In 1961, the census identified no less than 1,652 mother tongues in the Indian subcontinent. 30 of them, according to a census conducted 40 years later in 2001, specifies that 29 of these languages are spoken by over a million people each, while 60 of them are spoken by over 100,000 people each. According to the Government of India, however, only 23 languages have been awarded official language status.
In a land where travelling a few kilometres in any direction can suddenly cause one to be exposed to a new language, translation is a matter-of-fact occurrence rather than a contrived one. Survival in India requires multilingualism as a basic quality rather than a specialised skill area.
The Four Language Families of India
Dravidian, Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan and Mon-Khmer are brothers in tongue. These four languages boast having fathered the over 1,600 languages that have been identified with the Indian Republic. Each State in India has one, two or even three official languages; each family of languages is spoken in anywhere from one to twelve States. As you travel through India, you are likely to be ‘culture-shocked’ more times than you’d care to count! And part of that cultural diversity – a big part – is the many languages spoken in India today.
Interesting Information about Incredibly Intelligent Indians
- Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote the Lyric for the Indian National Anthem Jana Gana Mana, but it was in a language completely different from its current one. It was Abid Ali – a soldier who translated it into the Hindi-Urdu version that is sung today – who made it an anthem for the Indian National Army, calling it Subh Sukh Chain (meaning ‘all is well‘).
- Ramanujan would probably be out of place in a translation setting because his language was numbers. Born in an unlikely setting in rural India, Srinivasa Ramanujan stunned the Civilised World with his intricate fluency at anything numeric. It is said that he compiled nearly 4,000 results – many of which were independently validated by major world mathematicians. His commitment to further the cause of mathematics cut across more borders than any translator could hope to do.
- Mahatma Gandhi is easily the most famous Indian personality the world has ever known, but very few people know that he was also a translator! His rendition of John Ruskin’s Unto This Last in Gujarati, his native tongue, was published as Sarvodaya, which means ‘the well-being of all’ (remember that the Indian National Anthem was once a tune called ‘all is well!’)
- Another great translation genius from India is Ramanujan’s namesake – A.K.Ramanujan. This 20th century bard and linguist translated, wrote or compiled no less than 16 publications in Kannada, a language spoken in the South Indian State of Karnataka.
India is no stranger to translation. Its 1,652 languages are proof that translation is the one key to communication in a diverse land encompassing countless cultures. Although the official language of India is Hindi, a significant minority speaks English. Being bilingual is an admirable skill in many parts of the world; in India, it is called survival.
The Reach of Indian Literature
Pertinent to our persuasion for language is the fact that Indian literature is one of the most pervasive in the world. Just like Latin had its heyday and English has its time now, Indian languages once had a tremendous impact on World Culture: Voltaire read a translation of the Yajur Veda called L’Ezour Vedam which is said to have had an influence on his subsequent writings; philologist Sir William Jones tells of Sanskrit: “more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could not possibly have been produced by accident”.
There is no doubt, then, that Indian languages have had a more-than-significant influence on modern thinking. Mark Twain called India the ‘birthplace of human speech’; American author Thoreau said he felt like being under ‘the spangled heavens of a summer night’ whenever he read a passage from the Vedas; German scholar Max Mueller referred to India as the place that ‘deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions’; Emerson was equally effusive in his praise when he said that the ‘great books of India’ had ‘had pondered and thus disposed of the questions that exercise us.’
The 1960s affinity of American and British celebrities for mystic Indian Gurus and Godmen with their enchanting chants shows that the world’s fascination with India was no less fervent as recently as 50 years ago. Even more recent is the popularity of Indian cinema in the Western World: there are fan clubs in Japan for Indian movie stars like Rajinikanth – South India’s Superstar; there are thousands of Bharathnatiyam dance and Carnatic music schools in Europe and America; there are 2.24 million Indians or Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) in the United States alone – another 1.5 million just in the UK.
All of this data just goes to show that Indian languages have been a powerful vehicle for keeping the country at the forefront of global interest in times of old and ages of new. India has long tickled the fancy of travellers like Magellan, Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo. Their explorations led to new discoveries, although in the case of Columbus it was completely off the compass, giving him the fame of discovering the New World instead of the privilege of discovering one of the oldest! A Rough Guide to India publication says this: “Modern day India represents the largest democracy in the world with a seamless picture of unity in diversity unparalleled anywhere else”. This unity in diversity is translation at its best. The seamless picture of unity can only achieved if a billion tongues speak the same tongue despite speaking different tongues!