Lexicon Valley

If You Have Nothing to Do, Please Do Not Do It Here

Where, then, may I do nothing?

A reader sent me the above photo of a sign, which is written in both English and Bengali, and expressed puzzlement over the translation. Before trying to figure out precisely what the Bengali says, I’d like to point out that what the English says, in essence, is a polite variation on “Do not loiter.” Also, telling people not to do nothing is not the same as telling them to do something.

Now, to tackle the Bengali. First of all, I was surprised by the sheer variety of translations that I received from native Bengali speakers and Indologists, which highlights the very subjective nature of expressing one language in terms of another. Here are a few:

1. Do not loiter about if you have no business/nothing to do.
2. Don’t wander around without purpose.
3. Do not hang around/wander without reason.
4. Without necessity do not hang out.
5. Without it being necessary, don’t loiter/run around and stuff [here].

Leopold Eisenlohr, a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, provided the fifth translation and also offered these interesting notes:

Bina = without (probably same in Nepali? same in Hindi), proyojone = necessary, korben na = “you will not do” as a polite imperative, and ghurafera is more interesting. Ghura means to go around, spin around, as you would say for somebody running errands all over the neighborhood or something. In Bengali there is this lovely device of repeating the word with a different initial consonant, which gives the meaning “and stuff.” Shower is chaan, so chaan-taan is “showering and doing all the other bathroom stuff like shaving etc.”; packing-tacking means “packing and all the other stuff” you do when you’re getting ready to go on a trip. Usually the repeated word comes with a T, but I guess ghurafera just sounds better than ghura-tura.

There’s something about this sign (both in the English and in the Bengali) that leaves me pondering existence. I have the same feeling after watching a Satyajit Ray film, listening to Ravi Shankar play an evocative raga, or reading a poem by Rabindranath Tagore.

A version of this post originally appeared on Language Log.