A translation revolution for an inclusive and prosperous India

In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote, “A single shelf in a good European library is worth all the native literature in India.” This view reflected a colonialist’s need to create legitimacy for invasion, but also reflected his inability to understand a country which, even 187 years after its racist quip, has 22 official languages, newspapers in 35 languages ​​and speaks 1,200 languages. Our linguistic diversity is a gift but keeps a treasure of Indian knowledge locked away. We believe that the ongoing translation revolution will generate more output from [email protected] than in the 75 years since independence. This revolution – driven by politics, technology, philanthropy and academia – will expand the global knowledge base, unlock Indian treasures for every Indian, and increase the Internet’s share of Indian languages.

India’s linguistic diversity is significant. Gandhiji massified our struggle for freedom by organizing the operational units of the movement around language rather than units of British administration like Madras Presidency, United Provinces, Bombay Presidency, etc. a nation, articulated regional identities and created a unity of purpose in the founding of modern India. The world’s greatest democracy was created on the barren soil of the world’s most diverse society. But translations provide more glue; imagine if a Hindi webinar could be heard live by a Tamil participant. Imagine a food wholesaler receiving a WhatsApp message in Kannada written by a farmer in Bengali. And imagine if a book published in English could be simultaneously available in 22 Indian languages.

The first phase of Digital India’s unique open architecture ecosystem now moves from digital transactions – identification (Aadhaar), payments (UPI), vaccination certificate (CoWIN), documents (Digilocker), toll collection (Fastag), education (NDEAR), health (NDHM) and taxation (GSTN) – to the second phase of using data to build artificial intelligence. A pioneer is Bhashini – under the national language translation mission of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology – a translation ecosystem that aligns central ministries, state governments, large tech companies, start-ups -ups, publishers, universities, NGOs and citizens. The first results are exciting: over 100 models have been uploaded to Bhashini’s ULCA (Universal Language Contribution API), Bhasha Daan (crowdsourced dataset creation) has begun, and this collaborative AI model is a world premiere.

Bhashini catalyzes responses. The AI ​​for Bharat Center (AI4Bharat) at IIT Madras, launched last week with support from Rohini and Nandan Nilekani and Microsoft, aims to “bring English parity in AI technologies for Indian languages ​​with open source contributions in datasets, models, and applications.” Contributions include IndicBERT (language model in 12 languages), IndicTrans (translation model used by the Supreme Court of India), IndicXlit (20-language transliteration model), IndicWav2Vec (speech recognition model), and IndicBART (language generation model) The Center for Translations at Ashoka University brings together student translators and experts from 28 states and 300 cities in Indian languages ​​to create a national library of literature in translation and aims to “replace global prejudices, stereotypes and monolithic visions of Indian knowledge with plurality”. non-profit organizations are testing translation scholarships. A rough estimate of non-fiction books on “knowledge” suggests a stock of over 5,000 books from one Indian language to English, a stock of over 750 books from one Indian language to another Indian language, and a flow of 200 books per year. Innovation and resources are needed to tackle the over 25,000 books on hold.

It’s unfair to talk about translation without addressing the elephant in the room – English as a linking language, scale tool and software vehicle. In 1919 Gandhiji wrote an article in Young India suggesting that true education was impossible through foreign media. BR Ambedkar supported the adoption of English in Constituent Assembly debates because it was equidistant from all communities and would blunt traditional advantages. One of us who works in jobs thinks English is a job skill that creates labor mobility, wage premiums, and signaling for resumption. But any conversation about English in India must embrace multilingualism. Allahabad University’s most interesting Hindi and Urdu poets – Harivansh Rai Bachchan and Firaq Gorakhpuri – were both professors of English literature. It is also rude not to acknowledge the impact of the recent Booker Prize (the English translation of the Hindi novel, Ret Samadhi, by Geetanjali Shree) and commercial success (the English translation of the Kannada novel, Gachar Gochar, by Vivek Shanbag) as useful in increasing the viability of regional publishers (they had become printers), regional language writers (they have bigger playgrounds) and regional language translators (they can do it full time).

There is a long tradition of writers who reflect on the art, craft and ambiguities of translation. A 1941 essay by Vladimir Nabokov identifies three sources of evil in translation: ignorance, laziness, and prejudice. A 1997 essay by Steven Rendall believes that the translatability of a work depends on an adequate translator and its translating essence. An excellent new book, Translating Myself and Others, by Jhumpa Lahiri believes that many Indians are exposed to translation as children (in his case, using Mom or Mum as a map), is inspired by Ovid’s Greek myth of ‘Echo and Narcissus to explore the distinction between translation and writing, and has a nice reconsideration of the words original, authentic and authorship. The receding limits of software translation based on uniquely human skills and emotions must be acknowledged. We agree that for books, this technology will help translators, not replace them.

Linguist Claude Hagege suggests that languages ​​are not a collection of words but living, breathing organisms that hold together the connections of a culture. The 16 languages ​​of Himachal Pradesh have 200 words for snow, including one that means “to fall when the moon is up”. Increasing the quantity, quality and speed of technologies and people who translate our languages ​​is India’s infrastructure for inclusiveness, prosperity and soft power. Fortunately, politics is catalyzing the partnerships between technology, philanthropy and academia that are fueling a translation revolution that is long overdue.

The writers work for Teamlease Services and the Center for Translation at Ashoka University, respectively.

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