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The Bangalore-Bordeaux Border

The Bangalore-Bordeaux Border

October 10, 2012

For one Chennai-based entrepreneur, India's great linguistic diversity is both a vocation and a matter of national pride.

Shalini Puthiyedam's path to winning a national award makes her stand out in any crowd, both for convoluted course she took and for the unusual destination at which she arrived.

She won the award for neither sporting endeavour nor engineering prowess, although what she does could be described as a kind of linguistic engineering. Shalini works in the field of French-English translation, something of a no man's land in India, and received a trophy and Rs. 11,000 as winner of BITS Private Limited's All India Translation Contest on 30th September 2012. She was also awarded the BITS Aspiring Professional Translator of the Year award.

And on top of all this, Shalini is a budding entrepreneur. Her recently formed enterprise Script2Print offers publishing, translation and transcription services in French from offices in Chennai.

But let's go back to the beginning. How did all this happen? For Shalini, her unusual professional aspirations begin with her upbringing – which, as she notes, was not all that different from a lot of her compatriots in one critical sense.

“To a student in India, I would say that first it is necessary to be proud and aware of the fact that your education arms you with no less than 3 languages by default,” she says. “It is a privilege to know this many languages; most people around the world know only one or two at most.”

I nod at this. Despite studying French for five years in high school, then living in Japan for a year and in Kerala for three, I would still describe myself as monolingual; however much I might try to convince myself, un peu, chotto and koruchu koruchu are hardly indicators of fluency.

“Indian students should understand the extraordinary wealth that India has because she is multilingual, and it's something they should learn to cherish. I think until students feel proud of their heritage and language, and indeed their natural ability to pick up languages as a result of the milieu that they are in, they will not really consider taking up a career in the languages domain. Once you are sufficiently proud that your language is an invaluable asset, you will then automatically look to make it your vocation too.”

Shalini certainly did – but, like, most young Indians, translation hardly leapt out at her as a career choice. In fact, she came to it only because of some sick tribal cows in Andhra Pradesh.

“I was working with an NGO school in Hyderabad in the early 2000s,” she begins. “The mother of one of the students ran another NGO, which worked with tribals in the East Godavari district, and her work involved documenting the oral tradition surrounding veterinary treatment of cattle. She had all the traditional natural treatments documented in Telugu, but when she was asked to do a workshop in Karnataka, she needed her material translated into Kannada.”

Shalini had grown up in Bangalore, or Bengaluru as it is now officially known, and had picked up spoken Telugu during her time in Hyderabad. Her friend asked her to have a go at translating her materials. But there was a problem.

“I didn't know to read and write [Telugu]. Still, I said I'd give it a shot, warning her that I may not be suitably qualified. She said she was willing to take the risk. I launched into my first translation of almost a hundred pages of material related to cattle diseases and modes of treating them.”

Scintillating stuff, no doubt.

“It was by no means a cakewalk, and the internet was not as prevalent in Indian homes as it is now,” explains Shalini. Ultimately, though, her hard work paid off, and led to a seed being planted. “My friend was extremely pleased with my effort. She made a chance remark: 'Shalini, you seem to have a flair for languages. Why don't you learn French?'”

Soon after, Shalini Puthiyedam enrolled at Alliance Française in Hyderabad, and new chapter in her life opened. She wasn't cowed by her opening attempt at translation, but to move into the field as a more serious vocation was not an obvious or painless choice.

“I didn't really know what I was going to do with another language added to the six I already knew.” (That makes seven! My goodness, I've wasted my life.) “Then I was pitchforked by my French professors into being an interpreter for a French guest, who was on a 15-day inspection and training visit to a recently acquired manufacturing company in Hyderabad.” This was where Shalini's engineering background came in handy. Her combination of technical knowledge and French language understanding led to her being offered a job the company – and a number of other similar roles in Hyderabad, Chennai and Bangalore. “My career since that first job has taken a permanent turn to working in French.”

So, Shalini's done pretty well. She started with two things common to many young Indians – multilingual ability and an engineering background – and forged a career as an Award-Winning Translator, winning plaudits from both her clients and her peers. But the translation industry remains way off virtually everyone's radar in India, despite translation and interpretation between different languages being more or less a ubiquitous element of the national character (if such a thing exists). And as Shalini points out, the very nature of translation means spending a lot of time in the shadows.

“Translation can be a lonely vocation and while I do enjoy it, I am the kind of person who needs social stimulation from time to time,” she says. “The translator community works largely like a shadow community in isolated pockets. There is a need to unite this community so that best practices are shared and so that translators gain visibility, acceptance and credibility for the work that they do.” Her hope is that the awards offered by BITS put the translation community in India on the path to wider recognition.

The fact remains that if you are under the age of 25 and reading this article, you are probably more concerned about your marks in engineering, medicine or computer science than you are about the potential of a career in translation. As Shalini has shown, however, it's perfectly possible to move into the field at any time, given most Indians' broad language base. And, as she stated above, pride in that language base is a valuable thing.

“It is the ability to communicate using correct language that will take you far ahead in your career,” says Shalini. No doubt many employers would agree as they sort through piles of misspelled, grammatically dubious CVs. “I would exhort every student not to ignore this aspect of their education. The possibilities with translation are many and this skill can be used in different ways to enhance your career.”

Now, with Script2Print getting off the ground, Shalini Puthiyedam has turned a vocation of pockets and shadows into a full-time concern. Her example demonstrates that there is professional life outside the usual sciences, as well as signalling the inherent value in India's rich linguistic tradition. It's also a reminder that if you work hard enough, your passion can become your profession. With more international joint ventures springing up in India all the time, and the economic distance between India and the rest of the world diminishing, there will be a need for many more Shalinis in the near future.

If you want to know more, contact Shalini through the contact form on Script2Print's website or via her email address, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

1 Comment

  • Sampada
    By
    Sampada
    16.10.12 06:01 PM
    Great article Barnaby! I am a 'product' of Alliance Francaise, and I totally agree that being multilingual is something to be proud of!

    Well, most of the people that
    i know have gone into french teaching(including me). and I am not just talking about Indians. Right now, I am an English assistant in France and almost all other assistants I have talked to, wish to teach when they go back to their countries. This post has got me thinking.

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