Big Gora Learns Hindi

Big Gora Learns Hindi

Friday, January 23, 2015

Big Gora, Pukka Translator

One key milestone in any language learner's journey is translating, in the moment, without a dictionary, without hesitation, effectively. Spontaneously understanding and making oneself understood. Bridging the language gap in real time.
During my first trip to India two years ago, I didn't have any single interaction that I can honestly say qualifies as that. But now I have!
Let me make a brief observation or two here before I tell the story. (Granted, "the story" is probably only really dramatic and/or meaningful to me, but then I guess that's the nature of most blog writing, isn't it?) First, my travel group very sweetly and generously gave me a lot of credit for being able to read and speak Hindi. It felt kind of funny: I've been working on it for a few years now, but only now was I receiving any recognition for it--as if I'd offhandedly learned it on the plane ride over. My fellow travelers noticed, and congratulated me for, reading signs and talking with people (our drivers and guides) in what I know is the Hindi of a small child. Second, I can tell that my fluency is improving a lot, even if my vocabulary hasn't expanded much recently. I can speak in sentences, and understand them when others speak them, without having to think nearly as much as I used to about issues like word order and postpositions. I even worked in a couple of (I'm told) idiomatic phrases: "अलग-अलग" [alag-alag/separately] and "तंग करना" [tang karna/to harass or bother (literally, to make narrow)].
The story. Very nearly all my attempts to employ Hindi were ones I chose. We had two guides with us most of the time, BP and Jeet, both native Hindi speakers and excellent speakers of English. Jeet, a Sikh 30-year-old with a vast collection of beautiful, spotless turbans, seemed to get a kick out of teaching me. When someone needed to speak with non-English-speaking locals, or our only-Hindi-speaking bus driver, BP or Jeet did it. One day, though, both of them were off on other errands. We were on our way to the Dilli Haat for some shopping, when suddenly someone in the back of the bus spotted a glasses-repair shop on a side road that we needed to visit. Busy Delhi streets have four parallel lanes: the two wide ones in the center for through traffic, plus a narrower lane on each side for closing in on individual shops and offices. My goal was to alert our driver as quickly as possible, so he didn't miss the turn onto the narrower street, that we wanted him to turn around here and stop in front of that business over there.
Turn around here came out as "जाये यहाँ। कृप्या।" [jaie yahaan. krpya./Please go there. Please.] I made darned sure I used the respectful "आप" form, so the "कृप्या" was probably gratuitous, but better safe than sorry.
Stop in front of that business over there came out as "ठहरिए यहाँ के सामने।" [thaharie yahaan ke samne/Please wait facing over there.] "ठहरिए" tumbled out, though I'm told "इंतज़ार करना" (literally, "to do waiting") is the more common way to say that. "के सामने" is closer to "facing," whereas "के आगे" [ke aage] would be a more accurate way to say "out front of."
But hey, Anil just nodded his head and did exactly what I was trying to ask him to do. He never even looked confused. I give him full credit for reading the mind of a bumbling gora--but I'll also count this as my big moment as an English-to-Hindi translator!

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