A language thrives when people speak and write in it. Along with economic vitality, it is the love for a language and the culture that it represents that determines the fate of a language. The English people did not give up their language despite being ruled by the French-Normans for hundreds of years. During those days in England, Latin was the language of religion and learning while French was the language of administration and social prestige. Every proud nation propagates its language because its language is the window to its civilisation and culture. The Germans do it through Goethe Institutes, the French do it through Alliance Francaises, the Chinese do it through Confucius Institutes, the British through British Councils, and the Russians through their cultural institutes. Our enterprising ancestors spread the domain of Sanskrit language from the mountains of Hindu Kush to the islands of Indonesia. Even a few decades ago the Hindi speech of Atal Behari Vajpayee at the United Nations made every Indian proud.
A Plea For Our Languages
Whether it is Malayalam, Marathi, Maithili or Mizo, our languages share a certain common vocabulary, common phonetics, a common ideology, and common values, each one of them forged and cast in the grammatical fire of Panini’s Ashtadhayi. This was a land where we worshipped our grammarians. The grateful nation bestowed upon them the upadhi (title) of ‘Maharishi’. No other civilisation had expended so much effort to develop the science of grammar and build the most advanced alphabetical system based on the science of phonetics.
Our grammarians culturally united the nation in ways that would surprise us. According to canonical Tamil traditions, the Rig Vedic sage, Agastya muni, also considered as the ‘father of Tamil language’, came from north to south and wrote the first book of Tamil grammar, Akattiyam (take a deep breath now and ponder over the cultural significance of this sentence). Dandin, a native Tamil speaker from Kanchipuram, wrote the foundational book of Sanskrit poetics, Kavyadarsha, which in turn inspired the subsequent developments of Tamil poetics.
From time immemorial, our languages have drawn upon each other for mutual sustenance and enrichment. Such was the mutual interconnectedness between our languages that during medieaval times, every Sanskrit word could potentially be a Tamil, Malayalam, or a Telugu word. This process of mutual interdependence led to a new style of language called Manipravalam, an offshoot of which was modern day Malayalam. “Mani” means ruby in Tamil while “pravalam” means coral in Sanskrit. With such interconnected history, it is disconcerting and needless that the embers of linguistic nationalism, especially in the south, pits one Indian language against the other, allowing English to emerge as the compromise candidate. Rather than scoring short term political goals, our citizen activists must urge the government to work for the long-term sustenance of our languages.
From the billions of dollars spent every year to exclusively promote English medium higher education, the government must allocate resources for building world-class universities in our languages also. The cultural construct of the Nehruvian state that disregards our linguistic heritage must be dismantled. For the sake of our civilisation, we need to endow our languages with sciences, technology, and great works of literature because once the trees of our languages are destroyed, the garden of our civilisation will not survive. As the Kenyan writer Ngugi writes, “language carries culture and culture carries the entire body of values by which we perceive ourselves and our place in the world.” Without this culture, we are a stranger to our own land, judging ourselves through the prism of Western lenses, blindly imitating life values antithetical to our civilisation.
The Act Of Translation
As the first step towards the renewal of our languages, we can follow the example of English. English has a prolific translation industry, every work in every subject from every language is translated into English on a continuous basis. Obscure Sanskrit works to Chinese folk writings have all been translated into English. Even our industrialists endow millions of dollars to translate Indian works into English (Murthy Classical Library). Thus, English becomes the repository of all the knowledge that is and that was produced since the beginning of time. American universities have translation centres, where not only works from other languages are translated into English but advance graduate programme in translation services are offered to train new generation of translators (see example). Independent publishing houses such as ‘Words without Borders’ have translated and published in English 2,400 pieces from 112 languages. Some specialist press like Mage does English translation exclusively from Persian. There are hundreds of such example of flourishing translation industry in not only English but all robust languages of the world.
Why can’t the same thing be done for Hindi and other Indian Prakrits? Why can’t the great works of sciences and literature from other languages be not translated into Indian languages, on a continuous basis? Nearly 50 crore Hindi speakers of India currently have no access in their language to the original scientific works of Einstein, Darwin, Feynman or Bohr or the literature of Cervantes, Proust, Tolstoy, or Hemingway. Remember, with the destruction of our universities due to foreign invasions, it was the translated works of Mahabharata and Ramayana into local languages that made literacy possible for vast masses of people in medieaval India. This act of translation revolutionised Indian languages by imbuing it with new vocabulary and new modes of thought. Ramanujan Ezhuthachan, considered the father of Malayalam, standardised the language with his landmark translation of Ramayana. Nannayya’s translation of Mahabharata created the modern Telugu language. The Kamban retelling of Ramayana is still the gold standard of Tamil literature.
Same thing happened with English language few centuries ago. F O Matthesian, American author, wrote, “(Englishmen) suddenly burned with the desire to excel its rivals in letters, as well as in ships and gold…the translator work was an act of patriotism. He (Englishmen), too, as well as the voyager and merchant, could do some good for his country: he believed that foreign books were just as important for England’s destiny as the discoveries of her seamen, and he brought them into his native speech with all the enthusiasm of a conquest.” And this is how English emerged from the shadows of Latin, from “diffidence, imitation, and emulation to self-confident readiness.”
Can our literary men, academicians, professionals, and industrialists come forward to provide human and financial resources for this national effort? This translation work needs to be done not only between foreign to Indian languages but more importantly between Indian languages. And every one of us who are bilingual can contribute to this national cause. A Bengali native speaker fluent in Tamil can translate some of the writings of Bengali authors into Tamil and put it up online (subject to copyright) or create a Wikipedia entry on his chosen topic in Bengali. Currently there is not even a proper Bengali Wikipedia page on Tamil Sangam literature leave aside good translation of Sangam literature available in Bengali.
At present the Bengali Wikipedia has 52,000 articles, less than even Tajik or Tatar language. In contrast, the English Wikipedia has millions of articles. Can a dedicated group of 50-60 Bengali youth organise themselves and take up the task of creating a vibrant Bengali Wikipedia? Can Bengali Wikipedia reach 500,000 high quality articles in the next few years? This would require translation of a vast sphere of human knowledge into Bengali. Let it be a bad initial draft, but it will be a start nonetheless. With these baby steps, we will build the Indian language internet and endow our languages with knowledge.
Similarly, can chartered accountants translate their accounting and auditing text into their respective languages and put it up online? Can our doctors with good bilingual fluency translate medical texts of different sub-disciplines into our languages and make it available publicly? Same thing needs to be repeated for engineering and social sciences. With this effort, our language speakers will have access to the entire spectrum of human knowledge at the click of a button. Our dependence on English will reduce drastically. Fortified with new knowledge and new vocabulary, the development arc of Indian languages will reach a stage when it can produce works of sciences directly without the need for translation.
Even Mahatma Gandhi, hundred years ago, urged our “learned men” to translate not only from English but from other world languages so that “common people” are not deprived of knowledge available in any languages of the world. He wrote, “In asking our men and women to spend less time in the study of English than they are doing now, my object is not to deprive them of the pleasure which they are likely to derive from it, but I hold that the same pleasure can be obtained at less cost and trouble if we follow a more natural method. The world is full of many a gem of priceless beauty; but then these gems are not all of English setting. Other languages can well boast of productions of similar excellence; all these should be made available for our common people and that can only be done if our own learned men will undertake to translate them for us in our own languages.”
As the knowledge of the world is translated into our languages, a technical vocabulary will need to be built up that will be common for all Indian languages. For example, we need to have Indian names for all the elements in the periodic table. Indian languages cannot possibly be languages of sciences if we don’t even have an Indian equivalent for elements such as hydrogen and nitrogen. Can a chemist with help from Sanskritists take a shot at coming up with Indian names for periodic table? The structure of Sanskrit grammar inspired Russian scientist, Dimitri Mendeleev, to create a similar structure for chemical elements, and thus was born the periodic table! As an honour to the great grammarian, Panini, he gave Sanskrit prefixes for the missing elements of periodic table!
Ideally, imparting higher education in Indian languages and translating knowledge into our mother tongues should have been the task of the Indian government and Indian universities. But when the government is not concerned about the emasculation of our languages, then the private citizens have to come forward. We owe it to our ancestors, to our great grammarians and to the generation that gave us freedom to revive our languages by making it the vehicle of economic activity. Let us start speaking, writing and translating in our mother tongue. Let every state start engineering, medical, legal, and business schools in its language. Imagine the cause of national unity, when a Kannada or a Marathi medical student will learn Assamese to get admission into a prestigious Assamese medium medical college! Instead of pitting one Indian language against the other, let us be an activist for all our languages. There cannot be a bigger national cause than this.
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