New Delhi: For the seven men seated around a conference-room table, the most contentious subject of the afternoon turns out to be cracked feet.
“Are they very different from cracked nails?” asks O.P. Varma, a cap perched on his head even indoors and one lens of his spectacles smoked over for what appears to be a medical reason.
Testing ground: Commission for Scientific and Technical Terminology members debate what words will make it to an English-Hindi glossary. The commission’s philosophy is: to replace English completely, it’s necessary to convert its technical terms into Indian languages. Priyanka Parashar / Mint
“It is. In cracked nails, the nails just go brittle,” replies Bhim Sen Behra, the youngest of the group and a physician. “In cracked feet, the skin breaks up. It’s very different.”
“So we call cracked nails nak-bhed, but we can’t just call cracked feet pad-bhed?” Varma says thoughtfully. “And pad-vikar could be any type of disease of the feet. Do we have another word for ‘cracked’?”
The group thinks for a few seconds, before S.C. Saxena says: “There’s bhanjan. We use that in the term for ‘catalytic cracking,’ but we can’t use that here. Pad-vidaran, perhaps we can use. Or maybe pad-vidaaran.” Saxena carefully enunciates the difference.
The discussion persists in this vein. The men frequently pick up one of the many dictionaries—Sanskrit, Hindi or English—from the table and riffle through their pages, or they ransack their memories for previously encountered words. These deliberations are, in a way, momentous. Final decisions will enter the updated version of the heavy English-Hindi scientific glossary, published by the Commission for Scientific and Technical Terminology (CSTT), and they will form a part of CSTT’s continuing, slightly quixotic campaign: To expand the vernacular lexicon, and thereby safeguard India’s languages from obsolescence.
CSTT was founded, within the ministry of human resource development, by a presidential order in 1960, and for the first few decades of its existence, it focused almost overwhelmingly on Hindi. The current chairman, a professor of biotechnology named K. Bijay Kumar, says that he was appointed to the post after he insisted on working more in other languages. The ambition at the time, Kumar says, was uncomplicated: “They felt that, in order to replace English completely, it was necessary to convert its technical terms into our own languages.”
Largely, this consists of many, many variations on the cracked-feet conversation. Assorted subject experts and linguists are convened by CSTT to construct banks of words in every possible discipline. (Saxena, who has been with the CSTT since its inception, once supervised the assembly of Glossary of Steel and Non-Ferrous Metallurgy, a book fatter than most novels.) “We decide on, literally, thousands of words a year,” Kumar says. “The only field we don’t touch is law. That’s outside our purview.”
Fifty years after its formation, however, CSTT operates in a very different world. Even as the universe of technical terms swells with the burgeoning knowledge in niche new disciplines, English has come to be the default language of not only scientists but also pragmatists, and Hindi newspapers reach often for English words. The staff in CSTT has dwindled, from nearly 500 in 1960 to 14 today because, as one employee puts it, “the salaries aren’t great, and junior officers who know science would rather work elsewhere.” CSTT’s publications are in weak demand; 5,000 copies of the science glossary were published in 1993, and 500 remain unsold and unwanted.
Most poignantly, even other wings of the government now express impatience with the reams of words flooding out of CSTT. A standing joke within bureaucratic circles holds that CSTT’s supposed translation of “train” is lohpathgamni agnirath which translates into the literally absurd “ fiery chariot that travels on iron tracks”. It isn’t, of course, but the joke itself is telling.
Kumar refuses to accept that the battle is being fought in vain. “I don’t think there should be a divide between the English-speaking elite and the others,” he says. “And I don’t think it’s impractical to use Hindi scientific terms. Japanese and Chinese scientists do it all the time. They write their papers in their own language, and have them translated for English publication. Why shouldn’t we do the same?”
In his five years as chairman, Kumar has tried to introduce a certain robustness into CSTT’s processes. A word is first selected from the existing English vocabulary; its Hindi equivalent, once suggested by academics, will be reviewed by a diverse focus group, and it must pass their scrutiny to be then tweaked and confirmed. This cycle can take as long as one year. “Words aren’t rejected very often,” Kumar says. “Once we’d put down jaalika for (the cell organelle) reticulum, because it looks like a tiny net. The testers said it was absurd.”
CSTT’s best-selling publication is a glossary of administrative terms, because it is an automatic purchase for Central government departments, which must conduct their business in both English and Hindi. The department of official language, a home ministry body charged with enforcing the Central government’s bilingual nature, defends CSTT’s mission—and its own—stoutly. But its joint secretary, D.K. Pandey, admits that keeping up with the lexicon can be wearying.
“We often allow, for instance, documents from the ministry of science and technology to include English terms simply written in the Hindi script,” Pandey says. “And why not? English has picked up words like hartal and satyagraha after all.” In strictly official documents, no quarter is given; CSTT’s terms must be used. “But in correspondence and files and so on, we are flexible. We allow more English words.”
Within the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT), more caustic views prevail. In 2004, the Supreme Court directed NCERT to use CSTT’s terms in its Hindi textbooks. “[T]he setting up of the [CSTT] and the expenditure incurred…would be meaningless if the terminology…were not in fact used by the government and bodies under its control,” the court decided.
R.J. Sharma, who heads NCERT’s department of language, was present at the Court on the day this judgement was pronounced. It has meant, he observes, a small quantum of work added to NCERT’s other duties. “We find that teachers sometimes complain that the Hindi words are too difficult,” Sharma says. “So we have to explain a word further, in two or three other words. We have to simplify where possible.”
To illustrate his point, Sharma brings up the word “semiconductor”, but even he, a professor of Hindi, must pull down CSTT’s dictionary to find its counterpart: ardhchalak. “This isn’t an easy word to immediately understand,” he says. “It would be more suitable to at least add, in brackets, the word ‘semiconductor’ in the Hindi script.”
CSTT isn’t wholly opposed to transliteration; in its glossaries, Saxena estimates, 25% of the words are English terms written in Hindi, another 10-12% hybrids of English and Hindi, and the remainder pure Hindi. The names of chemical elements are always retained, as are units of weights and measures. “Although we still need to discuss them,” Saxena points out. “In the Hindi script, ‘aluminium’ can be written in five different ways, so we need to fix on which is best.”
But Kumar questions the larger perception that Hindi terms should be self-explanatory. “Technical terms are complex. They’re usually not straightforward or easily understood.” At a lecture in Dehradun, he recalls, he once hammered home this point with the word “orthopaedics”, noting: “the roots of the word are ‘straight’ and ‘child’, because Greek orthopaedists spent their time straightening out the limbs of polio-afflicted children. Is that self-explanatory? Not at all.”
Saxena insists that “no word is difficult or easy, but merely unfamiliar or familiar”, and he and Varma are armed with examples of how their process is both logical and aesthetic. “When I was working in All India Radio, we were stuck once because Voltas was sponsoring a programme and we didn’t know how to say that in Hindi,” Varma remembers. “Then we reasoned that the sponsorship was serving a sponsor’s purpose, so from the Hindi word for ‘purpose’—prayojan—we derived prayojak for ‘sponsor’. And now that word is used all the time.”
Back in the conference room, pad-vidaran and pad-vidaaran have both been dismissed. (“Vidaran means an internally caused affliction, and vidaaran indicates that it’s caused by an external agency,” Saxena clarifies. “We can’t use either.”) Behra has now suggested pad-vidar, and he meets no immediate murmurs of dissent.
“So I’m putting down pad-vidar, then,” Varma says. A companionable silence sets in, until Varma interrupts himself, looks up, and asks of his colleagues, in all earnestness: “Wait a minute. What if we want to say that somebody has a cracked mind? What do we use then?”