Phrasebooks and the travails and traumas of translations

bookBy Vikas Datta,

An essential attribute of humanity, languages serve the purpose of communication, but given their sheer multiplicity and variations, they are more liable to create barriers to understanding, than paving the way towards it. Though human ingenuity evolved translation to bridge the gap, this didn’t entirely solve the problem, given the differences in syntax, idiom and connotation. How does literature deal with this linguistic phenomenon?

While translations into English may help some astute detectives ascertain the real identity of their mystical clients or suspects (Sherlock Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Adventure of the Red Circle”), these more frequently make for uproarious humour — and incredulous disbelief.

An important source is guidebooks for the lay language learner or tourist, even if from a different age and not updated for decades altogether — or having been compiled by someone rather incapable.

An early example I recall was most likely from British reporter and author Trevor Fishlock’s travelogue “India File” (1987), where he tells us about coming across a Raj-era Hindustani phrasebook for newly-arrived British visitors. In this, he tells us, he found that the Indian equivalent of “Hark, our postillion has just been struck by lightning” (which he encountered in a book for travellers to Norway) was “Look, our ostler has been eaten by a tiger”. (Ostler being the man employed to look after horses.)

Among other gems he found in this were “Your cuirass (the armour piece protecting the torso) is dirty” and “He will be hanged tomorrow morning”.

But these were not a one-off. I have a manual for learning Pushto — compiled by a British Army surgeon-cum-Political Officer somewhere in the mid-19th century, but even well into the 21st century, apparently the only English primer available.

Henry Walter Bellew’s “A Grammar of the Pukkhto Or Pukshto Language” (1867) has examples of phrases, and dialogues, where you can learn to ask, “What has become of my sword? I don’t see it. I put in under the bed before I went to sleep” (“Tura mi tsa shwa? Na e winam. Chi la udah na wum, ma e tar kata landi ikkhi da”) or even “Don’t shoot at the people, fire your matchlocks above their heads”.

Then there is G.G. Rogers’ “Colloquial Nepali”, whose 2006 reprint’s cover page says that it “is not run-of-the-mill tourist handbook. It teaches you how to communicate with anyone, anywhere in Nepal”. I happened to pick it up before leaving for an assignment in Kathmandu when the protests against then King Gyanendra were picking pace — thankfully, I forgot it to pack it.

For, in it, sample phrases, mostly in the imperative tone, include “Our soldiers will beat the Japanese”, “Fall in, in lines of 10 men each”, “No 7 Platoon is advancing”, “Has the General Sahab arrived yet?” and so on — understandable when we learn Lt Col Rogers, who wrote the book in 1950, was the Nepali Instructor with the Gurkha Brigade during World War II.

Then there is Pedro Carolino’s “English as She is Spoke” (1883 in English, originally in the 1850s). Fluent only in his tongue, he reportedly compiled this English phrasebook with the help of a Portuguese-French phrasebook and a French-English dictionary, thus presenting what should be “Is the road safe?” as “Is sure the road?” and the like.

We can also find compliments: “This girl have a beauty edge” or maybe “He is valuable his weight’s gold”, as well as puzzlement: “I am confused all yours civilities”, despair: “I dead myself in envy to see her”, and advice: “Take out the live coals with the hand of the cat”, among others.

Carolino’s spirit lived in the Correctly English Society of Shanghai, which produced “How to Correctly English in Hundred Day” (1934), “prepared for the Chinese young man who wishes to served for the foreign firm”.

Jerome K. Jerome also deals with this aspect in his “Three Men on a Bummel” (1900), the lesser-known sequel to his “Three Men in a Boat” (1889), in which the trio are planning a bicycling trip through the (then) German Empire. His friend George picks up a phrase-book intended for German tourists to England and proposes that they use it the other way round on their travels.

Jerome is sceptical, noting “its longest chapter being devoted to conversation in a railway carriage, among, apparently, a compartment load of quarrelsome and ill-mannered lunatics” and he feels “some educated idiot, misunderstanding seven languages, would appear to go about writing these books for the misinformation and false guidance of modern Europe”.

However, they resolve to try it out and hilarity ensues, when they use sentences from it with a coachman, a boot-seller and in a hat shop, but “comparing views in the train, we agreed that we had lost the game by two points to one; and George, who was evidently disappointed, threw the book out of the window”.

That’s what we should do with them — if they didn’t offer some of us much merriment.

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at


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