When is an Indian not an Indian?

(c) Gulf News
'Indian' Become 'Hindus' in Polish

For the translator, geographical names are often unproblematic and the least of his or her worries. However, there are situations (terms and names) which are seemingly ‘easy’ to translate but throw up a whole range of quandaries, queries and questions. A wonderful example of such a term is the English word Indian which is not as simple to translate into Polish as one might expect.

The term Indian (meaning a citizen of the Republic of India), or even perhaps, a person living on the Indian subcontinent is most often translated as Hindus in Polish. Simple? Not really. As we all know, a fine test of translation fidelity is back translation. Unfortunately, this is where the translation of Indian into Hindus fails.

The chief problem with the word Hindus is the religious connotation that it holds. If we were to superimpose the semantic structure/map of the word Hindus onto the word Indian we would be struck by the fact that the two words inhabit different semantic spaces. Hindus can also refer to someone who is a Hindu (i.e. Hinduism, the religion).

This is, of course, problematic. Although the majority of the inhabitants of the Republic of India are Hindus (Hinduists), there are Indians who are not Hindu. Likewise, there are members of the Hindu religion who live in Nepal, Bangladesh, Bali and interestingly (from a political point of view) in Pakistan. What is more, the term Hindus can also be incorrectly interpreted as someone who speaks Hindi, which again is not necessarily correct.

Just as members of the Hindu religion inhabit countries other than the Republic of India so too speakers of Hindi do not only live in India. Major Hindi populations can be found in Nepal and Mauritius. Furthermore, Hindi and Urdu, to all intents and purposes, are the same language – Hindi-Urdu – but have two standardised forms (i.e. it is a pluricentric language). So when one refers (in Polish) to a Hindus does that mean an Indian, a Hindu or a Hindi speaker?

The case of Indian-Hindus is a wonderful caveat against taking translation for granted. What may seem to be a seemingly ‘harmless’ word may in fact throw up a host of political-loaded problems as the Polish word Hindus can occupy the semantic space of several English words. For example, would we call a member of the Hindu religion living in Pakistan a Hindus (in Polish)?

Obviously, the translator is left to his or her own discretion when choosing a word or phrase as an equivalent but being aware of a word’s etymology or ‘real’ meaning can often be the difference between a ‘good’ translation and a ‘phenomenal’ translation. However, returning to the issue of Hindus, for those familiar with the Indian subcontinent, the word Indus is sometimes used and appears to be an elegant equivalent of the English Indian.


5 thoughts on “When is an Indian not an Indian?

  1. I believe that Polish people using the term ‘Hindus’ in most of the cases do not think about religious or geographic relevance of it. I would rather bet that ‘Hindus’ is a very stereotypical name of a person with typical Indian complexion and/or flea market’s trader with ‘gupta accent’ (I just made up this term right now, I hope you get my point). Reading the article reminded me of my colleague I’ve met in UK, the Spaniard with Indian roots who lives in UK for a long time and I would consider him more British than Spanish or Indian. Recently, he posted a note on his facebook that made me laugh:

    “Went to buy an indian outfit for myself…shop keeper saw me n thought im a tourist…which I am actually…lol..he priced the item at 18.000 inr(264 €) the moment I spoke the local language and said bhenchot…the price came down to 7.000 inr (100 €) WELCOME TO MUMBAIIII”

    And let this story be also an important point for translators of what Hindus/Indian stands for 🙂

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