stop using the vowel you’re familiar with!
Hindi and the Flaw of Word-for-Word
I often use Hindi as a prime example of the problem with literal or ‘word for word’ translation. Many people who are unfamiliar with translation – which, sadly, covers a large portion of our clients – assume that translation is ‘word-for-word,’ that you take each word in a sentence and plug in the appropriate word from the target language. In Hindi, that’s a disaster, because the two languages are going to be very differently structured.
Languages all have the same function and use many of the same tools to achieve those functions, but they often use them in different ways. When people in the USA pause to consider that about as many people speak Hindi as there are people in the USA, they often have that ‘a-ha!’ moment of realisation that the world is a much bigger place than they realize.
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