The difficulty of song translation

One of my wife’s favourite nursery rhymes is this song that is sung to the tune of “for he’s a jolly good fellow”, and about a bear going up a mountain.

For a long time I only knew of the Kannada version of this song (which is what the wife used to sing), but a year or two back, I found the “original” English version as well.

And that was a revelation, for the lyrics in the English version make a lot more sense. They go:

The bear went over the mountain;
The bear went over the mountain
The bear went over the mountain, to see what he could see.
And all that he could see, and all that he could see
Was the other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain
The other side of the mountain, was all that he could see.

Now, the Kannada version, sung to the same tune, obviously goes “???? ??????? ??????” (karaDi beTTakke hoithu). That part has been well translated. However, the entire stanza hasn’t been translated properly, because of which the song goes a bit meaningless.

The lyrics, when compared to the original English version, are rather tame. Since a large part of my readership don’t understand Kannada, here is my translation of the lyrics (btw, the lyrics used in these YouTube versions are different from the lyrics that my wife sings, but both are similar):

The bear went to the mountain.
The bear went to the mountain.
The bear went to the mountain.
To see the scenery

And what did it see?
What did it see?
The other side of the mountain.
The other side of the mountain.
It saw the scenery of the other side of the mountain.

Now, notice the important difference in the two versions, which massively changes the nature of the song. The Kannada version simply skips the “all that he could see” part, which I think is critical to the story.

The English version, in a way, makes fun of the bear, talking about how it went over the mountain thinking it’s a massive task, but “all that he could see” from there was merely the other side of the mountain. This particular element is missing in Kannada – there is nothing in the lyrics that suggests that the bear’s effort to climb the mountain was a bit of a damp squib.

And that,  I think, is due to the difficulty of translating songs. When you translate a song, you need to get the same letter and spirit of the lyrics, while making sure they can follow the already-set music as well (and even get the rhyming right). And unless highly skilled bilingual poets are involved, this kind of a translation is really difficult.

So you get half-baked translations, like the bear story, which possibly captures the content of the story but completely ignores its spirit.

After I had listened to the original English version, I’ve stopped listening to the Kannada version of the bear-mountain song. Except when the wife sings it, of course.

 

The Ramanamurthy Spectrum

The basic point of the protests ongoing throughout India opposing the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act is that it doesn’t follow the “Ramanamurthy Principle“. Let me explain.

The Kannada classic Ganeshana Maduve (1989) is set in a cluster of houses owned by one Ramanamurthy, where all houses apart from his own has been let out to tenants. His battles with his tenants is one of the running themes of this comedy.

One notable conflict has to do with whitewashing. Ramanamurthy decides to get his house whitewashed, but his tenants demand that their houses be whitewashed as well. After a long protracted hilarious battle (starring a dog, also named Ramanamurthy), the tenants come to an agreement with Ramanamurthy – that if he gets his own house painted, he has to get the entire cluster painted.

In other words, the conflict between Ramanamurthy and his clients had only two permissible solutions – all houses are painted or no houses are painted. All solutions in the middle were infeasible. This gives us what we can call the “Ramanamurthy spectrum”.

Here it is visually.

 

 

The protests against India’s citizenship amendment act can be summarised by the fact that the act fails to follow the Ramanamurthy Spectrum. The act, as it has been passed by parliament, uses an arbitrary criterion (religion) to determine which incoming refugees will be given Indian citizenship.

And the protests against that come from both ends of the Ramanamurthy spectrum. In Assam and the rest of the North East, areas that will be most adversely affected by the act, they want the solution that Ramanamurthy finally adopted in the movie – “I won’t get my house whitewashed as well”. They don’t want any of the incoming people to be given citizenship.

Elsewhere in the country (now I must admit I haven’t been able to follow this crisis as closely as I would like to, since it is very difficult here to separate news from “reaction to news“), the protests seem to be at the other end of the Ramanamurthy spectrum – that everyone should be let in.

In any case, the incumbent government has utterly failed in recognising this important principle of politics, and going ahead with a regulation that is neither here nor there in terms of the Ramanamurthy spectrum.

No wonder that the whole country is rioting!

This year on Spotify

I’m rather disappointed with my end-of-year Spotify report this year. I mean, I know it’s automated analytics, and no human has really verified it, etc.  but there are some basics that the algorithm failed to cover.

The first few slides of my “annual report” told me that my listening changed by seasons. That in January to March, my favourite artists were Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd, and from April to June they were Becky Hill and Meduza. And that from July onwards it was Sigala.

Now, there was a life-changing event that happened in late March which Spotify knows about, but failed to acknowledge in the report – I moved from the UK to India. And in India, Spotify’s inventory is far smaller than it is in the UK. So some of the bands I used to listen to heavily in the UK, like Black Sabbath, went off my playlist in India. My daughter’s lullaby playlist, which is the most consumed music for me, moved from Spotify to Amazon Music (and more recently to Apple Music).

The other thing with my Spotify use-case is that it’s not just me who listens to it. I share the account with my wife and daughter, and while I know that Spotify has an algorithm for filtering out kid stuff, I’m surprised it didn’t figure out that two people are sharing this account (and pitched us a family subscription).

According to the report, these are the most listened to genres in 2019:

Now there are two clear classes of genres here. I’m surprised that Spotify failed to pick it out. Moreover, the devices associated with my account that play Rock or Power Metal are disjoint from the devices that play Pop, EDM or House. It’s almost like Spotify didn’t want to admit that people share accounts.

Then some three slides on my podcast listening for the year, when I’ve overall listened to five hours of podcasts using Spotify. If I, a human, were building this report, I would have dropped this section citing insufficient data, rather than wasting three slides with analytics that simply don’t make sense.

I see the importance of this segment in Spotify’s report, since they want to focus more on podcasts (being an “audio company” rather than a “music company”), but maybe something in the report to encourage me to use Spotify for more podcasts (maybe recommending Spotify’s exclusive podcasts that I might like, be it based on limited data?) might have helped.

Finally, take a look at my our most played songs in 2019.

It looks like my daughter’s sleeping playlist threaded with my wife’s favourite songs (after a point the latter dominate). “My songs” are nowhere to be found – I have to go all the way down to number 23 to find Judas Priest’s cover of Diamonds and Rust. I mean I know I’ve been diversifying the kind of music that I listen to, while my wife listens to pretty much the same stuff over and over again!

In any case, automated analytics is all fine, but there are some not-so-edge cases where the reports that it generates is obviously bad. Hopefully the people at Spotify will figure this out and use more intelligence in producing next year’s report!

Changing game

Yesterday we reconnected Netflix after having gone off the platform for a month – we had thought we were wasting too much time on the platform, and so pulled the plug, until the paucity of quality non-sport content on our other streaming platforms forced us to return.

The first thing I did upon reconnecting Netflix was watching Gamechangers, a documentary about the benefits of vegan food, which had been recommended to me by a couple of business associates a few weeks back.

The documentary basically picks a bunch of research that talks about the benefits of plant-based food and staying away from animal-based food. The key idea is that animals are “just middlemen of protein”, and by eating plants we might be going straight to source.

And it is filled with examples of elite athletes and strong-persons who have turned vegan, and how going vegan is helping them build more stamina and have better health indicators, including the length and hardness of erections.

The documentary did end up making me feel uncomfortable – I grew up vegetarian, but for the last 7-8 years I’ve been eating pretty much everything. And I’ve come to a point of life where I’m not sure if I’ll get my required nutrient mix from plant-based foods only.

And there comes this documentary presenting evidence upon evidence that plant based foods are good, and you should avoid animal based food if you want your arteries to not be clogged, to keep your stamina high, and so on. There were points during the documentary where I seriously considered turning vegetarian once again.

Having given it a day, I think the basic point of the documentary as I see it is that, ceteris paribus, a plant based diet is likely to keep you healthier and fitter than an animal-based diet. But then, ceteris is not paribus.

The nutrient mix that you get from the sort of vegetarian diet that I grew up on is very different from the nutrient mix you get from a meat-based diet. Some of the examples of vegan diets shown in the documentary, for example, rely heavily on mock meats (made with soybean), which have a similar nutritional profile to meats they are meant to mock. And that is very different from the carb-fests that south indian vegetarian food have turned into.

So for me to get influenced by the documentary and turn back vegetarian (or even vegan, which I’d imagine will be very hard for me to do), I need to supplement my diet with seemingly unnatural foods such as “mock meat” if I need to get the same nutritional balance that I’ve gotten used to of late. Simply eliminating all meat or animal based products from my diet is not going to make me any more healthier, notwithstanding what the documentary states, or what Virat Kohli does.

In other words, it seems to me that getting the right balance of nutrients is a tradeoff between eating animal-based food, and eating highly processed unnatural food (mock meat). And I’m not willing to switch on that yet.

Lullabies and walled gardens

There’s still a bit of walled gardens going on in the device and voice control space. About two years ago, in London, we acquired an Amazon Echo, and found that Alexa voice assistant could be used to play songs through either Spotify or Amazon Music, but not through Apple Music, which we then used.

And so, we got rid of Apple Music and took a subscription to Spotify. And among the things we would make Alexa do was to play the daughter’s lullabies on Spotify. And that is how, at the age of two, Berry spoke her first complete sentence, “Alexa, use Spotify to play Iron Man by Black Sabbath”.

We don’t have that Echo any more, and as a household are in a complete “apple ecosystem” as far as devices are concerned. Two Macs, two iPhones, an iPad and now a pair of AirPods. However, we had quite got used to Spotify and its playlists and its machine learning, and even though the India catalogue is nowhere as good as the one in the UK, we continued our subscription.

However, bands such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden are critical for us, not least because their songs are part of the daughter’s sleeping portfolio. So we need something other than Spotify. And then we discovered that in India, Amazon Prime Music comes bundled with the Amazon Prime membership. And so we created the daughter’s sleeping playlist there, and started using it for bands not available on Spotify.

It was an uncomfortable arrangement, not least because Amazon Music is a terrible software product. Since family subscriptions are still not a thing with Spotify India, during periods of deep work the wife and I would fight over who would get Spotify and who had to make do with Amazon Music.

And then there is voice. Being in a complete Apple EcoSystem now, we found that Siri couldn’t control Spotify or Amazon Music, and for seamless voice experience (especially given I use it in car, using Apple Carplay) we needed Apple Music. And given how painful Amazon Music is to use, I thought spending ?149 a month on Apple Music Family Subscription is worth it, and took the subscription yesterday.

Since then I’ve been happily using it using voice control on all devices. Except until an hour back when I was putting the daughter to sleep. She requested for “baby has he”, which is her way of saying she wants Iron Man by Rockabye Baby (rather than by Black Sabbath). And so I held down the home button of the iPad and barked “play lullaby renditions of Black Sabbath”.

I don’t know what Siri interpreted (this is a standard command I’d been giving it back in the day when I used to exclusively use Apple Music), but rather than playing Lullaby Renditions of Black Sabbath, it played some “holy lullabies”, basically lullaby versions of some Christian songs. I tried changing but the daughter insisted that I let it be.

And so she kept twisting and turning in her bed, not going to sleep. I soon lost patience. Abandoning voice, I opened the iPad and switched from Apple Music to Spotify, where I knew the Rockabye Baby album was open (from last night – we hardly use the iPad otherwise nowadays), and started playing that.

Before Iron Man was halfway through, the daughter was fast asleep.

Serials and movies

Yesterday I finished reading Gita Krishnankutty’s English translation of MT Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham. It’s the story of the Mahabharata told from Bhima’s perspective.

This wasn’t the first time that I was reading a translation of this magnificent book. A few years ago, journalist Prem Panicker had created a series on his blog where he would put up translations of bits of this book daily. I remember quite liking that, and a lot of people raving about it.

Prem’s version of the book was far longer than the version that I finished yesterday (Gita Krishnankutty’s version is 380 pages long, which comes to around 70000 words or less. Prem’s is 120,000 words long). It was also far more passionate. Rather than directly translating the novel, Prem took liberties in adding his own inputs.

It’s been over a decade since I read Prem’s version, but from what I remember, the parts of the story where Bhima mourns Ghatotkacha’s death, for example, are far more well sketched out in that version. It is similar with the parts which show Bhima’s frustration with Yudhishthira’s leadership.

Thinking about it, though, one reason why Prem was able to go into such detail was that he presented his book in a serialised format. Every day he would put out the translation of a few pages’ worth of a book, and the translation would come out to be the length of a long form article (the kind of articles that Prem became a specialist in writing during his time at Rediff).

When you’re reading it in book form, in which you read the whole thing together, reading in such detail may not work so well since that might make the book unnecessarily thick, and people might put NED midway. Give the inputs in small doses, however, and people will be happy to consume the greater detail. In that sense, Prem’s and Gita Krishnankutty’s translations are both excellent, and both very well suited for the formats they came out in.

It is a similar story with movies and serials. Movies have a 2-2.5 hour length because that’s how much typically people can consume at a time without putting NED. Serials, on the other hand, because they are consumed bit by bit at a time, can go much longer in aggregate (sometimes unnecessarily long).

Netflix releasing all episodes of a series at the same time, however, is changing this dynamic. Sacred Games apart, I’ve been unable to get through any Netflix fiction series because of their sheer length. Because binge-watching has become a thing (thanks to Netflix putting out an entire season at once), the entire season comes to resemble a movie. So a season with 8 one-hour episodes effectively becomes a 8-hour movie. And unless it’s extremely well made, or has sufficient stuff going on through the 8 hours, it becomes incredibly hard to sit through!

 

YG Rao

We’re celebrating Ganesha Chaturthi by re-watching Ganeshana Maduve and Gowri Ganesha, two classic movies from the early 1990s starring Anant Nag and Vinaya Prasad.

Ganeshana Maduve is a shop-around-the-corner / you’ve-got-mail kind of story of real-life neighbours who hate each other who court each other through letters. Real-life Adilakshmi has adopted the name “Shruti” for her singing career, and she replies to her fan-mail under the same name.

It is her fan/neighbour’s name that had intrigued me thus far. He is the titular Ganesha, but saying that “Ganesha” sounds too old-fashioned, he writes his letters under the name “Y G Rao”, short for his full name which is “Y Ganesh Rao”.

Now, this would have been fine, except that later on in the movie his father’s name is shown to be Govinda. And under conventional Kannada naming conventions, this simply doesn’t make sense. Typically in most Kannada names, if you have only one “initial” that represents your father’s given name (for example, the S in my name stands for Shashidhar, which is my father’s given name).

Hence, under standard Kannada naming conventions, Govinda’s son has to be G Ganesh Rao. And in what is an overall excellent movie (it’s easily my most-watched movie of all time. Today was perhaps the 50th time I watched it), this naming convention was a bit intriguing.

The thing with Ganeshana Maduve is that each time you watch it, you discover a layer that you hadn’t discovered  (or missed) earlier. And one detail I found today that I’d missed earlier, is that the movie is based on a Telugu novel. And then it all started making sense.

It is perfectly okay under Telugu naming convention for Govinda’s son to be Y Ganesh Rao, for a single initial there represents the family name, rather than the father’s given name.

And so it is very likely that when the Telugu novel was adapted into a Kannada film, the names were kept the same, and so we got the Telugu convention into the Kannada movie!

The next item on today’s festival agenda was to watch Gowri Ganesha, but I need to get some work done, so the wife is watching that alone. And while some process runs I’m writing this post.

Amazon and Sony Liv

Amazon is pretty bad at design of products they’re not pioneers in. They’ve built a great shopping engine (25 years ago) and a great cloud service (15 years ago), but these were both things they were pioneers in.

Amazon being Amazon, however, they have a compulsive need to be in pretty much every industry, and so they’ve launched clones of lots of other businesses. However, their product design in these is far from optimal, and the user experience is generally very underwhelming.

Prime Video has a worse user experience than Netflix. The search function is much worse. The machine learning (for recommendations) isn’t great. The X-ray is good, but overall I don’t have as pleasant a time watching Prime as I do with Netflix.

However, the degree to which Prime Video is worse than Netflix is far far smaller than the degree to which Amazon Music is worse than Spotify. The only thing going for Amazon Music (which I only use because it comes free with my prime delivery membership in India) is that they have inventory.

Spotify in India has been unable to secure rights to a lot of classic rock and metal bands, such as Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and Dream Theater. And these form a heavy part of my routine listening. And so I’m forced to use Amazon Music (Apple Music has these bands as well, but I have to pay extra for that).

The product (Amazon Music) is atrocious. The learning is next to nothing. After five months of using the service to exclusively listen to Classic Rock and Heavy Metal, and zero Indian music, the home page still recommends to me Bollywood, Punjabi and Tamil stuff! History is not properly maintained. Getting to the album or playlist (the less said about playlists on Amazon, the better) I want takes way too much more effort than it does on Spotify.

In other words, the only thing that keeps Amazon going in businesses they’re not pioneers in is inventory – Prime Video works because it has movies and shows other streaming services don’t have. Amazon Music is used because it has music that Spotify doesn’t.

I figured it is a similar case with Sony Liv, Sony’s streaming service in India. They sit on a bunch of lucrative monopolies, such as rights to broadcasting Test cricket in a lot of countries (all three Test series being played right now are on Sony, for example), Champions League football and so on. Beyond that it’s an atrocity to watch them.

I remember missing a goal in the Liverpool-Porto Champions League quarterfinal because of a temporary power cut. There was no way in the broadcast to go back and see the goal. If I by mistake pause for a couple of seconds, I’m forever behind “live” (unless I refresh). Yesterday during the classic Ashes Test, the app simply gave up when I tried to load the game.

The product is atrocious (actually more atrocious than Amazon Music), but people are forced to use it only because they have a monopoly on content. And in that way, it is similar to Amazon, which can get away with atrocious products only because they have the inventory!

I’m glad the Premier League is on Hotstar, which is mostly a pleasure to watch! (actually back in the day when I had cable TV, the star sports bouquet had significantly superior production values to the sony-zee-ten bouquet)

Super Deluxe

In my four years in Madras (2000-4), I learnt just about enough Tamil to watch a Tamil movie with subtitles. Without subtitles is still a bit of a stretch for me, but the fact that streaming sites offer all movies with subtitles means I can watch Tamil movies now.

At the end, I didn’t like Super Deluxe. I thought it was an incredibly weird movie. The last half an hour was beyond bizarre. Rather, the entire movie is weird (which is good in a way we’ll come to in a bit), but there is a point where there is a step-change in the weirdness.

The wife had watched the movie some 2-3 weeks back, and I was watching it on Friday night. Around the time when she finished the movie she was watching and was going to bed, she peered into my laptop and said “it’s going to get super weird now”. “As if it isn’t weird enough already”, I replied. In hindsight, she was right. She had peered into my laptop right at the moment when the weirdness goes to yet another level.

It’s not often that I watch movies, since most movies simply fail to hold my attention. The problem is that most plots are rather predictable, and it is rather easy to second-guess what happens in each scene. It is the information theoretic concept of “surprise”.

Surprise is maximised when the least probable thing happens at every point in time. And when the least probable thing doesn’t happen, there isn’t a story, so filmmakers overindex on surprises and making sure the less probable thing will happen. So if you indulge in a small bit of second order thinking, the surprises aren’t surprising any more, and the movie becomes boring.

Super Deluxe establishes pretty early on that the plot is going to be rather weird. And when you think the scene has been set with sufficient weirdness in each story (there are four intertwined stories in the movie, as per modern fashion), the next time the movie comes back to the story, the story is shown to get weirder. And so you begin to expect weirdness. And this, in a way, makes the movie less predictable.

The reason a weird movie is less predictable is that at each scene it is simply impossible for the view to even think of the possibilities. And in a movie that gets progressively weirder like this one, every time you think you have listed out the possibilities and predicted what happens, what follows is something from outside your “consideration set”. And that keeps you engaged, and wanting to see what happens.

The problem with a progressively weird movie is that at some point it needs to end. And it needs to end in a coherent way. Well, it is possible sometimes to leave the viewer hanging, but some filmmakers see the need to provide a coherent ending.

And so what usually happens is that at some point in time the plot gets so remarkably simplified that everything suddenly falls in place (though nowhere as beautifully as things fall in place at the end of a Wodehouse novel). Another thing that can happen is that weirdness it taken up a notch, so that things fall in place at a “meta level”, at which point the movie can end.

The thing with Super Deluxe is that both these things happen! On one side the weirdness is taken up several notches. And on the other the plots get so oversimplified that things just fall in place. And that makes you finish the movie with a rather bitter taste in the mouth, feeling thoroughly unsatisfied.

That the “ending” of the movie (where things get really weird AND really simplified) lasts half an hour doesn’t help matters.

Kader Khan and Slippery Fish

Until I read his obituaries, I didn’t know that the just-deceased actor Kader Khan was also a dialogue writer, having written the dialogues for several iconic Amitabh Bachchan movies such as Laawaris, Muqaddar Ka Sikander and Agneepath (I highly recommend his obituaries by GreatBong and by The Economist. Both are brilliantly written and highly informative).

When I found that Kader Khan wrote the dialogues for Agneepath, I was reminded of this old piece written by Nitin Pai, Director of the Takshashila Institution, that referenced a particular dialogue from Agneepath. In that, he talks about international relations and the “law of the jungle” that operates there. In fact, I recommend you see that dialogue from Agneepath. It’s on youtube:

Major level up in terms of my respect for Kader Khan after having re-watched this. I only knew him as a masterful comedian and actor as I mentioned. Now I want to go back and watch more of the movies for which he wrote dialogues.

In any case, if you watched the above video from Agneepath, you see that Amitabh Bachchan talks about the law of the jungle in the form of a food chain. I don’t know the Hindi names of animals precisely, but he talks about a frog being eaten by a snake, and a wolf being killed by lions, etc.

The talk of the food chain reminded me of another song which is my daughter’s favourite nowadays.  This talks about the marine food chain. Watch the song here:

I had no idea about this song until the daughter started singing it. In fact, since she liked the third stanza of the song best (“tuna fish, tuna fish”), it had also caused us a bit of a problem one weekend when she kept requesting for it but we couldn’t find it on any streaming service (you should ask for “slippery fish”).

I’m pleasantly surprised that they teach about the food chain to children as young as two years old, since it introduces to them the concept of death, and the fact that animals eat other animals to survive. Somehow I had thought that kids are told that all animals co-exist like they do in Peppa Pig (as an aside, I wonder what will happen to Peppa Pig and friends when it’s time for them to grow up and start dating), and that the concept of death is also taboo in some circles.

Anyway I’m glad my daughter likes the song. Maybe it’s time to let her graduate to the Amitabh Bachchan dialogue? But that would involve her learning Hindi, which is my wife and my “secret language” (when we’ve to say something we don’t want the daughter to understand) !