4 Emotions From Urdu Expressions That Gets Lost in Translation

Because Urdu is more than a language.

Photo by Olivier Guillard on Unsplash

my father speaks Urdu
language of dancing peacocks
rosewater fountains
even its curses are beautiful.”

(Shailja Patel, Migritude)

No image could do justice to the emotion I wanted to convey to you while describing my mother-tongue.

Maybe its the woman in left, that reminded me of all those days I spent in India and spoke Urdu or the three abayah clad women behind seated with their children that reminded me of Urdu. Or it could have been the remnants of Agra Fort that unabashedly stood behind reminding me of the Mughals who brought Urdu along with them to the Indian subcontinent.

Urdu is relatively a new language, and its linguistic influence started when the Muslims took over Sindh in 711. Urdu is a culmination of Farsi, Arabic, Hindi, Punjabi, Haryanvi, and English languages. The development of the speech was at its peak during the Mughal rule (1526–1858). The modern-day Urdu is spoken in Pakistan and several parts of India.

Every language has its beauty and honour that is preserved in its text. No other language can ever do justice to it even in the best of translations. That’s why I chose four different words and expressions from the Urdu language to remind myself and to you, that the language we speak or attach ourselves to, are remnants of our past, our culture, and our identity. No matter where you reach tomorrow, your heart will always yearn for the cultural identity you once called home.

Aap (آپ): Translates to ‘you’ in English

When I first started speaking in English, my four-year-old self would hate referring to my mum and my younger sister with the same word: you. There had to be a different word for two people who belonged to two very different categories.

In Urdu, when you talk to somebody who is elder or someone who deserving of more respect from you, you don’t say ‘tum kaisi ho?’. Instead, you say, ‘aap kaisi hain?’.

Note both will translate to the same in English: ‘how are you?’. But the sentiments the two sentences carry are vastly different. There is no comparison.

Tum’ or the first kind of ‘you’ is used while talking to some who is an equal or someone younger or lesser (in terms of rank or position) to you. In all honesty, I don’t even refer to anybody lower than me in ‘tum’ or this type of ‘you’. It sounds all wrong in my head and heart.

To add a cherry, I hail from Aligarh in India. We refer everybody with ‘aap’. Yes, everybody — even the rickshaw-walas.

A rickshaw-wala | Photo by Mahtab Prattus on Unsplash

The word ‘aap’ holds respect, values, endearment, and love in the same word. While referring to anybody as ‘aap’, as in:

aap kaise hain?’ How are you?
aap kahan jaa rahe hain?’ Where are you going?

You are already showing your endearment and respect towards them by using that one word. Now you are not talking to someone who is your equal. Instead, you are showing them that they mean so much more to you with your choice of words.

That’s why while conversing in English to somebody elder to me or somebody whom I revere, I feel guilt-ridden and out of place. I use ‘aap’ even while I talk to my equals. Using ‘you’ while talking to my supervisor makes me cringe the same way as my four year-old-self did when she heard it for the first time.

Jee (جی): Translates to ‘yes’ in English

Johnny, Johnny?
Jee papa.
Eating sugar?
Jee papa.

Even while reciting that short rhyme, I couldn’t get myself to utter ‘yes papa’ because my four-point-five-year-old self was afraid for Johnny to be hit by his papa.

There are two kinds of yeses in Urdu: one reserved for the VIPs (jee), and the other for commoners (haan). Just like ‘aap’, the word ‘jee’ holds reverence and respect for the person you are talking to. The term does not merely give consideration; it returns respect to the speaker too. However, there is no difference in the word ‘yes’ in language English while speaking to the elders or peers. While saying ‘yes’, you say yes without thinking whom you are talking to.

I remember the bazillion times when I was scolded for replying haan instead of jee. It’s almost ingrained inside my head to use jee and not haan. Now when I have to use ‘yes’, it’s difficult not to carry the guilt inside for disrespecting somebody — including guilt on Johnny’s behalf for disrespecting his papa.

Jaan (جان): Translates to ‘life’ in English

Ahh! This word! There is no comparison. No, seriously.

Take a look at the following:

Dadi Jaan: My dear grandmother (paternal)
Nani Jaan: My dear grandmother (maternal)
Abba Jaan: My beloved father
Ammi Jaan: My beloved mother
Aapi Jaan: My loving and caring sister

Dada jaan will almost translate to ‘my dear grandpa’ | Photo by Hassaan Malik on Unsplash

Here, I used different words of endearment in different relations. That doesn't mean that with every relation ‘jaan’ would mean any different.

If anything, every relation has all the dimensions of endearment, respect, and love oozing out of the title when you add ‘jaan’. It literally translates to ‘life’ in English symbolizing that the people you refer to with ‘jaan’ have a major place in your life and that nothing can replace your love for them.

Tashreef rakhiye (تشریف رکھیۓ): Translates to ‘please sit down’ in English

Tashreef rakhiye’ or ‘tashreef laiye’ are tricky phrases to translate. ‘Tashreef’ would literally translate to ‘your honoured self’. It sounds almost royal when you use ‘tashreef rakhiye’.

It’s something you would use for someone really honorary and mean to say something like ‘please honour us by your noble presence.’ Or ‘we are honoured to have you here. Please kindly make your noble-self comfortable’. The entire formal, honorary gesture is summed up in the two words ‘tashreef rakhiye’.

The Urdu language is beautiful, poetic, and on many occasions, untranslatable. It pays respect to its speaker and listener alike. I think it is the same with most languages that bear testimony to their rich history, culture and heritage.

Or maybe, there is something about a language that you call yours. You can never get enough of it.

Scientist | History Nerd | Writer | Learner | Reader | https://findingfareeha.substack.com/ | arshadfareeha86@gmail.com | Running my own race since ‘95.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store