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For Better or Verse: The Wondrous Art of Subtitling Bollywood Songs

For Better or Verse: The Wondrous Art of Subtitling Bollywood Songs

Many pieces of translation pose daunting challenges. But translating Bollywood songs illuminates another fascinating facet of the art form: retaining the intention, accuracy, and context of the original text and yet making the words sing

Subtitles from the song 'Besharam Rang'
Subtitles from the song 'Besharam Rang'

When dialogues desiccate, a song blooms. A unique feature of Indian cinema, it dignifies and depicts emotions so oceanic, so fluid, that prosaic expressions fall short. If feelings are water, a song is a vessel. How do you, for example, capture the exhilaration of a young woman growing up in an oppressive family, seeing the world for the first time, absorbing not just what’s outside but inside her? Sure, you can use a monologue or a dialogue—maybe even a voiceover—but would any of it hit home? Probably not. So you do this: As her fingers jog outside a truck’s window, a song plays in the background: O jugni o / Pataakha guddi o. And, as if reveling in coded communication, we get it—instantly, instinctively. Because if a picture paints a thousand words, a song paints a thousand pictures. Bollywood songs, as a result, have reinforced what we’ve (intuitively) known for long: that prose can be a prison.

A film song is not just a musical composition. Placed in an existing narrative, it underscores mood, develops characters, propels subplots. If you know Hindi, a Bollywood song will almost always make sense to you—even if you don’t know all the words. But how would a song talk to you if you don’t understand the language? Musically pleasant, yes, but linguistically alien, as if living in a rented house. Or, to summarise an excerpt from a Gulzar song, it’d make you feel as if you’re in “someone else’s courtyard wearing socks, even when barefoot”.

That’s when translators, or film subtitlers, help diminish the divide. Even though dialogues, too, pose translational challenges, a song is especially tricky because, besides transporting mood and meaning, it demands at least one more layer of interpretation: rhythm, rhyme, and metre. In fact, the task can be so daunting, and silly mistakes so easy, that translational goof-ups have spawned memes, listicles, and a website (Paagal Subtitles). Consider this blooper from a Karan Arjun (1994) song, where Yeh bandhan toh pyaar ka bandhan hai / Janmon ka sangam hai became “This bondage is the bondage of love, it is the intercourse of many births.”  

The main difficulties, of course, transcend the literal translations, as they pivot on interpretations. Take the recent Besharam Rang song. A literal mould might tempt a novice subtitler to use “shameless colours”. But Nasreen Munni Kabir, who has subtitled over 800 movies (including Pathaan), used something else: true colours. So Besharam rangkahan dekha duniya waalon ne turned ‘The world has not seen my true colours’. Besides bearing similarity to the idiom ‘show[ing] one’s true colours’, it also, very unobtrusively, plants a narrative seed in the viewers’ minds because it’s sung by Deepika Padukone’s character, a spy, someone whose ‘true colours’ are difficult to discern.

“If you say shameless colour, the non-Hindi audience won’t understand,” says Kabir. “And when you make obscure connections in English, you make the audience think about the subtitles—not the shot, not the film, not the story.” Besides tussling with individual words, subtitlers also have to consider the form: Do you rhyme, or do you not? Do you match the rhythm or catch the words? “I like to stay as close to the original imagery as possible,” she says. “Because otherwise, you dilute the cultural atmosphere of the song. Sometimes you can work the rhyme, sometimes you cannot. But if you’ve to change the meaning to make the words rhyme then, I feel, you should not rhyme.”

Every subtitler then must bring to their work their own take on translation, especially while resolving the tension between content and form. “While I make a point of producing a rhymed translation when subtitling songs,” says François-Xavier Durandy, who has subtitled such films as Pyaasa (1957), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and Titli (2015) into French, “I don’t necessarily strive to keep all content 100% intact.” He prefers “target-oriented translation” which, “more than doing justice to the original author”, allows “continuous immersion” in a movie. “My approach would likely be different if I translated poetry to be published in print, but in the case of subtitles, there are no footnotes, no foreword, and no chance to read a line twice.”

The structural multiplicity of a Bollywood song—it can be a poem, a conversation, a story (or in short: anything)—flings further challenges. “The beauty of a Hindi film song is that it’s truly cosmopolitan and democratic,” says author Akshay Manwani who, in his books on Sahir Ludhianvi and Nasir Hussain, transliterated and translated several iconic songs. “There are no rules. It’s at times also full of rubbish words.” He reels off such classic examples as “Eena Meena Deeka”, “C-A-T cat/ Cat maane billi”, and Amitabh Bhattacharya’s alliterative gibberish genius: “Paan mein pudeena dekha / Naak ka nagina dekha / Chikni chameli dekhi / Chikna kameena dekha. I mean, how do you translate these lines? Do they even need to be translated?”

As if resolving Manwani’s doubt, Durandy says, “If I had to translate paan main pudeena dekha, I’d probably try not to bother too much about content and context and straightaway focus on alliteration. I may say something like un cafard dans mon café [a cockroach in my coffee], which has nothing to do with paan or pudeena, but hopefully would serve the stylistic purpose.” So this is how Jahan Singh Bakshi tried to tame a tongue twister in Shakuntala Devi (2020): “Oont ooncha / Oont ki peeth oonchi / Oonchi poonch oont ki” transformed to “crazy camels, calm camels, the camel clans clashed!”

I ask Kabir about the Badtameez Dil conundrum. She tells me to repeat the first two lines, so she can note them down. “You see the trouble is, the majority of the Western audience doesn’t know what a paan is. So you keep it as it is. What do you think nagina means in this context—is it a nose ring?” Perhaps, I’m clueless myself. “So it’s an imagery that will work very poorly in English.” She laughs. “You’d have to say something like: The glint of mint in the paan / The glint of her nose ring. So I’d do the whole song, email it to Amitabh, and ask, ‘Is this alright?’”  

Like most pieces of translation, Hindi film songs throw two common roadblocks: translating cultures and translating across cultures. Because, in the former, what’s true for one may not be for the other. While subtitling Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Durandy struggled with zulfon ki ghata lehraai / paigham vafaa ke laai from the song Tujhe yaad na meri aai. It wasn’t the words as much as the metaphor: “Clouds are usually harbingers of bad news in France.” Kabir finds “jugaad” and “aukaat” particularly tough. She says a famous Bollywood line, Apni aukat mat bhoolo. “But in England”—she lives in London and translates for an international audience—“the class division isn’t like that. So what do you say: Don’t forget your standing, don’t forget your status, don’t forget who you are?”

Translating across cultures requires close attention to shifting styles. Most Bollywood songs of the ’50s and the ’60s followed a different literary mode—more formal, more chaste—as compared to the clipped, conversational lingo dominant today. Which is why, translating Sahir Ludhianvi’s songs, Durandy felt free “to omit articles”, as it “makes French sound archaic”. Kabir underscores a “marked difference” between the songs of the two periods. “Even though the language of the ’50s was much richer,” she says, “they were far easier to translate.” Such songs had two main aspects: they told a story, and they used a subtle style to describe emotions. “What do I mean by storytelling? Sahir, Zindagi bhar nahin bhoolegi woh barsaat ki raat. He’s describing a whole night, and it’s very easy to translate. But today they talk in concepts about love. The words are drowned in music. They are tougher to translate because they mean less.”  

Unlike a pure textual translation (say, a poem or a novel), film subtitles also accompany sounds and images, two more avenues of information, which impose their own restrictions. Kabir says the “shot duration” and “dialogue delivery” determine the length of the subtitle. So movies with fast cuts, and quick dialogues, are more challenging to translate, as a “subtitle should not go over the cut”. Durandy ran into a visual problem while subtitling Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962); the song Piya Aiso Jiya Mein featured “extreme close-up shots” of Meena Kumari. “For the first time, I felt my subtitles were like a blot on a beautiful face,” he says. “They would inevitably land on her chin or lips and there was not much I could do, because I had to use subtitles.” So he split them. A normal subtitle would have looked like the following on screen, a big block of text:

Mon bien-aimé a pris
possession de mon cœur

“But it would have encroached too much on Meena Kumari’s face,” he explains, “which is why I went for two separate one-line subtitles, looking like this:

Mon bien-aimé a pris
+
possession de mon cœur.”

It was awkward to separate the verses, Durandy clarifies, “but it would have been even more awkward to hide Meena Kumari’s face.”

Some subtitling problems can be as simple, or as complicated, as the authorial intent. Durandy bashed into one such wall while subtitling Jai Ho from Slumdog Millionaire (2008). He hadn’t received the lyrics’ transcript from the production team and had to rely on online sources—a linguistic minefield, especially when it comes to Gulzar. “Most websites had Aa ja, aa ja jind shamiyaane ke tale as the first line,” he says. “But is there any such word as ‘jind’ in Hindi or Urdu?” Another possibility multiplied his confusion. “How did the Punjabi jind find its way into the lyrics and how did it relate syntactically to the rest of the verse?” Durandy asked around, then wrote a Twitter thread—nothing worked. He found out the actual word much later: “jinde”. Eventually, he dropped the “mysterious jind but still managed to produce a translation”, which he is “not ashamed of”: Retrouve-moi sous ma tente bordée de voiles / Retrouve-moi sous le ciel bleu brodé d’étoiles (Come meet me under my veils-lined tent/ Come meet me under the stars-embroidered blue sky). Even though he had to sacrifice some text, the symmetric construction—“brodé echoing bordée” and “twelve syllables with two caesuras: 4–4–4”—pleased him. Trying to unravel the jind-jinde mystery on his Twitter thread, Durandy wondered: “If only I were Nasreen Munni Kabir and could fine-tune the translation with Gulzar himself!”  

Kabir’s book with the lyricist, Jiya Jale: The Story of Songs (2018), itself emerged from a translation project: She had been asked to subtitle the restored print of Dil Se (1998). She speaks fondly about collaborating with Mani Ratnam, checking “every line” of his latest, Ponniyin Selvan (2022), with him. “When the producer and the director [or their assistants] are involved, it’s a much better subtitle because the intention of the dialogues comes across much clearer,” she says. “So, as a translator, I can refer to them. Mani Ratnam knows both Tamil and English very well, so he understands when I get it, and when I can improve it. To be honest, it’s a great pleasure to sit next to a director whom you deeply respect. Because then you’re part of the team.”

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