AS UNION RAILWAYS MINISTER under the last National Democratic Alliance government, Nitish Kumar was asked a question in Parliament about the railways budget—in English. Kumar rose and began his careful response in impeccable Hindi. A few seconds in, the member of Parliament who had asked the question, understanding only Tamil and English, cried out in protest that the answer be delivered in the language the question was asked. Kumar paused: with an even-tempered expression he picked up the headphones on his desk with one hand, pointed to them with the other and implored, “Aap translation ko kyun nahi sunte? Yeh bade Vidhwaan log hai. (Why don’t you listen to the translation. These are very learned people.)”
In a country with hundreds of mother tongues and 27 regional languages, comprehension across linguistic boundaries is no simple matter—and in Parliament, facilitating it requires some serious skill.
“The art of simultaneous interpretation pertaining to Indian languages is like pulling a tiger by its tail,” says John Sundar, one such learned professional. Sundar, additional director for the Lok Sabha’s interpretation services, translates between Tamil and English, and the difficulty he points to is primarily a syntactic one. In the English language, the verb precedes the object of the sentence, while in many Indian languages it generally follows the object, rendering it impossible to start interpreting before the sentence is complete. The interpreters are forced to anticipate a parliamentarian’s next few words. Although they don’t attempt word-for-word translations, interpreters work to convey at least 90 percent of the exchanges in the House.