Somewhere in the labyrinths of a building in India, a man sits hunched over a sheaf of papers. He has been hard at work for a while now, stopping frequently to look into the distance. It is tough enough to visualise the characters and scenes, and he is expected to translate what they are saying as well. Whenever he comes across a phrase that is unfamiliar, he uses his judgement to substitute it with an apt phrase in Hindi. Right now, his hand is poised over one phrase in he original, and he is a bit flummoxed. The script is of a children's animation series, and he is puzzled over what such a phrase is doing there. Still, he gets paid to do his job, and he had better get down to it. He ponders, sketches a few doodles on the margin, chews on the pen and looks into the distance. Suddenly, an inspiration strikes. Yes, this is it, he exclaims to himself, as he quickly pens in the substitute. He gathers the pages and puts it in the tray marked OUT, reaching simultaneously for another bundle from the overflowing tray marked IN.
On March 12, 2004, when an episode from Pokemon is broadcast in Delhi, a few million people get to hear the phrase he selected as a substitute for 'nuptial dance': it was 'vivaha nivedan'.
In addition, somewhere in Delhi, one viewer flinched.
That was just my attempt to describe a day in a script translator's life. These people never cease to amaze me with their resolve to convert complex English phrases into Hindi to help those of us who might not be able to understand the original. Who are these fascinating people who get paid to translate dialogues mouthed by an assortment of characters like a stone age man, an octopus who lives in an apartment, a sponge who makes crabby patties, and a dog called Kipper? And who are their comrades, the dubbing artistes, who get to dub for these characters? Sadly, we may never know their names. Although a thriving mini industry seems to have come up with the entry of cartoon channels like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, we never get to know the names of the script translators and dubbing artistes because they do not feature in the credits. It is easy enough to pick out the voices though: sometimes we hear the voice of Johnny Snowman from Oswald in some other programme, and Daisy's 'voice' is equally distinguishable. Dexter's 'voice' appears to dub for other programmes as well. Their art is broadcast and re-run several times in the course of a day or week, making it easy for a viewer to appreciate or criticise what is churned out.
As a parent of a three-year-old, I have been tuned into the happenings on Cartoon Network, particularly the section for tots called Tiny TV, for over one and half years. I think some of the serials are wonderful and there is a lot that children can learn from them. For one, vocabulary. I don't think the word 'dinosaur' would feature in a pre-schooler's vocabulary without the influence of The Flintstones. Children also get to know a lot about tools and machinery thanks to Bob the Builder. Some of the Nickelodeon's offerings like Sponge Bob Squarepants, Arnold and The Thornberries are brilliant and very creative (and a little more 'grown up'). Serials like Ethelbert the Tiger (POGO) and The Thornberries also are high on general knowledge content. For those worried about their children becoming couch potatoes, it is easy to limit TV viewing and instead download activities from the channel websites like craft and colouring pages, recipes and other TV-free tasks. With the range of channels on offer, it is easy to plan your viewing schedule since many of the serials are repeated during the day. I guess you know that with all this bonhomie and joyous chatter there has to be a BUT coming up shortly'well, here it comes.
I have a bone to pick with these channels: there is no consistent system of dubbing these serials in Hindi, and the resultant mix of translation, transliteration and retention of original names/words is mindboggling, to put it mildly.
What are the channels trying to do anyway: make the language comprehensible or make the cartoons 'culturally acceptable', or maybe both?
I have only one question to put to them: why do it?
Everyone knows that cartoons operate at a different level. Would a dinosaur blend in anywhere in the world at present, let alone in India? Would a sponge living in an underwater pineapple and making crabby patties for a living blend in? Or try this: how does a detective 'Granny' (with a menagerie comprised of a talking canary, cat and dog) singing Hum Chalenge Calcutta make it any easier to digest than if she was singing Camptown Races?
If they are worried about culture shock, I'll tell them what culture shock is: it's hearing the original Bob the Builder theme song in Bangalore, India, and wondering what on earth that is after getting accustomed to the 'Karke dikhayenge' translation.
Sure enough, your ears can get accustomed to this. I have to say at this point that a few episodes of Johnny Bravo that I watched were very good, and my husband swears that the Hindi version of The Mask is better than the original. However, to get the mind to accept some of the offerings is asking for too much.
What exactly do I find objectionable about dubbed animation serials? It is difficult to explain because, to some extent, it is a question of style and that becomes subjective, but here are some bugbears classified according to my FLINCH detector. Just for the record, my mother tongue is Kannada and I have reasonable working knowledge of Hindi.
I flinch when:
a. The Hindi translation is more complex, not really on the mark, convoluted or considerably longer than the English one:
From Pokemon: Mating dance is translated as 'vivaha nivedan' (And next we'll be getting the drummer boy and the rest of the band');
b. The translation uses unfamiliar or quaint phrases that are not used in ordinary conversation:
From Noddy: 'Biscuit crumbs' is translated as 'nankhatai ka chura'. (Why would one do that when the word biscuit, biskoot etc. are used in common parlance all over the country? It ends up sounding quaint, out-of-place and pompous);
c. The translation is way off the mark:
From The Flintstones (episode where Fred goes back to school): Malt shop is translated as 'Sharaab ki dukaan'. (This one is unforgivable, if you ask me);
d. When the character is given local flourishes but in an inconsistent manner:
Bob the Builder's current series: Mr. Sabatini is the local pizza shop owner. Why give him a Punjabi accent and have him sell pizzas -- Oye, why not parathas?);
e. There are inconsistencies in the script, for example, large parts are translated into Hindi, but words from the original language pop up:
These abound. For instance, The character in The Mask becomes Sachin Sabnis with a friend called Pinky, cheese is paneer, but the serial is still called 'The Mask'. Why not 'Mukhota''or is that too suggestive? Granny remains Granny, while you have people like Mr. Aana Jaana and Guru Gantaal (Sam Spade) crawling out of the woodwork in Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries -- guess they couldn't make out if it was a Daadi or Naani. Further, words like dinosaur and scarecrow don't seem to have equivalents in Hindi and are retained as such ; and
e. When I have seen the original serial, and the standard of delivery or phrases in the dubbed one just do not measure up (this one is more a matter of personal taste):
The dubbed versions of Sponge Bob and Arnold (Nickelodeon) do not match up to the original ones in my opinion.
I feel that cartoons are successful in spite of these distractions, so I am curious to know why they need to be dubbed in the local language at all. From what I have seen while observing several children of the age group 3-5 years, apart from a few catch phrases (Pokemon Jao and Ruk jao, kanoon ki katir etc.) and theme songs (Aa gaya Noddy, Karke dikhayenge etc.), I don't see them being overly bothered about content. These phrases are short enough and memorable enough even in the original versions, and they would have just picked up the English ones instead. Is that such a bad thing?
It is true that languages can bridge divides: they can help reach out to newer audiences and make the world a smaller place. When I first came to Delhi in 1996, I diligently watched the episodes of serials like Bewitched and Dennis dubbed in Hindi on the Sony channel. I learned many expressions, some of which were new even to native Delhiites. I valiantly tried to use some of them in daily life, but it was difficult to slip in phrases like 'buddhe koosut', 'adial tattoo' and 'thala chaavi baccha'(latch-key child) in my faltering conversations with the people I met everyday.
Still, those were relatively early days in the TV dubbing industry, and the quality appeared to be relatively uniform (at least when I was less discerning); besides, the dubbing was for human characters, and therefore fairly limited in scope. It appears that somewhere along the way, the quality of translations in the case of cartoons at least, has come unstuck. It is no surprise, really, given the complexity of the stories and the characters. It's almost like they have succeeded in creating a kind of Middle Earth where cartoons have a hybrid India-International culture and speak a curious mixture of formal Hindi, colloquial Hindi, and 'cartoon' English, depending on who is doing the translations. In the process, I feel that the serials become ponderous and convoluted, and worse, much of the spontaneity is eroded.
What puzzles me no end is that we seem to have the talent: the dubbing artistes are doing a good job, the animation technology and resources seem to be there. Why not create more cartoons in Hindi and other Indian languages to make use of all this talent in a more original manner, rather than rehash cartoons in other languages?
I feel that channel administrators should pay a little more attention to details - they owe that much at least to their viewers, most of whom are too young to protest. Besides, since they rerun episodes so often, the glitches get more irritating every time.
Finally, I have to add that this is not a criticism of any language; it is more of a plea to make our lives a little simpler. Give it a thought.