Positive and Negative: Translating Bollywood Songs

Translating Bollywood songs is a tough thing. To be more general, translating any kind of poetry is a tough thing. But when it comes to poetry (or lyrics) that millions of people already have etched in their memories, it becomes even tougher.

I have been translating Hindi songs to English for more than three years now. And while I get a lot of appreciation from almost all those who cannot understand those songs (whether they know Hindi or not), it's a common complaint that the translations get very literal, and the beauty of poetry is lost.

Well, that's what is called 'Lost in Translation.'

When I translate a song, the thing I worry the most about is not the 'beauty' of the song, but the meaning of words and sentences, and at the same time the essence of the song. I know many times the translations look funny, but that is natural when you try to put the idioms, phrases and poetry of one language in another where not just the language but the culture is entirely different.

Also, when one reads the translation of lyrics with the purpose of understanding the original lyrics, one cannot expect me to write poetry myself, because the purpose here isn't to be poetic, but to be explanatory.

What people don't seem to notice today, on the other hand, is the hopeless lyrics that are put into songs these days, something that used to happen earlier as well, but with less frequency, I believe. However, when the same song is translated, the hopeless lyrics make hopeless translations and while people were busy listening to the music of the actual song, it gets noticed in the translation.

I remember, one of the popular songs last year was chikni kamar pe teri mera dil phisal gaya, strongly ye jaadu tera mujh pe chal gaya, which didn't take me even ten minutes to translate, because there was no poetry in the song.

In the same year, I tried a translation of O Ri Duniya by Piyush Mishra, and it took me more than an hour and a half to do that.

For both the songs, translations are available most probably on BollyMeaning alone, and it's sad to see that Chikni kamar has more than triple the number of hits compared to O ri Duniya. However, one stat to consider is that O ri duniya is three year old now, so it's probably not that bad either.

It's good to see that there are more people trying to write translations of songs today, but most of them still lack a depth. For example, I read a translation recently where 'khoya khoya chaand, khula aasmaan' was translated to 'the lost lost moon, the wide open sky'. Leave that bad a translation, but still, most would translate it to 'the moon is lost', which would give you an idea of the thing, but still a non-native would not understand the significance of 'khoya khoya' as compared to just 'khoya'. That's something that comes after some serious thought is put into translation, and mostly requires some experience. [incidentally, the song is not translated on BollyMeaning till writing of this post.]

Either way, personally, the good thing about BollyMeaning is that I get to explore a lot of good music in some real depth. While I may waste ten minute intervals translating things like 'Strongly ye jaadu' for people, those same people make sure I don't miss a single good song. Plus, many times there are lines which we just hear, like, and repeat, without giving them much thought. With translations at hand, that simply doesn't happen. I get to, have to, go deep into every single line and that is a pleasure you don't always find by just listening to the songs casually.

As they say, jin dhoondha tin paayiyaan, gehre paani paith. That is, the one who goes into deep waters to search, finds. And I find some really good meanings of lyrics, poetry and life with BollyMeaning.


The Mighty Mango said...

Even when it gets tough, keep up the translations! They're a huge help, and I'm always grateful for them. I think you're right in giving the literal meaning; I think too many translations try instead to capture poetry, which doesn't help me understand the actual words — and that is usually what I'm after.

Anonymous said...

I like your translations. I absolutely hate non literal translations as they obscure the idioms and real way hindi is expressed. And often people try to recreate the stuffy and pompous poetry style of many English poets..

Anonymous said...

Oh Thank you a lot! I have learnd from you so many things!!!!

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