Writing, Translation, and Morality.

Arundhati Roy’s “What is the Morally Appropriate Language in Which to Think and Write?” is very long (I confess to skipping some of the bits that go into detail about her novels, which I haven’t read), but makes a lot of interesting points. Here’s a good passage on her second novel:

Twenty years after the publication of The God of Small Things, I finished writing my second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but if a novel can have an enemy, then the enemy of this novel is the idea of “One nation, one religion, one language.” As I composed the cover page of my manuscript, in place of the author’s name, I was tempted to write: “Translated from the original(s) by Arundhati Roy.” The Ministry is a novel written in English but imagined in several languages. Translation as a primary form of creation was central to the writing of it (and here I don’t mean the translation of the inchoate and the prelingual into words). Regardless of which language (and in whose mother tongue) The Ministry was written in, this particular narrative about these particular people in this particular universe would had to be imagined in several languages. It is a story that emerges out of an ocean of languages, in which a teeming ecosystem of living creatures—official-language fish, unofficial-dialect mollusks, and flashing shoals of word-fish—swim around, some friendly with each other, some openly hostile, and some outright carnivorous. But they are all nourished by what the ocean provides. And all of them, like the people in The Ministry, have no choice but to coexist, to survive, and to try to understand each other.

For them, translation is not only a high-end literary art performed by sophisticated polyglots. Translation is daily life, it is street activity, and it’s increasingly a necessary part of ordinary folks’ survival kit. And so, in this novel of many languages, it is not only the author, but the characters themselves who swim around in an ocean of exquisite imperfection, who constantly translate for and to each other, who constantly speak across languages, and who constantly realize that people who speak the same language are not necessarily the ones who understand each other best.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been—is being—translated into 48 languages. Each of those translators has to grapple with a language that is infused with many languages including, if I may coin a word, many kinds of Englishes (sociolects is perhaps the correct word, but I’ll stay with Englishes because it is deliciously worse) and translate it into another language that is infused with many languages. I use the word infused advisedly, because I am not speaking merely of a text that contains a smattering of quotations or words in other languages as a gimmick or a trope, or one that plays the Peter Sellers game of mocking Indian English, but of an attempt to actually create a companionship of languages.

Of the 48 translations, two are Urdu and Hindi. As we will soon see, the very fact of having to name Hindi and Urdu as separate languages, and publish them as separate books with separate scripts, contains a history that is folded into the story of The Ministry. Given the setting of the novel, the Hindi and Urdu translations are, in part, a sort of homecoming. I soon learned that this did nothing to ease the task of the translators. To give you an example: The human body and its organs play an important part in The Ministry. We found that Urdu, that most exquisite of languages, which has more words for love than perhaps any other language in the world, has no word for vagina. There are words like the Arabic furj, which is considered to be archaic and more or less obsolete, and there are euphemisms that range in meaning from “hidden part,” “breathing hole,” “vent,” and “path to the uterus.” The most commonly used one is aurat ki sharamgah. A woman’s place of shame. As you can see, we had trouble on our hands. Before we rush to judgment, we must remember that pudenda in Latin means “that whereof one should feel shame.” In Danish, I was told by my translator, the phrase is “lips of shame.” So, Adam and Eve are alive and well, their fig leaves firmly in place.

And here’s one on the history of Hindi and Urdu:

The language known variously as Urdu/Hindi/Hindustani, and, in an earlier era, Hindavi, was born on the streets and bazaars of North India. Khari Boli, spoken in and around Delhi and what is now Western Uttar Pradesh, is the base language to which the Persian lexicon came to be added. Urdu, written in the Persian-Arabic script, was spoken by Hindus and Muslims across North India and the Deccan Plateau. It was not, as is often made out to be, the high language of the court. That, in those days, was Persian. But neither was it, as it is often made out to be, the language of ordinary people everywhere. Urdu was the language of the street, but not necessarily the language spoken in the privacy of most ordinary peoples’ homes, particularly not by the women. It came to be the formal language of literature and poetry for Hindus and Muslims alike. Urdu varied from region to region. Each region had its own high priests staking their claim to true pedigree. In fact, it saw its brightest hour as the Mughal Empire faded.

The partitioning of Urdu began in earnest in the second half of the 19th century, after the 1857 Mutiny, when India ceased to be merely an asset of the East India Company. The titular Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was formally deposed, and India was brought directly under British Rule. Muslims, seen as the main instigators of the Mutiny, came in for severe punishment and were treated with great suspicion by the British administration. Power bases began to shift, hierarchies changed, releasing suppressed resentment and new energies that began to seep through the cracks like smoke. As the old ideas of governing by fiat and military might began to metamorphose into modern ideas of representative government, old feudal communities began to coalesce into modern “constituencies” in order to leverage power and job opportunities. Obviously, the bigger the constituency, the greater the leverage.

Demography became vitally important, so the first British census was a source of huge anxiety. “Hindu” leaders turned their attention to the tens of millions of people who belonged to the “untouchable” castes. […]

Devanagari, originally known as Babhni, was the script of Brahmins and had, like Sanskrit, been jealously guarded, its purity protected from the “polluting influence” of lower castes, who had, for centuries, been denied the right to learn Sanskrit. But the changing times now required that it be promoted as the indigenous script of “the people.” In fact, the more widely used script at the time was a script called Kaithi. But Kaithi was used by non-Brahmin castes like the Kayasthas, who were seen to be partial to Muslims. Extraordinarily, in a matter of a few decades, Kaithi was not just discarded, but erased from public memory.

There’s much more, including quotes of poetry in Urdu. And it rhymes nicely with Michael Cronin’s Irish Times piece about Frank Wynne, who has “not one but two titles from two languages longlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize: The Impostor, by the Spanish writer Javier Cercas, and Vernon Subutex 1, by the French writer Virginie Despentes”:

Wynne accepts there is an element of forgery in all successful translation – not in duping readers with shoddy imitations but in restoring the vividness and excitement of the original for new audiences in different settings. As a traveller and bridge-maker between languages and cultures Wynne is acutely conscious of the ethical task of the translator. He is worried by our time’s hunger for borders and walls and its systematic suspicion of the other. In his view, what translators can do at their most effective is to substitute insight for ignorance, empathy for enmity. Wynne is sceptical about translators who attempt to “iron out a lot of the strangeness” in fiction written in another language. Making a text available in a language readers understand does not mean reducing its complexity to only those things readers have previously understood.

Thanks, Trevor!


  1. I must ask then, does Hindi have a word for “vagina”?

  2. ” In Danish, I was told by my translator, the phrase is “lips of shame.”

    Her translator was having a laugh. The Danish for “vagina” is either “skede” (which also means “sheath”) or just “vagina”.

  3. Lars (the original one) says:

    But the labia are indeed skamlæberne (Swedish blygdläpparna). Also Latin pudenda (muliebra) are the external parts, and I’m not quite sure if Roy is taking vagina in its medical or colloquial meaning.

  4. Trond Engen says:

    Kaithi (Kayasthi) type. Not insurmountably different from Devanagari.

  5. Trond Engen says:
  6. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    Polish has srom (etymologically ‘shame’) for female external genitals but nobody uses it outside of medical contexts. It’s just such an ugly-sounding word. Vagina is pochwa (which also means ‘sheath’) or, well, wagina.

  7. Trond Engen says:

    I think the point she was trying to make (or her translators or correspondents made to her) is that euphemisms and circumlocutions are common all around for female genitalia*. Danish skamlæberne is a parallel, not an exaxt fit. The Danish word is likely a calque from Latin, as is skæde. Such words can be poetic, technical or vulgar, or all of the above. The use of a particular word also implies the non-use of others, and the choice could say much about the situation and the relationship between the persons.

    *) It’s common for male genitalia, too, but that’s a different point to make.

  8. Kaithi (Kayasthi) type. Not insurmountably different from Devanagari.

    Huh, it sure isn’t — I would have said it was Devanagari.

  9. Jeffry House says:

    And also: pudenda, pudeur, boudoir.

  10. Kaithi (Kayasthi) type. Not insurmountably different from Devanagari.

    Indeed, the two scripts are twins, but they have different engineering principles, as it were. Devenagari is optimizied for “write once, read often”; it is difficult to write by hand, but correspondingly easy to read. Kaithi is easier to write but harder to read, and so is optimized for commercial records (one of its main applications), where there is an endless need to write them but often no need to refer to any particular one. Kaithi also did not undergo a regularization process like Devanagari (or Latin, Greek, or Cyrillic for that matter), so fonts are only slightly generalized from individual handwritings, rather than handwritings being in some sense generated from standard forms, as in Hebrew.

    Both scripts are represented in Unicode, but my system comes with a Devanagari font but not a Kaithi one.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    JH: boudoir ???

    Among aristocratic ladies this was a private room where they could retreat when they wanted to avoid social duties. It is from the verb bouder which originally refers to a facial gesture, a motion of the lips, expressing one’s distaste of the company one is in. Also, expressing such distaste by retreating. Nothing to do with the Latin root pud or with euphemisms for one’s private parts.

  12. SFReader says:

    Vagina is pochwa

    I am pretty sure Polish has another word starting with this letter

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    Given that it’s the sort of work where the prose style can presumably get away with being colloquial or idiosyncratic and thus depart to some extent from the boringly official/standard register of any given target language, would it be possible for Ms. Roy’s English novel to be rendered into a single translation in, let’s call it “Hindustani,” which then got printed in two different scripts, one being labeled the “Hindi” edition and the other the “Urdu” edition? Or would that lead to riots and fatalities?

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    Separately, complaining that another language is uptight and prudish because it doesn’t have a word equivalent to the English word “borrowed-Latin-euphemism-meaning-‘sheath'” reflects a certain lack of perspective.

    Note by the way that while an Anglophone teenager can probably take several years of Spanish or German or what have you without learning that language’s word for “sheath,” because first-year Latin textbooks still assume everyone is working up to reading the Gallic Wars, those giggling adolescents are generally going to need to memorize the declension of “vagina” in their first semester studying that language.

  15. Boudoir is cognate to pout.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    Brett, Thank you, I think so. I could not remember the English word. So boudoir means literally ‘pouting-room’!

  17. Stu Clayton says:

    The counterpart away from home would be “powder-room”, where ladies go to powd.

  18. Ha!

  19. Ameican slang pud ‘penis’ was originally short for pudding, itself from French boudin, itself perhaps of a sound-symbolic origin.

  20. Stu Clayton says:

    What sound-symbolic forces do you imagine to be at work here ?

    A boudin is a blood sausage. Sausage was made by stuffing lengths of intestine. A stuffed length of intestine may look like a penis, but then so does a cigar. None of these pouts.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Y: boudin, itself perhaps of a sound-symbolic origin.

    That’s what the TLFI says, but I am leery of “sound-symbolic” explanations for words which do not refer to things that make a sound. But if the stem boud as in bouder referred originally to a more or less swollen or protruding lip, boudin could refer to something of a similar shape and consistency, which it is.

  22. Ahem. OED:

    As for the ulterior etymology of the French word, Französisches etymol. Wörterbuch s.v. *bod– suggests that French boudin is formed < a Romance base *bod– denoting bulging, swollen objects, which is of imitative origin, and cites a number of apparent (largely regional) Romance cognates in similar senses; however, this view is not generally accepted. In spite of their semantic and (at least superficial) formal similarity, it is unclear whether Italian (now arch. or regional: northern) boldone blood sausage (a1556; of uncertain origin) and classical Latin botulus sausage (see botulism n.) are etymologically related.
    An alternative etymology derives the word < a Germanic base (of imitative origin) taken to be shown also by Old English puduc wen, swelling (rare) + -ING suffix³. (Old English puduc would thus be formed from the same base + -OCK suffix). It has frequently been suggested that the same Germanic base is also seen in POD n.¹, PUD n.², PODGE n., PUDGE n.², English regional (southern) poud boil, ulcer (recorded from the 18th–early 20th cent. by Eng. Dial. Dict. at that entry), as well as in other Germanic words, e.g. Dutch regional poddik thick soft mass, kind of pudding, shortish child, short fat person, Middle Low German puddich(rare) fat, corpulent (German regional (Low German: Bremen) puddig thick, stumpy), German regional (Low German: Bremen) pudde– (in puddewurst large sausage, especially black pudding, also (fig.) fat person), (Westphalia) puddek dumpling, sausage, (Mecklenburg) pūden boil, ulcer, swollen body part, (Berlin, Brandenburg) puddel small person, small fat child, especially a child just beginning to walk, (Pomerania) puddik swollen gland. However, in spite of their phonological and semantic similarities, it is unclear whether any of these words are etymologically related, and, with the exception of puduc, they are all first attested much later (in a number of cases very much later).

  23. It would be funny if it was related to Gaulish buððutton (spindle; penis)

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Y: Thank you for this comprehensive quotation.

    I think that the reason the words are not attested very early is that they refer to very commonplace things that were just not much written about earlier, or not in supports which have survived well. There are many other cases of that sort of thing.

    SFR: Gaulish buððutton (spindle; penis)

    I have not looked at anything Gaulish for a while (I only have Lombard’s book) and am intrigued by the phonology with ðð. As for your suggestion of a relationship of this word with bouder, boudin, these refer originally to something bulging and soft, qualities which can never be found in a spindle.

  25. Marie-Lucie: “Gaulish barred Ɖ” doesn’t seem to have been [ð], but what it actually was is rather mysterious.

  26. From bouder comes the Russian verb budírovat’, which originally meant “pout.” It can also be a synonym for “irritate, prod, provoke someone.” The less sophisticated use it to mean “rouse, awaken,” no doubt because it sounds akin to budít’, “wake (up),” and to budorázhit’, “disturb, agitate.”

  27. Huh, I would have just assumed it was from budít’! Color me unsophisticated.

  28. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    I am pretty sure Polish has another word starting with this letter

    U don’t say :O

  29. David Marjanović says:

    …Yeah, it does. Just saying.

  30. I am pretty sure Ксёнѕ Фаўст knows that perfectly well.

  31. David Marjanović says:

    Of course. I’m just confirming for anyone who might not know for sure, because I’m in Poland right now and the word came up just a day before I wrote that comment… 🙂

  32. For the sake of those not familiar with Slavic obscenities, the word in question is pizda (variants pipa, pinda, piczka, presumably showing varying degrees of euphemistic alteration).

  33. It’s pan-Slavic and related to Old Prussian peisda and Albanian pith. (Weitere Anknüpfungen unsicher.)

  34. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    If you guys insist… The Polabian cognate (paizdə) used to mean ‘arse’, for what it’s worth. I’ve heard people speculate about the cause of the language’s extinction based on this…

  35. David Marjanović says:

    OK, that saves my day.

  36. I should correct myself on the usage of budirovat’ in Russian. Its legitimate meanings are close to the original French. First, to pout or sulk. Second (transitive), to refuse to talk to someone, to snub someone, to turn one’s nose up at something, to pretend to ignore something or someone, and so on. More details on the French usage at the CNRTL.

    The set of “illegitimate” meanings of budirovat’ includes “to irritate by doing something” (rather than by ignoring someone), “to prod,” “to rouse to action,” as well “to agitate” and “to animate.”

    As early as 1913, Lenin sneered at a Duma member who claimed that the Social Democrats were trying to budirovat’ the feelings of workers to provoke them into some “excess” against the government. These people can’t even use a French loan correctly, wrote Lenin, yet they laughed at a peasant deputy who used prerogatívy (prerogatives) in the sense of rogátki. Rogatka is any forked or pronged object such as a slingshot. The peasant probably had in mind a cheval-de-frise, an anti-cavalry barrier. According to Lenin, it was a forgivable mistake because various prerogatives, i.e. exclusive rights, of the dominant classes truly served as pronged barriers in Russian life. Lenin later retold this story in a 1920 note published after his death.

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