Not all of the strange Hindi phrases I've encountered can be traced to awkward translations. Here are some that I find baffling all by themselves.
गति से प्रथम सुरक्षा
This is a common sign on the mountain roads in Uttarakhand (right up there with “We are like you, but not your speed”). For many years, I read this—without much conscious thought—as “[Controlling your] Speed is the principal safety measure”. This is something I strongly believe, and it seemed only right and proper to see it written by the roadside.
Then one day, it suddenly occurred to me that it might actually be meant to say “Safety before speed”.
Wiktionary says प्रथम means both first and preeminent, so both interpretations seem within the realm of plausibility. प्रथम is not an obscure word, but it's most often encountered as an adjective in the context of ranking things (like students). I can't find any other uses of it as a preposition, the way “before” is used above.
So how did we come by this odd phrase, and which of the two possible interpretations was intended? Was it an overenthusiastic translation, or did it mean what I always thought it did? Who knows?
I do know, however, that if the sign had said “गति से पहले सुरक्षा”, it would have quite unambiguously meant “Safety before speed”. But पहले is a much more ordinary word than प्रथम, and nobody in the Department of Road Signs ever got a bonus for using an ordinary word where an alternative was available. Especially if that alternative happens to be a word that's not used in Urdu.
Oddly enough, Google Translate agrees with me here. It translates “गति से पहले सुरक्षा” as “Safety before speed”, but suggests “Speed first protection” for the original.
कृपया बैठे हुए कुर्सी की पेटी बांधे रखिए
Leaving road transport behind and taking to the air, the above phrase can be found on a little placard behind every airline seat on Indigo flights (and perhaps some others too).
What does it mean? Well, the English version is quite straightforward: “Please fasten seat belt while seated”. The Hindi version is also quite matter-of-fact. But what it actually says is… “Please keep the belts of seated seats tied”.
I don't know how we ended up with that. Perhaps someone started with “कृपया बैठे हुए यात्री कुर्सी की पेटी बांधे रखें” (“Seated passengers may please keep their seat belts fastened”) and someone tried a little too hard to shrink it to fit? But why change रखें to रखिए in that case? Did someone think it sounded more polite? Or why not just say “कृपया कुर्सी की पेटी बांधे रखें” (“Please keep your seat belt fastened”)? Did someone think the English and Hindi versions should look the same length to avoid giving offence? (For that matter, is it really necessary to say “while seated” even in English?)
I can't resist mentioning another Indigo annoyance here. Their announcements use the terms “Cabin Crew” and “कर्मी दल” (“worker group”), but in the Lead Cabin Attendant's introduction, she refers to herself as “मुख्य कर्मी दल”, which makes exactly as much sense as “chief worker group”.