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Translator nerds remind you how big the world is

The writer interacted with translation nerds and felt that any possible word that strayed out of her brain would be comprehended by someone in the room

Translation nerds are the best nerds, says the columnist. (iStockphoto)

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I had to travel this week and I prepared grimly. I want to say stoically but there may have been a small half-ton of complaining on the way. I could not convince myself that my flying to another city to teach a three-day course is as bad as celebrity Kylie Jenner’s now infamous 17-minute private jet flight. For context, Jenner’s journey would have taken 40 minutes by car and the flight generated one ton of carbon dioxide emissions, which, according to The Guardian, “is about a quarter of the total annual carbon footprint of the average person globally”. But I don’t have a horse high enough to make a pro-environment argument to myself about this trip.

The first time I flew alone, I was seven. From then till now, it has meant leaving behind someone I didn’t want to leave behind right then. I am familiar with my gloomy behaviour around departures. So I packed and prepared and grumbled and indulged in some magical thinking of non-catastrophic reasons that would prevent me from having to travel.

Then something happened. As I was on my way, a friend, G, who has been my combat buddy in many recent domestic and intellectual battlefields, sent me a photograph. She was driving her family from Bengaluru to Trichy. Blue sky springing up like a high, perfect wall on the side of the road. “Just a random spot on the highway. Much of the world is really like this. Wish I realised that more in daily living,” G texted.

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Here are two things I didn’t know until last week. One, that G has a bucket list of visiting every one of India’s 773 districts. And that close to Trichy is a gem of a Chola temple, the Brihadisvara. I was informed of this fact by an elderly neighbour I was speaking to for the first time. He first wanted to know why half my family was crouched on the side of the street (we were looking at a snail). And from the surprisingly speedy trail of the snail, we rose to the heights of his kindly archaeology lecture. Thanks to him, at this moment I had a picture of G speeding past a wall of sky towards a Chola dream.

Later that day, about 10 minutes after arriving at a town in Gujarat, I saw an elephant. Or I think I saw an actual live elephant as I was driving past. But even a speedy glimpse of an elephant heading in the opposite direction is a giant scoop of the sublime. More than enough to lift a dozen people out of their state of inertia and I-don’t-care-about-anything-any-more-ness. Hello, I was in a new place! A district G had crossed off her bucket list but which was new to me. A town full of signs for pizza and one big neon sign for a sex cure. The dome of gloom was airlifted.

Migration and mobility data indicate an odd combination of events for women in India. If you read India Moving, Chinmay Tumbe’s brisk and informative book on migration, you realise women are the big migrants in India, constantly leaving home for marriage. Unlike male migrants, they do not circle back to their natal homes when their working lives end (also because their working lives never end). Women leave forever. Once they arrive in their new homes, they remain on a short leash. Women can live and work in cities for decades without leaving the rough perimeter of their neighbourhood. If by chance their cities and jobs allow and demand long commutes, the travel is limited to those long and dark stretches, never looking left or right.

I spent the long Independence Day weekend with several brainy people and two dozen impressive translation students. Between them, they spoke, with varying degrees of skill, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Tulu, Paniya, Telugu, Bengali, Marwari, Haryanvi, Marathi, Urdu, Gujarati, French and Japanese. It is possibly the only time in my life that I have felt any possible word that strayed out of my brain would be comprehended by someone in the room. As I have taken to doing in the last year, I texted folks at home, “Translation nerds are the best nerds.” They really are.

Sometime over the course of the weekend, my highly accomplished translator friend asked me what I liked about translation. I thought about it. I was going to go into my spiel about language nerds. G, for instance, learnt Korean by osmosis. And right then, as if pinged by telepathy, G started sending me messages from a temple she had found in Trichy where the male devotees arrive dressed as women. And then I knew it. It had nothing to do with the quizzer, winner, exam-cracker instinct. Translator nerds were exactly like that wall of sky G had found on the side of the road. Translators remind me of how big the world is. And with every passing year, as I grow older, that realisation is harder to get to and more relaxing when I do get to it.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.

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