Some Reflections on Rabindranath Tagore

Suppose that, in a book of translated poems, one comes across this:
  

Oh, how I would love a glass of wine 
That has been chilled for a long time in a deep cellar.
 Its taste would be redolent of flowers, and of the countryside,
It would have associations of dancing and of merrymaking in the sun,
And of songs from the South of France. 

This doesn’t read like poetry. It doesn’t even give any indication that the original could have had any poetic qualities. And yet, the original reads like this:

 O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
 Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!

Now suppose that Keats’ reputation through most of the world is based upon translations such as the one above. Imagine how deeply embarrassed any lover of Keats’ poetry would feel.

This hypothetical situation describes precisely how any lover of Tagore’s poetry feels about Tagore’s international reputation. When he is spoken of in admiring terms, we wonder what anyone could possibly see in the translations (including his own) to elicit any admiration at all; and when he is spoken of in dismissive terms, we despair that the work of so major a poet could be judged on this basis.

(Edit made on12th July 2011: please see later retraction of comment above.) 

Indeed, many will say that all translations into English are bound to be inadequate. English and Bengali are such different languages, with such different sonorities, syntax, and rhythms, with such different grammars, that finding the English equivalent of a Bengali poem is, perhaps, doomed to failure from the very beginning. For how can one convey even a small fraction of the qualities of the originals? How can one convey Rabindranath’s haunting verbal music, that subtlety and intricacy of rhythm, that absolute mastery of language that can communicate to perfection any possible shade and nuance of any possible emotion?  

Some time ago, I was asked by someone who recognised my Bengali origins from my name whether I liked Tagore. I replied that as an educated Bengali, I didn’t really a have a choice in the matter. The stature of Tagore in Bengal’s cultural landscape cannot be overstated, and is not easy to explain, since there is no real equivalent in the West: neither Cervantes in Spain nor Goethe in Germany, nor even Shakespeare in England, occupies the position that Tagore does in Bengal.  

Albert Einstein & Rabindranath Tagore

He was a prolific poet for over 60 years. And yet, he never repeated himself: each new collection broke new ground, both stylistically and thematically. The sheer variety of his poetic output is breathtaking, and makes nonsense of any attempt to comment in general terms on the nature of his work. On top of this, he was also a novelist, an essayist, a dramatist, and a writer of short stories. (These short stories do, it must be admitted, vary in quality, but at their best, they are as fine as any I’ve come across.) He founded a university. He even exhibited paintings. The man was an entire culture in himself.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, he wrote songs. Literally thousands of songs. He composed the melodies, and wrote the most exquisitely beautiful lyrics. These songs are effectively the national music of Bengal, and there is possibly no Bengali who would not be able to recognise at least a few dozen of these. They are part of a Bengali’s mental furniture.  

My family left India to settle in Britain when I was five years old, but even by then, the image of that man with a long white beard was as familiar to me as the images of various Hindu gods and goddesses, or, for that matter, images even of members of my own family. Even by the age of five, I knew some of his simpler poems (and, as I remember, a few not-so-simple poems) by heart. And while I was becoming acquainted with my new, adopted culture in Britain, Tagore was always present at home: it did not matter that I was no longer receiving Bengali lessons – the culture of Tagore entered my consciousness by some mysterious process of osmosis, and is now firmly lodged in there. In one’s teenage years, one revolts against such gross cultural imposition; but, like those lapsed Catholics still in thrall to the church they thought they had left behind, one cannot really escape. A strain of a melody remembered from childhood, a few words expressing the most heartfelt of emotions, and, rebel or no rebel, I find myself once again under that spell.

17 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Michael H. on May 23, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Hello Himadri,
    Thanks for that illuminating – and very personal – piece about Tagore. I have read some poetry by him but always feel that I am seeing him through a glass darkly. The lines from Keats as though translated from another language are startling and salutary. But if one doesn’t know another language intimately one is doomed to hear it through someone else’s ears.
    MH.

    Reply

    • Thanks, Michael. I must admit, I had great fun re-writing that passage of Keats! I try not to be too autobiographical in my posts, but it was impossible not to reflect on what Tagore means to me personally. He seems always to have been a major presence. Well – it’s a good presence to have around!

      In that photo at the top, by the way, the book is open at one of my very favourite poems.

      Reply

  2. Posted by alan on May 24, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    I like this quote that is attributed to Tagore “A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It cuts the hand that wields it.”
    However there are clumsier translations like :”A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it. ” – it doesn’t have the same force.
    I think we could both benefit from this observation: “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.”
    I agree about the short stories though, a great story is ‘Profit and Loss’ that deals with dowries and ‘honour’, but on the debit side there is ‘Little Master Returns’ that plumbs the depths of Victorian sentimentality.

    Reply

  3. Posted by alan on May 24, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    I like this piece of yours, it’s very thoughtful, less of a rant, and a bit shorter than usual.

    Reply

  4. Oh, come on Alan! The whole point of having a blog is that one can have a good rant! And in any case, my rants are clearly labelled as such! ;-)

    A writer deserves to be judged at his best, and, given how extraordinarily prolific Tagore was, the level of quality he maintained – certainly through a great many of his short stories, and through virtually all his poetry – is nothing short of miraculous. There was no way I could even attempt to convey anything of the nature of his work: it encompasses far too great a range. I was merely trying to convey something of his status, and of how he is regarded in the context of Bengali culture.

    Reply

  5. This is a lovely, thoughtful post, Himadri. I very much enjoyed reading it. Fascinating to learn something about Tagore – and great to be introduced to him through the insights and perspective of your lifelong personal relationship with his work.

    Your little exercise with Keats’ poem packs a nice little punch. Really brings home all those things we may be missing when we read something in translation!

    Melanie

    Reply

  6. Thanks for that, Melanie. With Tagore translations, it’s not even the fact that the translations miss so much that worries me: all translations, especially thos eof poetry, are bounfd to miss much. What worries me is the fact that the existing translations *misrepresent* the originals. Translations of poetry *can* work – indeed, they can be wonderful poems in their own right. I suppose the most famous examples of this are Edward Fitzgerald’s versions of Omar Khayyam. The aim should be, I think, not so much to *translate* the poem literally (the literal meaning of a poem is often the least part of it!) but to use whatever is available in the target language to communicate as much as is possible of what the poem conveys in the original. This need not be a fruitless exercise. Indeed, in ancient India, it was commonplace: take the Ramayana, for instance. the original Rmayana was written in Sanskrit by, reputedly, Valmiki (who is as shadowy a figure as Homer), but there have been medieval versions by Tulsidas (in Hindi), by Krittibas (in Bengali), etc. These all depart, often quite significantly, from the original, but each is a major work in its own right, and have, for many readers, even superseded the originals. I think if any attempt is made to translate poetry, the aim should be to convey the essence of the poem – however one understands that “essence”. But if the translation doesn’t read like a poem to begin with (and none of the translations I’ve seen of Tagore reads like a poem to me), then one has fallen down at the first hurdle.

    I sometimes do think of all the great potery I’ll never know, as I do not know the language they were written in … Heine, Pushkin, Petrarch, Horace … I suppose I should be thankful for what I *can* read!

    Reply

  7. Posted by Riya on May 9, 2015 at 7:01 am

    Hello, came across your blog while looking for some photographs of Rabindranath Tagore. It was the photo that drew my attention but then I read the post and I LOVED it! And now about the photo. Is this taken by u? Can I use it in one of my Facebook pages? With link to you blog of course.

    Reply

    • Hello Riya, and thank you for your kind words. That photograph at the top (the one with the open book, not the one with Einstein!) is indeed mine, and yes, by all means, feel free to use it!

      I am sure you know the poem at which the book is open: it is one of his very finest.

      Best wishes, Himadri

      Reply

  8. Posted by kumud biswas on May 12, 2015 at 12:06 am

    So you think ketaki’s translation is better. Poor Tagore

    Reply

    • I find your comment puzzling. In the first place, better than what? And in the second place, I did not pass or imply any critical judgement at all specifically on Ms Dyson’s translations, either on this post, or in the other post I linked to above.

      Reply

  9. I think the following note might be in order:

    I am quite relaxed about the nature of the comments on this blog, but there have recently been a couple of comments which I decided not to approve.

    One contained a private e-mail exchange, and I was not happy to post that on here without the consent of all parties involved.

    The other was a link to a piece of writing by the commenter. Normally, I am quite happy with such links if they are part of a discussion. But it is not the purpose of this comments section merely to advertise.

    Thank you for your attention.

    Reply

    • Posted by kumud biswas on June 1, 2015 at 9:07 am

      Dear Mr. Chatterjee,

      It was by sheer accident that I came across your blog page where I posted comments in connection with your comments on translations of Tagore. I posted my correspondence with Mrs. Dyson only because she advised me to consult others regarding my English which was Indian and not British. Your English and that of Mrs. Dyson are British. You could have given your opinion on our translation of the same poem. Instead you removed my post. Had it been there some of the British followers of your blogs could see for themselves how Tagore is being murdered by his translators and how Indian and British English differ.

      Heartened by the fact that a Bengali now a naturalized Briton still fondly cultivates Tagore and is anxious to present him before the foreigners a few months ago I sent some of my blogs on Tagore and translations of his writings posted in an e-zine to you by e-mail. You said you were busy. And I stopped sending anything to you. A few days ago a comment on your blog on Tagore translation came to my mail box and I responded with my comments which you didn’t approve.

      All these I didn’t do to advertise myself. The British Library has bought my books which I never advertised anywhere – you are welcome to verify the fact.

      I spent more than a year in Britain studying a technical subject in a British University. I had the opportunity to know people like you – the victims of diaspora. I feel very sorry for you. You may go on taking dips in the Thames but you won’t be able to change the colour of your skin.

      Finally, I now find that I over-valued you as a gentleman and undervalued you as a ‘git’. As a teenager Tagore visited Britain and left an account of the people of your type whom he called INGA-BANGAS. I am going to post an article on that in boloji.com. You are welcome to read it.

      Please don’t try to reply.

      Reply

      • Dear Mr Biswas,

        I was tempted to remove your insolent comment above, but since it reflects on you more than it does on me, I thought it best to keep it.

        I can only re-iterate that I shall continue to remove comments that reproduce private e-mail conversations without permission from all the participants. And any comment that consists only of a link to the commenter’s writing I shall remove also.

        I have no desire to join you in an exchange of insults, so I will stop here.

        Thank you for your attention.

  10. Posted by kumud biswas on June 1, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    Commenter? where did you get it Mr. Git? This must be a sample of British English!

    Reply

    • “Commenter” is a perfectly good word.

      Mr Biswas, since you so obviously dislike my blog, you really do not need to come here. But since you do come here and have taken to putting up insulting comments, I have no option but to block you. I shall also delete immediately any other comment you may make from a different account.

      Reply

  11. Posted by Austin on June 1, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    It is not English English or Indian English required here, ‘tho Scots might help with such as eejit, numpty and choob.

    Reply

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