The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

More weird Hindi phrases

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). Indigo airline seatbelt label

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”.

Bogus Hindi translations

My annoyance at tortured translations between Hindi and English is not confined to the strange inverted use of until in Hinglish.

Here are some phrases that have suffered terribly in translation in the opposite direction.

कार्य प्रगति पर है

This is the usual translation of “work in progress” on road signs, but प्रगति means “progress” in a larger sense—think “scientific progress”, not “the progress bar is stuck at 95%”. And कार्य is a very grandiose word to apply to construction work, but it's just the sort of Sanskrit-derived word that the powers that be love to slip into official signs as if they were nothing out of the ordinary.

What's worse, “पर है” means “on” in the sense of putting one thing on another. So if you were to translate the sign back into English, “The work is on the progress” wouldn't be too far off. Nowhere else is प्रगति used in a way to suggest that you can put things on it (or in it).

It would be perfectly natural and unambigous to write “काम चल रहा है”, but that's just not officious enough to satisfy anyone.

निजी अस्पताल

Hindi newspapers use this term to mean “private hospital”, but निजी would be better translated as “personal”. It doesn't convey the private vs public sense of being the opposite of a “सरकारी अस्पताल” (Government hospital). When I read about someone going to a निजी अस्पताल, I always imagine them going to their own hospital (which I would too, if I had one).

In this case, I don't know of a better way to say it.

Temporal modifiers in Delhi

I've noticed a strange quirk of Delhi English—people say "until" when they really mean "while", and are oblivious to the inverted meaning of the resulting sentence. It sounds so wrong that I find it hard to think of an example:

We can't go out until it is raining.

There's a related (and perhaps slightly more common) but even more bizarre-sounding variant that has an extra negative:

We can't go out until it doesn't stop raining.

(In neither case does the speaker want to go out into the rain.)

I guess the root of this confusion lies in the translation of the Hindi phrase "जब तक" to "until" when it is often used to mean "so long as" (especially in conjunction with an extra negative; see below). Substituting the latter translation usually fixes problematic sentences. We can't go out so long as it doesn't stop raining sounds tortured, but the logic is sound.

Unfortunately, my grasp of Hindi grammar is not nearly subtle enough to judge which of the translations is more correct, and when. Taken in isolation, it seems to make perfect sense to translate "जब तक" as "until", but that's not how the phrase seems to be used. If I want to say We can't go out until it stops raining in Hindi, I have to add a negative and say “… जब तक बारिश नही रुकती ” ("… जब तक it doesn't stop raining"), which implies that "so long as" is the better translation. If I leave out that negative and say “… जब तक बारिश रुकती है ” ("… जब तक it stops raining"), my sentence feels incomplete and the "जब तक" seems to mean "by the time" more than anything else.

Is it ever correct to translate "जब तक" as "until"? I don't know whom to ask.

Oh well, so long as next time!

Update (2010-04-10): I asked a number of people who speak better Hindi than I do, and none of them were able to think of an example where "until" is the appropriate translation.