Translating from Hindi to Urdu

Jan 7, 2011 by

There is an insider joke among my translator-friends: we refer to boring, non-creative and sometimes pointless translation assignments as “translating from Hindi to Urdu”. Of course, the joke is that Hindi and Urdu are supposed to be more or less the same language (hence, translating from one to another isn’t much of job at all). However, the Hindi-Urdu distinction is not as straightforward as it may seem.

This understanding that Hindi and Urdu are essentially the same language (perhaps equal to dialects of a language like English or German or Russian, whose speakers are likely to be able to understand one another quite well) is reflected in the older term “Hindustani” — the language of both Hindus (in India) and Pakistanis. The major differences between Hindi and Urdu are in the vocabulary and the writing system. Hindi is written using a Devanagari script, while Urdu is written in Arabic-derived Urdu script. Arabic has also influenced the vocabulary of Urdu, with many lexical borrowings coming to Urdu with the spread of Islam. Among these borrowings are, for example: kitāb ‘book’, faqir ‘beggar’, xabar ‘news’ and vaqt ‘time’. Because most Hindi speakers are Hindus, Hindi has not been subject to heavy borrowing from Arabic. And because only certain strata of the vocabulary have been affected by these borrowings, it is the literary versions of Hidni and Urdu that are particularly distinct from each other, since they emphasize vocabulary from different traditions — Sanskrit for Hindi, and Arabic and Persian for Urdu. It is largely for this reason that Hindi and Urdu are nowadays typically considered distinct languages.

Furthermore, the association between Hindi, Hindus and India, on the one hand, and Urdu, Islam and Pakistan, on the other hand, is far too simplistic.

First of all, not all Hindi speakers are Hindus, and not all Hindus are Hindi speakers. For example, the Indian state of Orissa has a high proportion of Hindus, but the main language spoken there is Oriya (a relative of Hindi, but a distinct language). Conversely, the Indian state of Jharkhand has a low proportion of Hindus, but the majority of its population speaks Hindi. The proportion of Hindu population by state is mapped here (thanks to Martin Lewis for making this fantastic map and many others for India!):

And of course, as mentioned in yesterday’s posting, there are numerous languages besides Hindi spoken in India, including some related languages, such as Bengali, Marathi and Gujarati, and others not related to Hindi. Thus, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu and Tamil are Dravidian languages; Manipuri, Bodo and Tripuri are among India’s Tibeto-Burmese languages; whereas Santali, Khasi and Mundari are some of India’s Austro-Asiatic languages (whose closest relatives are Mon-Khmer languages of Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia). Still, Hindi is the most widely spoken language in India: according to the Central Institute of Indian Languages, about 40% of India’s population speaks Hindi.

A similar claim cannot be made about Urdu — it definitely is not the most widely spoken language of Pakistan. According to the CIA World Factbook, only 8% of Pakistanis speak Urdu. A number of other languages are more widely spoken than Urdu: for instance, Sindhi is spoken by 12% of the population and Saraiki — by 10%. But the leading language of Pakistan is Punjabi, which is spoken by some 48% of Pakistanis. (By the way, the area of Punjab also provides the first letter for the acronym that is the name of the country, Pakistan.)

Both Punjabi and Urdu also have speakers in India: nearly 3% of India’s huge population speaks Punjabi, while Urdu is even more common in India, with over 5% of Indians speaking Urdu. An even more ironic fact is that there are more speakers of Urdu in India than in Pakistan: about 52 million Urdu speakers live in India and only 12 million in Pakistan. Note also that additional Urdu-speaking groups live in Bangladesh (250,000 speakers; where it is also called “Bihari”), Mauritius (64,000 speakers) and South Africa (12,000 speakers; in South Africa Urdu is one of the 11 co-official languages). One of the reasons behind such low numbers of Urdu speakers is that Urdu is mostly limited to a small area in southern Pakistan.

So perhaps there is more to translating from Hindi to Urdu than we are ready to admit…

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