Being a translator: Navigating live speeches amidst fear of trolls — without making all women criminals

It's a high-pressure job: Translating live, capturing nuance, and avoiding pitfalls, while also facing the threat of online trolls.

ByDileep V Kumar

Published Apr 10, 2024 | 11:00 AMUpdatedApr 10, 2024 | 12:39 PM

Translators like Soya Joseph (pictured with Rahul Gandhi) are tasked with the formidable challenge of unravelling the complexities of language to convey the essence of these speeches to the regional audience. (Supplied)

A “masterstroke” transformed all Kerala women into criminals, much to the chagrin of Brinda Karat, the first woman politburo member of the CPI(M).

Karat was addressing an election campaign rally in Kerala, when the translator claimed she had said all women in the state were criminals. The former Rajya Sabha member was then condemning the brutal rape and murder of an LLB student in Ernakulam’s Perumbavoor.

“I strongly contempt the brutal attack on Jisha,” the CPI(M) leader thundered with a grave expression. A bit of stammering later, the translator delivered the first blow. 

“Moshamaayattulla reethiyulla krootathayodulla kolapaathakathe njaam apalapikkukayum athodukoodi enikku apamaanam undaavukayum cheythu (I condemn the bad cruel murder which insulted me),” he presented.

Karat, who knew a bit of Malayalam, could not believe her ears? “Apamaanam?” (insult), she looked quizzically at the translator, and made him translate again.

She continued with the translator in tow. “The women of Kerala…” Ee naattile criminalukal (the criminals of this land…), the translator kept up the pace and fell silent when Karat added, “…have fought many struggles”.

The audience, after a failed attempt to suppress laughter, exploded in an unbridled guffaw.

Oommen Chandy’s cooking class

The damage was done. A grave matter, which Karat tried to use as a weapon against the then Oommen Chandy-led Kerala government, lost its sting and fell flat as even she could not hide the grin.

Her message was lost in translation, as the translator echoed the Italian saying, traduttore, traditore (translator, traitors).

The torture for Karat — and humor for the audience — did not end there.  He did not understand when she said “SG”, referring to a senior “señora” with an Italian connection in the Congress party. “She is referring to some person called SG,” he nodded at Karat.

Taking a dig at the Chandy government, she said the dispensation had “gifted the woman a recipe to cook sambar without dal (lentil), chilli and ulli(shallot)”.  The translator felt that the government, in a bid to overcome difficulties that the state had been facing, was teaching women to make sambar without dal and idli sans uzhunnu (black gram)!

The final nail that coffined Karat’s patience when she referred to “Comrade Tapan Sen.” Despite multiple efforts by the communist leader, the translator kept referring to the lawmaker as Tapan Singh.

Brinda Karat, often translated as Vrinda Karat in Malayalam, left the translator standing, and continued in English, which the audience understood.

The incident showed that translation is an art, science, and moreover, a skill.

BJP leader K Surendran was elsewhere when Karat addressed the rally, and perhaps was unaware of the translator’s gaffe. The troll factories that gleefully listened to her speech, fired at the CPI(M) leader’s translator from Surendran’s shoulders. The translator, they said, came from K Surendran School of Translation.

A translation faux paus a year ago had witnessed the BJP replacing Surendran with V Muraleedharan midway through Prime Minister’s speech in Thrissur.

(The Brinda Karat speech starts from 12 minutes). 


 Tightrope walk 

It is election time again, and translators are in demand as national leaders keep hitting the campaign trail in Kerala. The translators know one slip could singe them as memes would haunt them for years.

“It’s like walking a tightrope,” translator Soya Joseph told South First, adding, “You’re carrying the weight of the leader’s message, but one slip and the internet explodes. It can be brutal, even if it’s just a slip of the tongue.”

Joseph  belongs to the group of individuals whose contributions often go unnoticed, yet they are indispensable to the electoral process.

They are the bridge between leaders’ words and the regional audience. Their job is translating the leaders live, capturing the nuance, and navigating the minefield of potential pitfalls, all while facing the ever-present threat of online trolls.

With the elections fast approaching, senior leaders are ready to sway hearts and minds with their fiery rhetoric and impassioned speeches.

Standing at the forefront of this linguistic battleground are the translators — tasked with the formidable challenge of unravelling the complexities of language to convey the essence of these speeches to the regional audience.

Also Read: Row over Youth Congress workers joining BJP near ex-Kerala CM grave

Two-word translation

Though a veteran in the translation of speeches, CPI(M) supporter KP Sajinath — an advocate by profession — nowadays is known for his simple translation of a lengthy sentence.

It was a programme convened by the All-India Democratic Women’s Association at Kollam in March. Addressing the gathering was CPI(M) politburo member Brinda Karat.

Her statement on Congress leader Padmaja Venugopal, the daughter of senior leader and former chief minister K Karunakaran, switching her alliance to BJP was translated by Sajinath in two simple words: Padmaja Poyi (Padmaja Gone).

KP Sajinath

Sajinath told South First that those words conveyed the meaning in their entirety and he enjoyed the social media trolls against him.

He added that not all poked fun at him. The advocate said many congratulated him for encapsulating the message in those two simple words.

Asked about the risks involved with translating the speeches of LDF leaders, he shared two anecdotes.

One was when he was tasked to translate the speech of CPI(M) politburo member Subhashini Ali.

“As I stepped onto the dais, Ali came towards me and said in a hushed tone, ‘You must be very careful with the translation. I know Malayalam’,” he said.

In another instance, Sajinath said politburo member Prakash Karat asked him why he didn’t mention a particular part in his speech in the translation.

“Leaders like Prakash, Brinda, Subhashini, and many others can understand Malayalam. My style of translation is not word-for-word. I convey the meaning in my style of language and politics,” he said.

Sajinath said translating is a sensitive task. “You have to be quick on your feet, capturing the essence of the speaker’s message while navigating the linguistic minefield. If you stumble at any point, it will jeopardize the main speaker as well as yourselves,” he added.

According to LDF leaders, there is not a panel of translators with it and usually, it’s the local leaders who are entrusted with identifying the right person for doing the job.

Also Read: Rahul Gandhi declares assets worth ₹20 crore

‘Mixture of excitement and fear’

According to Mahila Congress’ Kerala secretary Soya Joseph, who grabbed attention following her translation of Rahul Gandhi’s speech, social media is a double-edged sword.

“You can get a lot of praise and become a star overnight. But one minor error on your part, and social media can make a mountain out of a molehill,” she explained.

“The fear of online trolls is a constant companion. But the challenges are eclipsed by the quiet satisfaction and excitement,” Joseph said.

Asked what crossed her mind when the party assigned her the job of translating Gandhi’s speech, she said, “The party informed me a week before the event that I might have to take up the task. Even, a day before the event there was no confirmation. But on the scheduled day it was confirmed that I would be the person to translate Rahul’s speech.”

“The leaders reminded me that the task that I was going to take up was challenging. I was not scared. I was excited. I was standing beside a leader I admired. What’s more, I was translating his speech,” she said.

Joseph said she was jitter during the initial two minutes of the translation, as she was standing at the other end of the stage and couldn’t hear Gandhi properly.

“He might have understood that. He asked me to stand near him and gave me a microphone. All went well after that,” Joseph said.

She added that she was looking forward to such opportunities, despite the stakes involved in it being high.

“One slip-up on our part, and the audience may stare at us. Even the momentum of the leader and the translator will be lost. It’s a constant battle to convey not just words but the intent behind them,” pointed out Soya.

Also Read: Kerala CM accuses Congress of deliberately being silent about CAA in manifesto

‘Preparation is the key’

Jyothi Radhika Vijayakumar

Another well-known figure among the translators is Jyothi Radhika Vijayakumar.

Her translation of speeches by Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and Priyanka Gandhi earned much appreciation from within and outside the Congress party.

“I had altogether translated more than 20 speeches of these leaders. But each outing is filled with tension,” she told South First.

“I prepare beforehand. Watching their speeches, the topics they covered, their tone, and their style. I believe it pays off,” Vijayakumar explained.

Asked if she had been entrusted with any new assignment, she said it had been three years since her last translation job.

Also Read: AI-powered deepfakes raise concerns about impact on privacy, electoral politics

AI in the mix

In the case of BJP, many of their star translators — like V Muraleedharan — are contesting the polls. The party has reportedly turned to artificial intelligence (AI).

The saffron party is reportedly relying heavily on Bhashini, an AI-enabled multi-language translation tool, for translating the speeches of its senior leaders including Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

“AI translation algorithms ensure that the message reaches a broader audience more quickly, facilitating greater engagement and understanding among diverse linguistic groups,” a senior leader said.

Accuracy is another aspect as AI helps preserve the integrity and clarity of the original message, reducing the risk of misinterpretation or distortion, he added.

At the same time, translators in general have said that though AI might be error-free, its major limitation is the loss of emotional impact and resonance, diminishing the effectiveness of the translated message.

“AI might excel at processing information and crafting clear, concise messages. However, the human connection hinges on emotions. A speech devoid of emotional resonance can leave voters feeling like they’re being talked at, not spoken to,” Sajinath said.

“AI cannot replace the human touch. The orator must be able to connect with voters at an emotional level. It will not happen through perfectly phrased but soulless speech generated by a machine,” Joseph concurred with Sajinath.

(Edited by Arkadev Ghoshal)