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.

Birds named after women

I've read many pieces about the people after whom birds are named, and it struck me recently that most of them are male. Not surprising, since there must have been many more male ornithologists than women; but there are nevertheless many birds named after women. Because of the regularity of Latin grammar, we can find a considerable number just by looking for names that end in -ae.

Alas, the majority of matching names are toponyms. Some of these names are obvious, like novaehollandiae and novaeseelandiae, which account for 23 species between them. But many more are obscure, and there's no way to exclude them en masse. One must go through the list one entry at a time to discard the place names. One notable example of this genre is adeliae, which refers to Adélie Land, named after Adélie Vicomtesse Dumont d’Urville, wife of a French Antarctic explorer. Another problem comes from male names which have been Latinised as -ae (e.g. Matsudaira, Fea). When these and other complications are eliminated, we are left with just under a hundred female eponyms.

Only a handful of these names belong to women whose contributions to ornithology are well-documented.

  • Maria Emilia Ana Koepcke, a famous German ornithologist and explorer in Peru, has a Screech-owl, a Cacique, and a Hermit named koepckeae after her.
  • The Dot-winged Antwren Microrhopias [quixensis] emiliae is named after Henriette Mathilde Maria Emilie Snethlage, another German ornithologist in Brazil, and the Director of the Goeldi Museum.
  • Eleonora's Falcon Falco eleonorae is named after Giudicessa Eleonora d'Arborea of Sardinia, who made a law protecting goshawks and falcons at their nests… in the fourteenth century!
  • Marion A. Johnstone, an English aviculturalist, has three birds named johnstoniae after her.
  • Therese Charlotte Maria Anna Princess of Bavaria, a zoologist and explorer, has two birds named theresiae after her.
  • British ornithologist Beryl Patricia Hall had a bird named hallae after her (but I can't figure out what species it was).
  • The Jos Plateau Indigobird Vidua maryae is named after Mary Dyer for her field work on indigobirds in Nigeria.
  • The delightfully-named Elfin-woods Warbler Dendroica angelae is named after New Zealand zoologist and conservationist Dr. Angela Kay Kepler.
  • The Afghan Snowfinch Pyrgilauda theresae was named after Theresa Clay, a British expert on bird lice.
  • The Golden-rumped Flowerpecker Dicaeum annae is named after Anna A. Weber van Bosse, a Dutch botanist and collector in the East Indies.
  • Otus ireneae and Metallura odomae are named after Irene Morden and Babette Odom, sponsors and bird-watchers in Kenya and Peru respectively.
  • Lulu's Tody-tyrant Poecilotriccus luluae is named after Lulu May von Hagen in recognition of her support for research in avian genetics.

Read more…

Cricket and inexplicable acceleration

I sometimes enjoy reading about matches in the newspaper or on Cricinfo, but I can stand it only in small doses. I was reminded of a particularly annoying trope in cricket writing today by the first paragraph of Sriram Veera's article on the problem with [M.] Vijay.

M. Vijay can be a good batsman to watch. At times his skill even makes you gasp. There is this shot he plays, when he just pushes at a length delivery, on the up, and the ball speeds past the bowler to the boundary. You think that mid-off, if not the bowler himself, will cut it off for it was just a mere waft. The ball, however, keeps accelerating.

No, it bloody well doesn't keep accelerating.

Unless M. Vijay runs along with the ball and keeps hitting it (is there an ICC regulation against that?), the only force acting upon it once it has left the bat is friction. In the absence of other forces, the ball can only decelerate on its way to the boundary.

No matter how good the batsman, the laws of physics don't change.

The Madrass Jay

Of the twenty-four illustrations contributed by Edward Buckley to John Ray's "Synopsis Methodica Avium et Piscium", the first one whose identity is not reasonably obvious is the "Madrass Jay", in the bottom left corner. From the illustration, I guessed that it was a Brahminy Myna, but a glance at the description showed that it could only be an Indian Pitta Pitta brachyura.

I wrote to the delhibirdpix list to ask for photographs of an Indian Pitta to post on this web page, and once again, Sharad Sridhar sent me a selection of photos (including one from Tamil Nadu, although the one below is from Karnataka).

Indian Pitta

Here is Buckley's description, followed by my translation:

Read more…

The Partridge Snipe

One of the many treasures on is a copy of the 1713 book "Synopsis Methodica Avium et Piscium" by the British scientist John Ray (or "Joannis Raii" in Latin). The book is interesting not only because it predates and influenced Linnaean taxonomy, but especially because it includes a few illustrations and descriptions of "Indian birds about Fort St. George" (near Madras) at the end, contributed by Edward Buckley, a surgeon at the Fort.

Appendix from Synopsis Methodica Avium

There are twenty-four captioned illustrations, most of which can be identified easily (e.g. the Madras Sea-crow is obviously an Indian Skimmer). But the illustrations aren't very lifelike—beaks in particular being suspiciously similar—and some species (e.g. "Small Blue Jay" and "Red Jay-Dove") aren't readily recognisable. Some of the descriptions are quite detailed, however, and I tried to translate a few of them just to see if I could identify the species involved. I meant to post some of these translations, but never got around to it.

One of the species described is the Greater Painted-snipe Rostratula benghalensis, which the book calls the Partridge Snipe. This is a common species that I somehow missed seeing for many years until Hassath and I encountered a pair in a puddle by the road at Basai. It is one of the few species where the female has a much more striking plumage, and is polyandrous to boot, with the offspring being raised by the male. I was reminded of the description in the book by the lovely photographs Sharad Sridhar sent me today.

Read more…

Birds named after their habitat

One of the most interestingly-named birds regularly seen around Delhi is the Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis. It has an onomatopoeic common name—its call being a loud "zit zit"—that includes its Latin generic name Cisticola, from the Greek name kistos for the "rock rose" (a small red-flowered shrub) and Latin cola for "dweller" (from colere "to dwell"). The specific name is from the Latin iuncus for reed. (For some reason I can no longer remember, I used to think that cistus meant basket, and referred to the bird's basket-shaped nests, but I was wrong.)

Cisticola is the most familiar such name, but there are many other birds named after their dwellings (a special case of bionyms). Thanks to a borrowed copy of James A. Jobling's wonderful "Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names", I can look up all of the -cola names (both generic and specific) extracted from a checklist. Here's a selection of the interesting ones.

Read more…

Too many filesystems

While trying to explain something about filesystems the other day, I realised that there are too many different (but related) things that can be reasonably described by that term.

First, there's the general idea of a filesystem, discussed in every operating systems textbook, as an organisation of data into a hierarchy of named directories and files for persistent storage on disk. This is what people mean when they say Store data in the filesystem.

Second, there's the specific protocol that defines the UNIX filesystem, with characteristics such as files being just a series of bytes, having case-sensitive names and certain kinds of metadata, using '/' as a path separator, and supporting various operations (open, read, close, …).

Third, there are the many different filesystem implementations, such as UFS, ext3, XFS—all programs that implement UNIX filesystem semantics but have their own features, characteristics, extensions, and on-disk layout of data. This is the level at which one may decide to use, say, a journalling filesystem for a certain purpose.

Next, the layout of data on a disk, as distinct from whatever program is used to read or write that data, is also called a filesystem. This is the sense in which people might say The filesystem on /dev/sda1 is corrupted—the problem is (one hopes) not with the implementation, but with its instantiation on disk.

Finally, on a UNIX system, the filesystem may refer to the hierarchy of directories rooted at / and built up by mounting specific filesystems (in the "data on disk" sense) at various points on the tree. Thus, it is the union of the contents of its constituent filesystems.

These layers are usually taken for granted, but it is necessary to peel them away one by one to explain things properly.

Suspicious and claustrophobic

Whenever I hear someone say This room is so claustrophobic!, I have to bite my tongue and remind myself that there is no simple way in English to distinguish between "suffering from claustrophobia" and "inducing claustrophobia".

Another word that suffers from the same problem (ambiguity, that is, not a fear of closed spaces) is "suspicious".

"He looks suspicious"… but do I suspect him, or does he suspect me?

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.