Translation: to Bengali or not to Bengali?

Our production manager Sanjoy Roy highlights a common confusion about Bengali usage

Brick Lane Bengali street sign
The Bengali language is the language of Bengal, right? Well, not wrong – but it’s not as simple as that. In the UK there’s quite a lot of confusion about what Bengali is, so I’ll try to clarify that here.

First, let me illustrate the problem. I live in Whitechapel, in East London, which has one of the highest densities of Bengalis in the country. My father, who was born in Dhaka and grew up in Kolkata, is a native Bengali speaker. But when he comes to visit me in Whitechapel, he can’t understand what the local Bengalis are saying. Yet he has no problem reading the shop signs and street names written in Bengali. What’s going on?

Well, spoken Bengali encompasses a range of dialects, and one of them – the one spoken around Kolkata – came to be considered the standard. Kolkata is the capital of West Bengal, an Indian state. But most Bengalis in the UK are from Bangladesh, not India. The language spoken around its capital, Dhaka, is not much very different from Kolkata Bengali; they’re like different accents of the same language. But the language spoken in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh, where most UK Bengalis are from, is quite different – so different that some regard it as a different language altogether. So that’s why my father can’t understand my local Bengali speakers: they use very different dialects.

But he can understand the writing, and not only because it’s the same script that he uses: it’s the same language. Spoken Bengali has very wide regional variations (neither Sylheti speakers nor Kolkata-Bengali speakers would understand Bengali from Chittagong, for example). But written Bengali is pretty much the same. So Bengalis across India and Bangladesh typically speak their regional dialect, and write in standard Bengali. That means they are literate in the same language, even if they can’t understand each other in everyday conversation.

So if you need a Bengali translation, remember:

  • Written Bengali is pretty much standard; spoken Bengali varies much more widely.
  • Sylheti dialect may be more appropriate in particular cases, for example to communicate specifically with Sylheti speakers, using speech rather than text.

For anyone interested more in Bengali language, here are a few good starting points:

Wikipedia entry on Bengali language

Omniglot on the Bengali alphabet
Indopedia entry on Bengali language

And in another blogpost, I’ll look at some issues we frequently encounter in Bengali typesetting.

Dakha hobe!

[See you again]

4 Replies to “Translation: to Bengali or not to Bengali?”

  1. Hello Sanjoy,

    I’m currently in the process of developing a game based around translation to be played in the Brick Lane area. I just came across this blog entry and am intrigued to know, as a translator, whether the Bengali street names in Whitechapel are transliterations of the English words or completely different Bengali words for the places?

    I know this post is over a year old but perhaps you are still there!

    Thanks in any case, and all best wishes,


  2. Hi Rosalind,

    I double checked this with Sanjoy, and the signs are transliterations of the English street names.

    Good luck developing the game. Let us know how it goes – we’re only round the corner from Brick Lane…!


  3. Thanks for this very interesting post, which shows once more how multicultural London is! This means there are a lot of people in need of high-quality translation services there; when in need of a London translation service, always make sure you use a professional service.

  4. The importance of a technical translation being accurate and efficient can indeed not be overstated. Especially in the ever faster moving world of globalized business, successful information and technology transfer within multinational businesses can make the difference between win or lose.

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