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How interpreters can make or break it for leaders

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The gaffe by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s interpreter in Singapore over the weekend was noticed by none other than Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Nilakshi Saha Sinha, an interpreter in French in her own right, has been travelling with the Prime Minister for much of his last four years.

Nilakshi, whose father too was in the foreign service, also translates from Hindi to English and vice-versa, as was seen during the Singapore address.


She should probably have been listening much more carefully when Modi spoke in Hindi at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU), especially because the translation was consecutive, not simultaneous.

Here’s what Rahul said on Twitter, which has garnered thousands of likes so far:

The first Indian PM who takes “spontaneous” questions that the translator has pre-scripted answers to! Good that he doesn’t take real questions. Would have been a real embarrassment to us all if he did.

Nilakshi, who went on to speak from a script rather than translate the PM’s relatively simple sentences, has probably committed the original sin in the interpreter’s Bible. We know what happened here because we understood what the PM said in Hindi as well as what she went on to say in English.

You wouldn’t fault people from thinking: What if, India’s interpreters make similar gaffes in languages we don’t understand, like Mandarin and Russian? Imagine, if you don’t say what you mean – or, don’t mean what you say – to Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping.

Certainly, reassurance is in order. The PM’s Mandarin-language interpreters, R. Madhu Sudan and Shilpak Ambule, who work in the Indian embassy in Beijing and in the ministry of external affairs in Delhi respectively, can certainly pass off as natives in Beijing’s hutongs. And, they are, no doubt, watched over by Mandarin speaker and foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale.

Modi’s Russian interpreter Vipin Kumar, who is currently finishing his course at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Centre in Monterey, California, was imported specially for Modi’s meeting with Putin in Sochi.

Besides, there are a couple of other Indians – I won’t tell you who – who don’t need to go to Monterey to speak a perfect Moskovski variant of Russkiy yizik, apart from old Russia hands Shipra Das and G. Balasubramanian.

Not sure if Nilakshi went to Monterey, but as India expands its diplomatic footprint globally, it knows that speaking another’s mother-tongue fluently is the first ice-breaker in a difficult town.

“What’s your language,” is the first decent question you ask a foreign service officer even before you want to know where she’s posted. Mandarin? You’re definitely top of the pops. Russian? Great, thumbs up. American? Okay, sure. In Trump’s Washington, it’s becoming increasingly important to decipher code, both slang and twang.

Goodbye, School of Languages in Jawaharlal Nehru University, where several Indians got their degrees. The courses here don’t cut it anymore.

Nilakshi’s gaffe set me thinking about the good old days. What did Indian diplomats do before Monterey or JNU? How did they break black bread in Russian or drink mao tai in Mandarin?

The doyen of them all has to be Vasant Vasudeo Paranjpe, who spoke such elegant Mandarin that chairman Mao himself was transfixed. Paranjpe translated for Nehru and Indira Gandhi and even former vice-president S. Radhakrishnan during their trips to China. He was made ambassador to South Korea in his later years, but remains unsung outside a small circle of IFS officers.

Here’s a beautiful story on Paranjpe (or Bai Chunhui, his Chinese name) in the book ‘Himalaya Calling: The Origins of China and India’ by noted China scholar in India Tan Chung. This was in 1954 when Nehru went to China, during the height of the ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai years’. Although premier Chou en-Lai was Nehru’s counterpart, it seems Mao himself “enthusiastically joined” the conversations. “The chairman considered that India was industrially somewhat advanced,” Nehru noted.

On a full moon night at Zhongnanhai, Mao’s home in Beijing, Paranjpe told Tan Chung that Mao came to see Nehru off to his car. Shaking Nehru’s hand, Mao began to recite a few lines from the Chinese classical poet Qu Yuan.

O, sadness can’t be sadder

When parting companion

During my lifetime

And gladness can’t be gladder

With a charming person

Such a moving scene would have sunk into oblivion if Paranjpe hadn’t reported it, says Tan Chung.

In the modern era, none other than Jiang Yili, wife of China’s ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui and an authoritative scholar in her own right, has earned a Ph.D in philosophy from Delhi University and speaks Hindi fluently. Certainly, that’s more than a calling card for her influential husband.

What’s in a name? That may be true when you’re smelling a rose, but mixing metaphors in foreign languages could land you in a diplomatic incident or two. The Prime Minister as well as Singapore’s students may be more forgiving than Rahul Gandhi.

Besides, Nilakshi Saha Sinha’s gaffe is easily explained by fatigue or momentary absentmindedness or both.

Perhaps, the MEA needs to set up a Vasant Paranjpe School of Foreign Languages on the lines of Monterey. With a role model like him, a scrutiny in Singapore would be par for the course.