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Language News Agencies Lost In Translation

Updated: August 4, 2012 2:25 pm

A language news agency is a media organisation that identifies, gathers and processes information for the purpose of making a news item out of it. Then this news is transmitted to newspapers, TV news channels and news websites aimed at people at large. In most of the sovereign countries there is a news agency in their national or main language. But not in India. In our country, there is no independent language news agency in our own national or regional language.

This article will try to identify the reasons for this lapse. It will go into the historical context of language news agencies in India and come to the present scenario. It will also explore the reason why a national or regional language news agency couldn’t flourish in such a large country where more than 5000 daily newspapers are published in 138 languages, more than 300 TV news channels claim to transmit news bulletins round the clock, popularly known as 24X7. There are also thousand of news websites in all possible languages. If the end-product is provided in national or regional language then why the news is not gathered in the same language?

Before going into the main domain of the article, it is necessary to elaborate why we need a news agency in the first place. The popular notion is that news is gathered by the reporters of the newspapers. Then what is the role of a news agency? The answer is simple. The news can generate at any point in the world. No newspaper, howsoever big it might, can afford to have a reporter in every state what to talk of the 200 odd countries across the globe. But a tsunami can occur on any cost, a volcano can erupt in any continent, a coup can take place in any unstable country and a world cup can be hosted by any country. Not all newspapers can afford to make arrangements to gather first-hand information from the original source. This job is done by news agencies. It is a commercial activity and they charge monthly subscription in lieu of these news items. It is based on the revenue generated by the subscriber media organisation.

There are five major international news agencies namely Reuters of the United Kingdom, AP and UPI of the US, AFP of France and DPA of Germany. These five agencies control the news flow from all over the world. They have a global network of offices and reporters to gather information and send news items to newspapers all over.

In India also, we have three main news agencies, but all in English called PTI, UNI and IANS. There is no separate Hindi news agency that has an independent existence. However, all three agencies have Hindi units.

The reason lies in the large body of English to language translators sitting in every language newspaper and TV network called the desk or sub-editors. They will lose their jobs if the original copy will be written in good regional language.

It is estimated that one lakh news-items are created in news rooms of these five agencies and sent to newspapers, TV channels and websites. Not all news is transmitted to all media outfits. On an average 300 to 400 news-items are sent to a media organisation in a day. An average newspaper of 24 broadsheet pages publish 150 news-items after placing the display and classifieds advertisements question arises then what happens to one lakh news items across the globe and 1000 stories (news is structured like a story hence it is called one) that are gathered in India alone. The answer is simple.

Not all stories are of interest to the readers of all newspapers. Generally people are interested in what they can relate to. In India, a common reader might not be interested in every African country and vice versa. These days we want to know what is happening in our immediate neighbourhood. Farther the distance between the place of the news event and the residence of the reader, lesser the chances of his picking that stories while browsing his morning daily. As such the average span of a newspaper reader is not more than 10 minutes. And he chooses only as many stories for reading the full text. This selection that what the readership of a particular newspaper will be interested in, is done by the news agency on the basis of his long-standing experience.

Now, comes the main thrust of the paper. The news is gathered from the sources. The sources are parliament, politicians, bureaucrats, courts, diplomats, police, press conferences, company reports, accidents, disasters, elections, academic institutions, sports events, cultural shows and investigative journalism. The last one is the personal initiative, not of all scribes. Until 1980s, it was widely believed that the news sources give information in English. But 1990 changed it all.

Two things happened in that decade. The monopoly of Congress broke down on national and regional politics. It gave way to regional parties. The regional politicians spoke in their language and gave information to media professionals in their lingua franca. Secondly, the hegemony of the English media also got diluted. The Australia-based media professor and an expert on Indian affairs have called it the revolution of language newspapers in India. It forced even the English newspapers reporters to attain working proficiency in Hindi and regional languages. It was the beginning of the sob story that provoked this article.

English copy is translated into Hindi but not in other regional languages in the news agencies. Because, there is no provision of language reporters or language sub-editors. Even if they are organised, not all language have computers network to transmit stories in regional language. Thus, even the technology conspires against language news transmission. Regional newspapers translate from English. This is the main contention of this article that if the source of news is Hindi then why do we have to depend upon English agency copy?

This story is getting a little complicated. Let me simplify it. Information is gathered from a source in regional language. It is written in English. It is sent in English and also translated into Hindi to the newspaper. The sub-editor ignores the Hindi translation and does his own translation because he has to save his job. What the reader gets in end, a fourth hand version of the news. By that time the entire originality and authenticity is lost. Who is responsible?

The English media that wanted its control on flow of information, the large battery of translators to save their jobs and finally the language newspapers who turned out to be the main villains. How?

There were two language news agencies in 1950s and 60s called Hindustan Samachar. This writer is a product of them. He spent more than a decade starting from a cub-reporter and rising to a special correspondent. So this article is an outcome of the first-hand experience. The quality of Hindi journalists in these language news agencies was dismal. There were some silver linings also like Ashok Tondon, Harish Gupta, Alok Mehta, but not many. It was the time when sources gave information in English. The language agencies couldn’t compete with UNI and PTI. The language newspapers didn’t trust their authenticity. They rather translated the English copy for the reasons mentioned above. Since the sub-editors refuse to pick up language agency copy, the owners didn’t pay subscription. For some years they survived on the heavy government subsidy paid through the subscription from Aakashvani, Doordarshan and other government offices like PIB, PMO, other ministers and ministries, airports etc. But it didn’t meet even their daily expenses. The working staff lost morale. The sources didn’t take them seriously. The subscribers didn’t wait for their stories. And they died a slow death.

The irony is that earlier also they were competing with English news agencies and now as the adjunct of the English agencies they are heavily dependent on them. Of course, Univarta has a larger number of subscribers than its parent organisation called UNI. But Bhasha (PTI) doesn’t enjoy even that reputation. The third player IANS, however, is doing well both in English and Hindi. But Hindi is still a translation agency.

There is an urgent need for a Hindi and regional news agency if the flow of free, fair and frank communication is too established in the burgeoning language media through language newspapers and TV English copy is translated into Hindi but not in other regional languages. Regional newspapers translate from English. But then if the source of news is Hindi then why do we have to depend upon English agency copy?

 By Om Gupta

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