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.

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7 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.


    • 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.


  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.


  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.


  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.


  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!



  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!


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