Parliamentarily Speaking

In a country with 27 regional languages, Lok Sabha interpreters have their work cut out for them

Parliamentarians listening to the interpreter feed on their headphones. {{name}}
01 November, 2011

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.

Sundar, part of the 29-person interpreter team for the Lok Sabha, provides what Jawaharlal Nehru called, when he introduced the first English-Hindi simultaneous interpretation in 1964, a “highly specialised service”. Each of the 29 officers filters and reconstructs speech. Regional languages are translated into English and Hindi, and the interpreted speech is transmitted to each parliamentarian via a set of plush headphones. Currently there is no feed for members who understand neither language, but such “casualties”—as Sundar calls them—are few and far between.

The interpreters are often forgotten behind the soundproof screens of the House, but occasionally members of Parliament are reminded of just how indispensable they are. While Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee was giving a speech during the 2010 budget session in the Lok Sabha, Members of the House began frantically shaking their open palms and pointing to their headphones. Those not sporting headphones were confused, and so was the finance minister, until he realised that a technical error had cut off the interpreters’ feeds. Only when the glitch was corrected was Parliament able to pass its annual budget.

Parliamentary interpreters convey speeches that capture the soul: cynicism, sarcasm, rage, ridicule, all with appropriate tone and modulation. And humour can be the trickiest—rarely rid of cultural connotations, humour, much like poetry, can lose its impact in translation. “Lalu Yadav ne thitharology mein PhD ki hai,” once said Nitish Kumar. Thitharna is Bihari slang for ‘shamelessly stubborn’: Kumar was mocking Lalu, saying, in effect, that Lalu Yadav had a PhD in being shamelessly stubborn. Unlike the other 14 Hindi-English interpreters, the one on the hot seat for his 20-minute shift was familiar with the Bihari vernacular and managed to capture the humour inherent in Kumar’s taunt. Had another interpreter been at the mic, the sentence might have stopped at Yadav having a PhD—and his perceived persona in the House would have changed forever.