The Mysterious World of Words


Words, words and words! What a fascinating world it is…

  1. Crying

A woman cries-in different circumstances, with different emotions. Is ‘crying’ sufficient to capture her tears?

She wailed, she lamented, she sniffed, she wept, she sobbed, she choked, she howled, she moaned, she hit her head….Ahhhh! Ask a translator, please!

Every word has ‘gravitas’, truly a Roman virtue and a special magic of its own. This is true of every language.

A word might be bubbling with suppressed laughter in the vernacular…literally speaking. It might bring to the mind of a natural speaker the image of a pretty woman, eyes sparkling with mischievous glee,  teasing a man she adores. Now how does one capture that beauty in a single word in another language?

So then the translator sits late into the night checking synonyms of mischief, synonyms of love, synonyms of laughter and then takes up the needle and thread to weave them all together in a sentence or a phrase …

2. Mocking

There are multiple ways in which humans mock, did you know?They snigger, they snicker, they mock and they roll their eyes, they speak roughly, they growl, they snarl, they raise eye brows….

Now when an old man burns with fury and mocks, his whole body taut like an arched bow… You paint the picture in your mind first…see some people in imagination, mix it with few life experiences here and there, add a dab of paint from a movie, an idea from a play, and then you try to capture the old man anew.

‘His nose resembled the beak of a bird of prey?’ Or talons?

3. Silence

Silence is another conundrum.

‘When faced with utter humiliation, the protagonist is silent.’

There are different types of silences in our lives, aren’t there? Forced silence, self-imposed silence, quietude,  deep silence, shallow silence, a ‘let us have a tea quietly together’ silence, ‘I know what you are thinking of’ silence, ‘You miss me, don’t you’ silence…as many silences as human beings in fact!

It is a simmering silence, the calm before the storm. And one doesn’t have the luxury of adding another sentence to describe the mood. Then what?

4. Yearning

‘Her heart thirsted for appreciation. Her hunger was for love and acceptance. Her yearning  was for understanding.’

Now this can be the starting point of every character description from Emma Bovary to Anna Karenina and Elizabeth Bennett. In fact every woman can relate to those emotions in any language.

But  one does not have the luxury of literal translation in a language where all of that can end up sounding repetitive.

5. Snowing much

P.S. Eskimo languages like Yupik and Inuit are  known to have many words to describe snow (Franz Boas, the linguistic relativity hypothesis et al..), while certain languages would have hardly one or two!

Naturally, no self respecting native speaker would agree with the translation that  ‘the lady was as pure as the driven snow’ (  because she understands different versions of  ‘snow on the ground’ which is different from ‘fallen snow’ or  ‘driven snow’!)

End Notes:

A translator has to balance her faithfulness to the text with the duty of carrying the mood through. But creating something totally new of her own is often a great risk.She has to be a good editor, ruthlessly snipping off her own words and phrases to retain just what has to be said.

But yes, there is great joy in this rather understated work. They say that a translator understands the book like a second mother. The challenge is to keep the tempestuous affection of motherhood tempered with equable detachment when creating a new life.

Truly, it is a stimulating adventure. And for someone as restless as me, it is like meditation. Yes, one can search for hours for the perfect word! Bliss!