Hindi versus English

Last Thursday was International Translation Day, and I spent a little bit of time at a translation conference, hosted by English PEN and the Free Word Centre. Plenty of rabble-rousing for more international fiction to be translated into English. Our Director Jonathan Heawood did a great job noting the key points on Twitter, under the hashtag #ITD.

We know that the use language can be ideological. My Welsh grandmother told a story about how my great-grandmother was punished at school for speaking Welsh in the playground… by teachers for whom Welsh was the native tongue: an act of class oppression, for sure. At the opposite end of the spectrum, South Africa’s Constitution provides for eleven official languages. It is a clear attempt to negate previous forms of oppression-through-language (perhaps at the price of confusion and cohesion?).

Last week I watched an interview with Bollywood superstars Priyanka Chopra and Ranbir Kapoor on a programme called Buzz of the Week. It was a very casual and undemanding piece of promotional puffery on a big red sofa, but the two actors different approach to language was striking. Priyanka insisted in answering all questions in English, even those that were asked mainly in Hindi. Meanwhile, Ranbir spoke nothing but Hindi. This was odd – both are clearly bilingual and laughed at each others’ banter – and I assume they are native Hindi speakers, yet both steadfastly refused to respond to the other in the same language!  I am told that this has an ideological component too:  Priyanka was “showing off” and putting on airs; while Ranbir was trying to be more down-to-earth.

However, what really puzzled me was the interviewer, who jumped between Hindi and English with no apparent pattern – some clauses in one language, some in another.  Moreover, the phrases she was using were fairly simple: It was not as if she was forced to use English for a complicated concept for which there was no Hindi equivalent.  What was going on there?

Priyanka Chopra, English speaker
Priyanka Chopra, English speaker

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