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The case for transliteration of gurbani

Discussion in 'Hard Talk' started by IJSingh, Jul 12, 2014.

  1. IJSingh

    IJSingh United States
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    THE CASE FOR TRANSLITERATION OF GURBANI
    I.J. Singh

    I look at our Sikh community around the world and particularly where I live, in North America, and two imperatives emerge, particularly when Sikhs engage with the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib
    One is the obvious matter of translation. After all, Guru Granth is mystical, revealed poetry. The languages are many; I have read of there being as many as six to ten of them, including Semitic languages such as Arabic and Persian, and unquestionably also Sanskrit, and Braj from the tree of Indo-European languages. And don’t forget that India really was a country of nation states that were for much of history semi- autonomous, each with its own narrative. India as a unified nation is of recent vintage, dating only from the mid twentieth century. Also add on to the mélange the fact that, as most languages do, every Indian language shows many regional and dialectical variations. I point to English, French and Spanish as examples that are chockfull of such structural intricacies as well.

    Then there is the fact that Guru Granth is poetry, teeming with allegories, metaphors and analogies as all good poetry is. And forget not the intricate complexity of a poet’s mind in the cause of poesy.

    When I add to this potent mix the fact that the poetry of Gurbani is cast in the 300 to 500 years old languages and cultures of India and often reflects the context of the complicated Indian mythology, the enormity of the task of translating Guru Granth into modern English or any other language becomes obvious. Translation is indeed a daunting task.

    Leaving these caveats aside, I meet Sikhs every day – both young and old – who cannot even read the text of the Guru Granth much less comprehend it.

    Why? Because there are many who do not read the Gurmukhi script in which the Guru Granth is written. Guru Angad (the Second Guru of the Sikhs) codified the script that came to be known as Gurmukhi, literally from the mouth of the Guru. That it is but it inseparably girds and showcases the Punjabi language that is the lingua franca of all the people of Punjab – be they Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, even Buddhists, Christians or agnostics and atheists, for that matter. But Gurmukhi script, largely in the minds of non-Sikh Punjabis, is a Sikh invention and not for non-Sikhs.

    Sikhs are and have been a minority no matter where they lived, even in India, so Punjabi in Gurmukhi script has effectively been reduced to a minority language that is not commonly studied. For non-Sikh Punjabis it is mostly, if not only, a spoken language.

    And that’s why there is a generation of Sikhs, gray-haired now, who do not know how to comfortably read Gurmukhi. I concede that that a minimal commitment -- an hour or two perhaps -- would suffice to enable such a person to read it at a passing level but human inertia being what it is, a generation remains relatively clueless on how to read the Guru Granth. And many of these are Sikhs by religious label. They need translations if they encounter the Guru Granth to comprehend it and they need transliterations into Urdu or English to read it.
    I have published a longer essay on the trials and tribulations of translations and am not going to touch it any further today. But translation has an equally troublesome twin beside it and that is transliteration and that’s my focus today. Translation and transliteration are very different from each other and have equally different ends.
    Of course we need linguists to translate but we really need two different professionals to do things right: For translations we need linguists who know the two languages intimately, their lexicon, grammar and historical-cultural context and who can seamlessly travel between the two. But even more critically for transliteration, we need masters of phonetics in the two spoken languages and their cultures that we are talking about. These must be mavens of the phonemes involved in the exchange.

    Otherwise the sentence “I adore you” can come out looking like “Eye uh-door u” and that’s absolutely rubbish. (I am sure I would find this example absolutely stunning if I were several decades younger and attached by an umbilical cord to my computer.) I am also sure this example will remain pointless and devoid of any mirth except to those like me whose humor was significantly formed from Mad magazine.

    Many such examples abound but I rest my case on one word from the second line of the last stanza of japji that starts with the word AHRN(I), meaning an ironsmith’s anvil. It is usually pronounced as AHRIN in colloquial Punjabi. But to one with little or no contact with the Punjabi culture or its norma loquendi it could also be pronounced as AHERN(I). An able linguist could tell us the correct standard enunciation devoid of the baggage of regional and dialectical variations and a phonetics expert could help us record it precisely in Roman or any other script as desired so that a non-native speaker of Punjabi could sound it out accurately, precisely and replicably.
    A phoneme is defined as the smallest contrasting unit in the sound system of a language that is capable of conveying a distinct meaning. The American language system recognizes a set of distinctive sound units, 20 to 60 in number – a different number for each language – that is the basic of sound units (phonemes) of the sound system of spoken languages and can be captured in Roman script.

    Rules of pronunciation, especially in English, are often based on geography, social class, and, at times, appear arbitrarily derived from the worldwide British presence over two centuries. Nevertheless there have to be standards of phonetics that guide us and that are both trustworthy and replicable.

    A caveat: Phonetics is not always a perfect science or art. For example some tribal languages have guttural sounds and clicks as distinct parts of their lexicon and there is no way to render them adequately into the Roman alphabet as we know it. In today’s growing global reality perhaps this most commonly used alphabet system could learn to stretch its dimensions.

    There are also some sounds in the Gurmukhi alphabet and in Gurbani that are not easily transliterated into Roman script. I don’t know if anyone has systematically identified how many and which specific phonemes capture the Punjabi language, and if any gaps remain. I see that in transliterations of Gurbani today there are about as many systems as there are people doing them.

    But in this process we do start with a supreme advantage. Punjabi is a precisely designed phonetic language and to determine the variety of phonemes that capture should not be that complex a task if we can find the right scholar(s) of phonetics to take on the task. Most if not all Indic languages appear to be equally phonetic.
    Sometimes minor differences in spellings in the original (Indic) language point to who acted for a purpose or against whom was an action taken, when words differentiate between the singular and the plural case, or between masculine and feminine endings. A minor diacritical mark may change the whole thrust of the sentence and create a critical difference in meaning. Linguists and grammarians spend a lifetime arguing and parsing such minutiae. So exactly how accurately and by what standards a transliteration is done into the Roman script may spell the difference between war or peace, success or failure.

    All languages have blind spots and the inability to distinguish certain sounds. A simple example: Punjabi speakers, for instance do not distinguish between the sounds of “v” and “w” because the language does not make the distinction, whereas English has no phonemes for the distinctions between the hard “d”, the soft “d” and the phoneme for the combined “dh” that itself occurs in the hard and soft forms. A phonetics expert can show and teach these distinctions but likely cannot capture them in written form in Roman script

    At any one time both the writer and the reader need to be on the same page. An arbitrary transliteration serves little purpose except to sow discord. A simple example comes to mind. Take the expression “Guru Fateh” in its most commonly spelled form in Roman script that I have seen.

    Please note that what follows next is not a judgment of what is right and what is not. It is merely an example where an amateur like me can easily lose his way. I have seen “Guru” spelled “Goroo” and if I was learning to pronounce as in grade school by sounding it out you can imagine that I would be somewhat lost. Therein is the danger of unclear but alternative spellings.

    I have also seen “Fateh” transcribed as “Fatih, Fatah, Phatih or Phatah.”

    There may be additional variations on the theme. Mind you I am not one but I look at how a reasonably sane English educated non-Sikh would sound it out. Certainly “Guru Fatah” reminds us of the Palestinian organization “Al Fatah,” while the last choice here “Guru Phatah” remains unclear where the emphasis is, on the first “a” or the second. It also pushes us towards a literal and unattractive rendering in Punjabi where “Phatah” means torn like a piece of cloth, and to say the Guru is torn is not so good a greeting; it sounds almost blasphemous.
    Remember that “sounding it out” is how all of us learned the fundamentals of ABC and the beautiful art of reading.

    It seems to me that the sole purpose of translation and transliteration is to enhance understanding of the message we want to deliver and share, particularly with those who are on unfamiliar territory when meeting us. And we are talking here of the reasonably educated common man or woman, not one at home with the intricacies of linguistics and phonetics, or the time and energy to pursue such laudable ends.

    There is no question that we need both a standardized translation and a transliteration of Gurbani and these are not processes that a single scholar, no matter how good, can or should handle alone. We need linguists as well as experts of phonetics to work in tandem and produce a standardized body of work that will remain a work in progress for a number of years but will put us on the path to progress.

    Will it be easy? Never. Will it be frustratingly maddening? Guaranteed. Is it necessary? Like breath to life.
    Translation and transliteration are very different species of animal but each demands our full, professional, enduring and clearheaded engagement. Nothing less will do.
     
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    #1 IJSingh, Jul 12, 2014
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  3. aristotle

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    Very informative article IJ Singh Ji.
    Transliteration is often overlooked in the discussion on translation and rendering of the Gurbani. We surely need a standardised and easy-to-understand code for Gurbani transliteration, directed at Non-Punjabi audience, it is the need of the hour.
     
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  4. Ishna

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    Why is it the need of the hour? Gurmukhi is a perfectly serviceable script. It is unambiguous and easy to learn. A standardized translation is much higher on the to-do list, imho.
     
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  5. Ambarsaria

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    Isna ji, you stated great wisdom even relative to the learned thread starter. Sometimes we get carried away and in eloquence forget essentials.

    It has been studied to death by people in the know, linguists and other scholars, in almost all languages that to translate poetry even within the language of the poetry itself is an impossible task where it may have the greatest value. Prof. Sahib Sing hi did a marvelous job for Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji in translating the poetics in Punjabi. Even a neophyte like me can find within my mind some variances I would have preferred to what he has done. No disrespect, poetic translation is much beyond simple grammatical or linguistics. Much wanted is your closeness to the understanding of environs of the day or at least exposure to the next best thing that you may have across in growing up some parts of the same.

    Hence any great focus on transliteration would create much great deviations from the poetry essence that lot of sandcastles would be built to associate the message of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji with preferences like how close Sikhism is to Hinduism or how far it is away from Islam, etc. Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji essence is wisdom and dispelling of prevalent ignorance if an only if one wants to so choose. Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji challenges but does not enforce.

    One other aspect I find not to my personal liking is for one Sikh to tell others what should be done? A good Sikh only says so if they themselves take the lead or actively contribute in the supposed plan. Any dependencies on not participating and claiming others more capable should for me is very lame. A good Sikh is not ashamed of or discouraged by errors but needs to take note of lack of action or pushing out of excuses eloquent or not.

    I know I have a bit harsh tone in this, I believe the subject needs to be discussed directly rather than be camouflaged in niceties.

    Not to offend anyone, but saying if it helps us continue to learn and share as we grow.

    Sat Sri Akal.
     
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    #4 Ambarsaria, Jul 14, 2014
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  6. aristotle

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    Transliteration obviously cannot replace the parent script as a tool of learning and understanding poetry, but its importance lies in the fact in that it can be extremely useful in learning the pronunciation, accent marks, importance of Lag-Matras, half-syllables of that language. Imagine you had no teacher or friend to teach you the pronunciation of ਣ, ੜ, ਝ etc, or a of a combination of alphabets, this is where the importance of transliteration kicks in. It can be a longterm companion for those wishing to learn the proper vocal rendering of Punjabi or any other language for that matter.

    Moreover, transliteration is also helpful for people who are not interested in learning the script of the language in understanding the pronunciation and placement of certain words and proper nouns without much hassle.

    The thing is that transliteration is given no importance at all in the rendering of Gurbani, we have to do with the makeshift roman alphabet transliterations, ill-equipped to justify their worth in the representation of Gurmukhi. Importance of transliteration as a learning tool cannot be overlooked.
     
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  7. arshi

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    Excellent thoughts Ishna ji and Ambarsaria ji, echoing some of my own sentiments. Punjabi/Gurmakhi is rich in grammar and vocabulary. Gurbani has it's own viakaran (grammar), and some wonderful work has been done by scholars such as Giani Harbans Singh ji and Prof Sahib Singh ji amongst others.

    More needs to be done, and is being done, in the analysis of language, structure and vocabulary of Gurbani. This, IMHO, should be the top priority for Sikhs rather than quibbling over some mundane issues, in-house fighting etc, which are becoming more and more prevalent each day.

    We must not be afraid to speak our minds as long as we are sincere in what we believe and say. It may offend others, just as we may be irritated by others' opinions. We all make mistakes and that is very much part of Sikhi.

    Sikhi, as I believe it, teaches us to be tolerant and forgiving and encourages us to look for good in all, be it our clergy, Sikhs of all shades and non-Sikhs. There is far too much talk of division and little of unity. Our disunity is exacerbated by our open dissent in media and on Internet forums rather than by convening meetings and developing research centres to resolve our differences on scriptures and our rich history. We ought to stop washing our dirty linen in the open, where our opponents can latch on to our difference and create further schisms.

    Humility is the hallmark of the House of Nanak and this is sadly what we lack these days.

    I would wish to add much more but am pushed for time right now - perhaps later.

    Humbly.

    Rajinder Singh 'Arshi'
     
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    #6 arshi, Jul 14, 2014
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  8. Ishna

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    Yes, Aristotle Ji, transliterations are helpful to learning the script. They cannot teach you proper pronounciation though. You need to hear it and practice it with someone who can correct you. I'm living proof of this, I can read the Gurmukhi but I can't pronounce a lot of the sounds.

    To this end, a haphazard transliteration does the job. Again, just my humble opinion.

    It would be nice to have a standardised version, and I'm sure one exists, but is too technical and isn't used.
     
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  9. aristotle

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    I'm sure our linguists will find a way to make it more utility-friendly, as it should be.
     
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  10. Sherdil

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    What if an online resource was available that could read each tuk to you and highlight the word being said? This would help in learning proper pronunciation of the words. One could follow along with the gurmukhi as the tuk is being read to them.
     
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  11. Ambarsaria

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    Aristotle ji thanks for your post. I believe srigranth.org already meets much of the needs that you have stated.

    For example the following at the beginning of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji and how it is served for those looking at srigranth.org,

    So I believe we have most completed at 75%+ level if not much higher in one or the other languages (Punjabi or English) in these sources and a great place to build from or source from. This makes the ultimate goal of the thread redundant as there never will be a 100% translation of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji available that will convey unbiased what Guru ji want us to take away from the poetry of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. Let us all bit by bit work with these resources and that is what I have tried to do here in my translations on a limited basis.

    Guru ji's have given us all the soul food in Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji. The questions of platters and cutlery will always evolve based on growth of understanding of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Sikhism in general and as impacted by technologies and the evolution of interest in Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji.

    An analogy that may suffice here is that,

    Just some thoughts.

    Sat Sri Akal.
     
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    #10 Ambarsaria, Jul 14, 2014
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  12. Gyani Jarnail Singh

    Gyani Jarnail Singh Malaysia
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    This is already been made available on the net for a long time Jios...

    ENJOY this site...Download to your computer..and use it to get the correct pronounciation with the words being highlighted as the sounds come out the speakers..

    www.ektuhi.com http://www.ektuhi.com/

    Note to Ishna Ji...a Fraudster in Australia in collaboration with the Gurdwara Pardhan involved ha s been GETTING MONTHLY PAYMENTS..ostensibly for producing this same software...the REAL AUTHOR who put this service for FREE DOWNLOADS is furious at this embezzlement of GOLUCK...!!! Find the culprits ??? nay and all help to expose these fraudsters is appreciated..
     
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  13. Gyani Jarnail Singh

    Gyani Jarnail Singh Malaysia
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    one billion Muslims and they never depended on transliterated Quran...there is NONE.
    Punjabi and Gurmukhi script are the perfect medium for SGGS. Nothing can come even close....its my opinion that the ONLY reason why Gurmukhi / PUNJABI has survived the relentless attacks is because its the SCRIPT of the SGGS. Punjabi had to endure the slanderous connotation thats its language of SIKHS..is mainly due to this...HINDUS chose HINDI and Muslims Chose URDU..basing their choices NOT on the MOTHER TONGUE they spoke and learnt from their MOTHERS..but on what RELIGION they followed. 100% of Pakistani PUNJAB speaks fluent PUNJABI..but simply becasue they are Muslim.they push for URDU...same goes for the HINDU PUNJABIS.they speaka nd breathe Punjabi buy they claim they like HINDI becasue they are HINDU...this leaves ONLY the SIKHS remaining TRUE to their Mother Tongue PUNJABI and GURMUKHI SCRIPT.

    ONCE the SIKHS too move away from this...thats the death knell of Punjabi/Gurmukhi. SIKHS should NEVER let that happen.

    All this push for transliteration is another nail in the coffin of Punjabi that VESTED interests are pushing....in Vancouver Airport the Sign In Punjabi/Gurmukhi that said AAO JI Jee Aiyan Nu ahs been recently painted over in HINDI- SWAGTUM !! How many PUNJABIS in VANCOUVER that greet each other in Hindi SWAGTUM ?? Ask Not for whom the Bells Toll ....BROTHER the BELLS TOLL FOR THEE....
     
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  14. Harry Haller

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    I have fairly basic views, I always felt the Mool Mantra was fairly easy to understand and although harder to implement, gave a basic grasp of the SGGS.

    I don't actually see what all the fuss is about, if you can learn French as a hobby, or German to advance in business, then you will learn Gurmukhi if you feel that strongly about knowing in full the SGGS. I certainly would not want anything in between me and that knowledge, I would find it hard to trust anyone to guide me
     
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  15. aristotle

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    Nothing can represent Gurbani better than Gurmukhi, and transliteration can NEVER replace a parent script. Transliteration is just a learning tool (and not the only one), to be discarded when you have knowledge of the script and pronunciation.
     
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  16. aristotle

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    Muslims also use methods of learning Qur'an recitation and pronunciation. In fact, in most madrassas, recitation is taught first, translation later on. Novel methods are being increasingly used for learning proper pronunciation of Arabic in the Qur'an, see this 'read pen' http://www.easyquranstore.com/tajwe...nto-english-with-read-pen-and-smart-card.html
     
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  17. aristotle

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    Ambarsaria Ji,
    I do not use the transliterations, and therefore I dont know whether the one on srigranth.org accurately represents Gurmukhi or not. I frankly cant even relate with Non-Punjabis who wish to learn Punjabis because I am a native Punjabi speaker myself. My point was, that just in case if people are interested in using transliteration for learning Punjabi, we should develop methods of transliteration that are both nearly-perfect in accuracy and user-friendly at the same time, and as far as I know, no major innovations have taken place. Don't take it otherwise.
     
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  18. Ambarsaria

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    Aristotle ji thanks for your reply. I have no issues regarding your effots or contributions or your position. We are all different and with different backgrounds and at different stages of understanding.

    I believe Dr. Thind has done incredible service with the following two,


    He has made available true source documents for all around the world. I believe our beloved Spnadmin ji had dialog with him at times but I was not privy to that. I did ask once but my query was not responded to but this not in an iota diminish my respect for great contributions as above.


    Gurbani is not rocket science to understand but it is very contextual. If you have context of time, the environment, the language and visualizations, I believe it helps a great lot. People born in Punjab and who learned Punjabi with love and respect are much enabled in this respect if they are so inclined. This as a package cannot be juxtaposed to other backgrounds. It however should be our duty to help whoever wants to love or understand SGGS but it must be our duty too to not create convenience over substance. It is a tough challenge and I have no quick answers about it. Probably 95+% (my hunch) of the people in Punjab are less knowledgeable about SGGS say compared to Ishna ji. How did that come about? Perhaps she can elaborate but in my mind there is no question that love of and hard work towards SGGS must be part of it. In a way it is great but is in a way sad that greater than 95% (my hunch) of Punjabis are possibly at a level of untruths based on parchariks misguidance, exploitative Babas and pathetic religious leadership through SGPC.


    If there is any challenges I believe that beyond personal levels and efforts, much need to be directed at SGPC to right itself and deliver some value on the proverbial dollar.


    Sat Sri Akal. :peacesign:
     
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  19. Seeker9

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    A great thread with a fantastic opening post

    So here's my tuppence worth purely in terms of my limited experience

    I am a complete novice. Once I grasp the basics, I hope to dwell on more advanced matters

    If those more learned than I have already gone to huge effort to make the scriptures more accessible for people like me, then I am content to learn from them and am genuinely grateful for their service

    Finally, as I was writing this, I was going to say something along the lines of "not being able to see the wood for the trees", then thought will that come across as being harsh. Then I came across this definition of that phrase:

    "to be unable to get a general understanding of a situation because you are too worried about the details"

    On reflection, I guess that sums up my thoughts perfectly

    Apologies in advance as no offence intended
     
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  20. Tejwant Singh

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    The best thing about music is that it is felt within all of us. It creates an inner dance in all of us, whether it has words or not. The language of music is of its own.

    Having said that if we top this musical cake with the icing of great lyrics, then it becomes the only Heaven on Earth, the one which can be experienced alone. It is like the treehouse of discovery.

    Tejwant Singh
     
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  21. Luckysingh

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    I really don't understand what the fuss is all about.
    I have absolutely no problem with the transliterations currently available.
    You must first listen to some audio whilst reading them to get the pronunciations right. Once you've mastered this no one can even distinguish whether i'm reading from transliteration of gurmukhi.
    Ideally, I often try and use both.
     

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