Translations of Tagore: a retraction

Back in the early days of this blog, I wrote a piece on Tagore, and, in the process, made some rude comments about translations into English. I made similar comments in the Guardian books blog recently, in response to certain denigratory comments about Tagore made by certain other posters who did not have access to the original. (I posted under the name HimadriC, an abbreviation of my own name, Himadri Chatterjee.) And, quite rightly, I was taken to task by Ketaki Kushari Dyson, who has translated Tagore’s poetry to much critical and public acclaim. Needless to say, I apologised profusely and unreservedly. I apologised not merely for the sake of politeness: I realised that I had been wrong.

One problem is that when something that is precious to me, something that I value – indeed, something that I know is of inestimable value – is denigrated, and unfairly denigrated at that, it is difficult not to point out that the denigrator knows the work only at second hand, and, thus, is not in the best position to pass judgement. Another problem is that those of us who are so in thrall to the mesmerising verbal music of the originals – a verbal music that is impossible to convey into another language, not due to any shortcoming of translators, but because of the inherent differences between languages – are always reluctant to consider alternative versions of that which they love so much. We are too close to these works, too emotionally attached to them, to judge translations with any objectivity. For instance, I love what I have read of Rilke’s poetry in translation, but I am sure that those who know Rilke in German will wonder  why the hell I am applauding these works, not knowing them in the original versions. And were I to be critical of Rilke, I am sure I would be told not to judge merely on the basis of translations.

But, as Ms Dyson quite correctly points out, the translations aren’t intended for those who do not need them. It is not to be expected that the poetry of Tagore can find an exact equivalent in another language – any more than, say, the poetry of Donne or of Leopardi or of Heine. But if translations can convey even something of the originals, then, however much those who love the works in the original may cavil, the effort is not only worthwhile, but to be applauded.

And yet it hurts all the same to see these works denigrated or belittled by those who have never encountered their magic at first hand. To commemorate the recent 150th anniversary of Tagore’s birth, JC asked rhetorically in the Times Literary Supplement: “Who reads Rabindranath Tagore now?” Well, only a few million Bengalis mate, but presumably they don’t count. And similarly, I guess those who read the translations don’t count either. I wonder if JC would ever have posed the question “Who reads Akhmatova now?” It would have been equally foolish. But, presumably, Tagore is fair game because he is only an Indian writer who insisted on writing in one of those funny little languages they have over there.

It is distressing to read denigratory comments not merely from the JCs of this world, but also from the distinguished literary figures such as Vladimir Nabokov, or Jorge Luis Borges, or Graham Greene (who wondered whether there was anyone apart from WB Yeats who still took Tagore seriously). Philip Larkin writes in one of his letters: “An Indian has written to ask what I think of Rabindrum Tagore. Feel like sending him a telegram: ‘Fuck all. Larkin.’” Anyone close to these works is bound to feel some degree of hurt, and, under such circumstances, translators, very unfairly, become suitable scapegoats.

So I would like, as a sort of apology for my previous comments, to retract publicly what I had said previously, both on the Guardian Books blog and here, about translations of Tagore. One should applaud and welcome further translations: each translation is, after all, an act of interpretation, and with literature of such quality, no single interpretation can be definitive. These translations won’t be for Bengali-speakers, so our opinions on the matter really don’t count: we have the originals to read, after all. What does matter is the number of non-Bengali-speakers who, thanks to the efforts of Ms Dyson and her colleagues, are brought closer to this astonishing body of work.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Erika W. on July 14, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    I will read Tagore again–in translation of course. Did so for a first in my teens; no impressions left except for floweriness.

    I have to say that you are not so much a blog as a lecture course on random fascinating topics. I read you with care, digest and leave with a bundle of thoughts to wrestle with. So I do hope you realize that you are read and very much appreciated.


  2. Posted by Erika W. on July 14, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    continued…I have only read Gitanjaii, in a near doggerel verse translation possibly dating from the time it first caught western attention. Can you recommend a better one, with foot notes preferably?


    • Hello Erika, I am not in the best position to suggest translations because, as I said, I am too close to the originnals, and, once you know how these poems read in Bengali, nothing else will quite do. I suspect anyone who loves any poetry will feel something similar about translations of their beloved works into another language. But of course, the translations weren’t intended for me, and the versions by Ketaki Kushari Dyson ( I Won’t let You Go , published by Bloodaxe) and by William Radice ( Selected Poems published by Penguin) have won much acclaim. Dyson’s volume, in particular, has a long and fascinating introductory essay on Tagore, as well as copious comprehensive notes at the back, and these alone are worth the price of admission.

      Radice’s translation of a wide selection of Tagore’s short stories (Penguin) can also be recommended. I personally find some of these stories to be variable in quality, but at their best (and, in this selection, many of the best stories have been selected) they are about as fine as any I have read.


  3. Posted by alan on July 17, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    I’ve read some Tagore short stories. “Profit and loss” stayed with me for positive reasons and it is also a contemporary theme, but “Little Master Returns” struck me as an example of the worst kind of Victorian sentimentality.
    I liked bits of the English Gitanjali – the passage beginning “On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. ” or “On the seashore between worlds do children meet” sticks with me for some reason, although I appreciate it has been translated various ways and you don’t much like that.


  4. Hello. After reading your post I got “La petite mariée” and “Nuage et soleil” by Tagore. I want to write my review but I can’t find the English titles of these stories. Can you help me? The Bengali titles are Somapti and Meg o roudro.
    Thanks a lot


    • Hello Emma, I’m afraid the only edition I have of Tagore’s stories in English is the collection in Penguin translated by William Radice, and Radice doesn’t include either of these stories. However, in Satyajit Ray dramatised the story “Samapti” in the film Teen Kanya. This film was a portmanteau of adaptations of three of Tagore’s short stories, and was filmed in 1961 to celebrate Tagore’s centenery.

      “Megh” literally means “cloud” (or “clouds” – in Bengali, the form of the noun does not differentiate between singular and plural), and “roudra” refers to sunlight when it is particularly strong or even oppressive. “Samapti” literally means “ending”, but can also be taken to mean “fulfilment”.


      • Thanks for your help. I’ll use the info in my post, if you don’t mind. (I’ll add a link to your blog, of course)

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