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Anindya Sen : Tagore’s Self-Translations

Image courtesy - A Japanese Catalogue of Tagore's Paintings, 1985

“Mystic”ally Extraneous Determinants in Tagore’s Self-Translation

Rabindranath took so many liberties with every Bangla original while rendering it into English that very often a poem got rewritten rather than merely rendered. Generally he abridged or otherwise modified the original poems, sometimes even incorporated changes. Some are only partial translations of the original, while sometimes parts of the same original have been used to produce two separate poems in translation. In a few cases, two or three original poems have been telescoped into a single translation. The earlier volumes in particular contain a number of pieces that are practically new poems using old material, yet they are not that far removed from the source to earn consideration as distinct and independent entities…. The outcome was the uneasy occupation of an isthmus, between translation and creation, that characterizes all of Rabindranath’s poetry in English (Mukherjee 103).

The above-quoted extract from Sujit Mukherjee’s essay “Translation as Perjury” gives general coverage for the entire range of Tagore’s poems (and plays) in English, which can be - barring the very rare exception - traced back to one or more of his Bengali poems. Too much have already been said about the decline in his reputation in the West because of the way he treated the originals – “changing, chopping, re-ordering them” (Mukherjee 122). But among the songs, at least a few of them retain the core of their substance in spite of the vast Generic Shift that accompanies the “collection of prose translations made by the author” .

For instance, the third piece that renders Tumi keman kore gaan karo he guni remains virtually invariant with regard to content. Apart from the sthayee and the first two lines of the antara (where one line in the original is translated as one sentence), two lines of the original go to make one sentence in the translation and this, however imperceptibly, gives the impression of consistency somewhat akin to the measure of lines in poetry. The repetition in the second line is not preserved and the adverb byakul is ignored. In the sanchari, “voice” is not the English for sur, while “thou”, “thy” and “singest” are too archaic even for the twentieth century. The lack of culture-specific words helps retain an atmosphere of poetic sensibility where the strain of prayer carries over smoothly.

The twenty-eighth piece is a translation of Jaraye aachhe baadhaa, where the sthayee has two sentences, each of which spills over into a second line. “Obstinate” is not the same as jaraye and tomaro kachhe jai is omitted in the second sentence. The antara is quite faithful to the song’s content even though no more than one sentence is used; the sanchari oversimplifies a bit – “covers me” does not carry the sense of dhake hiya, while praano bhari is not accommodated in the translation. In the aabhog too, accuracy is lacking – “shame” and “heavy” are additions, and so is the expression “lest my prayer be granted” at the end, while what is there in the original is somewhat compressed. Compared to the earlier example, this is more prosaic and given that the register is more submissive, some structural reworking might have realized the possibility of retaining more of the original’s tone. But placed alongside the drastic reworking in much of the corpus of Tagore’s poetic output in English, this stands at a very little remove from the original.

The translation of Jibano jakhano shukaye jay (no. XXXIX), likewise, bears sufficient resemblance with the original to be called by that name; particular parts may contain deviations like “hard and parched up” for shukaye and “with a burst of” for geetasudharase in the sthayee, “with thy peace and rest” for shanto charane eso in the antara and omissions like the adjectives udaaro and bipulo, but overall, not only the matter, but a glimpse of the stanzaic structure of the original as a poem appears as well through the print medium.

The opening of no.LVI is an accurate enough rendering of the sthayee of Tai tomar anando amar par; it may be noted however, that “lord of the heavens” for tribhubaneswar is reductive and this is precisely where the culture specific element in the original survives as residue. As compensation, the line is converted into a rhetorical question in translation; it fails to retain the sense of michhe in the original song. The antara is too oversimplified for comfort and the same continues with the sanchari and aabhog being compressed into a mere couple of sentences – the communicable essence of these parts are extracted and the strain of prayer that is rooted in its own distinctive cultural pattern of expression is left to remain behind. A wilful act is performed, not of choosing between possible alternatives in translation, but of selecting and rejecting matter to be presented before a Western audience and it becomes the overriding principle. It may not be out of place here to mention instances, which indicate that Tagore had limited faith in a Western reader’s understanding of the East. Sujit Mukherjee in the aforementioned essay tells us that “Edward Thompson had complained that Rabindranath’s ‘treatment of his Western public has sometimes amounted to an insult to their intelligence. He has carefully selected such simple, sweet things as he appears to think they can appreciate’ ” (Mukherjee 106). He follows it up with a conversation that Tagore had with Victoria Ocampo, the Argentinian, where, at the end of it, the latter “ruefully observes, ‘Tagore had doubts as to the Westerner’s capacity of understanding Eastern thoughts’ ” (106). Translation becomes thereby, an act of transformation regulated by the cultural receptivity of the recipient sidestepping the responsibility of maintaining accuracy. A point of intersection has to be created between two vastly different cultures and the creative writer of a subject nation perhaps thinks that the feeling of superiority of the colonial masters might keep them from making a sincere attempt to understand the subtle cultural nuances of expression that are scattered throughout his works; hence the result is an anxious attempt to conceive a neutral territory, a transcendent zone in which cultural inequalities and differences do not come to the forefront, an attempt which selects certain themes and rejects others externally and reworks the chosen ones internally, constantly adapting to the pressing need to reach out to people, who, according to him, will not make an effort to reach out on their own. Such a function-oriented stance on the part of a poet-translator could not have been taken without a certain historical predicament; the history of Tagore’s reception in the West (too vast to take up for discussion here) in its turn was determined to a large extent by this stance, which precluded the possibility of laying due emphasis on the culturally rooted aspects of his works. It was as though the culture specific elements were impurities in his originals that needed purification before they could be considered presentable before the sacred readership of the West.

Such “Translation as Perjury” (Mukherjee 101) was propelled, one would imagine, by the nature of the early reception in the British press of his self-translated poems and plays prior to the Nobel Prize for Literature being awarded to him in November, 1913 and the immediate aftermath. Even a cursory glance at these reviews palpably exposes the obsession in the West in general and in Britain in particular, with images of the “mystic”, “sage”, “seer”, “visionary”, etc. whenever Tagore’s name and creative efforts were mentioned. It was as if such expectations made the choice of themes, of treatment, of sensibility and register premeditated; as if the poet-translator was under some obligation to satisfy the aesthetic demands of readers belonging to a country whose hospitality had moved him over a significant part of the last eighteen months. How far reviews in daily newspapers, weekly magazines and literary journals could affect the approach of a poet of his stature may easily be questioned but here the urge to reach out to foreign, monolingual readers and spectators (in case of plays such as The Post Office) by conforming to their preconceived notions regarding the poet from the East was greater than that of being rigorously true to the vocation of a faithful translator. There could be virtually no place for the rational, humourous, patriotic and satirical Tagore, one who could touch upon social themes and lash out at their evils with unflinching clarity and protest against injustices of the colonists and Indians alike; the translations, to acknowledge their hospitality and cater to their expectations (or for some other reason) had to consciously project an otherworldly image of this Indian poet. The column in The Nation (November 16, 1912; P 320) on Tagore is entitled “An Indian Mystic” (British Press 9). It begins thus:

The poetry of mysticism – the poetry which is inspired by, and seeks to express, the soul’s direct vision of reality – is, or should be, the crown of literature, since it claims to fulfil the secret purpose of all art… The mystic poet, in fact, if he would fulfil his high office as revealer of reality, must be at once – and in supreme degree – an artist, a lover, and a seer (9).

It continues:

The mystical poets, like the prophets of old, are the “eyes of the race”… Only the classics of mystical literature provide a standard by which this handful of “Song Offerings” can be appraised or understood. These hundred-and-three lyrics…presuppose as their origin that same personal and first-hand experience of the spiritual order – so changeless and so various, so ineffable and so homely – which is reported to us by the great mystics of every period (9),

and claims that “for those interested in the spiritual history of man – the continuance in our own day of that living tradition of intercourse with reality which we owe to the mystical saints – the appearance of these poems is an event of great importance” (9). Later, in the same piece, the columnist uses the expression “positive mysticism” (10) to describe Tagore’s Song Offerings. The Manchester Guardian (January 14, 1913; P6, Col.1) refers to “Rabindra Nath’s austere sense of some mystical, supersensuous reality in life” (12). The point is given further emphasis thus:

But the characteristic of the epoch of Rabindra Nath is plainly mysticism… A poet appeared just at the critical moment to voice this characteristic in noble and astonishing lovely songs – songs that leave one with a vision of life standing enraptured amidst its marvellous world of sensuous experience, but always tense with expecting the awakening out of this coloured musical dream into the real ecstasy of seeing its mystical Brother and Master (13).

The Globe (April 1, 1913; P 6, Col 2) has its column on Tagore subtitled “Poet and Saint” (14). It says

Here is a Saint who is not afraid to live, a Saint who dares to mingle with common things of the world, fearing no defilement from their touch, and a Poet, the very closeness of whose contact with Earth lifts him ever nearer to Heaven (14).

F. Ashworth Briggs in The Daily Mail (October 29, 1913; P 6, Col 5) says:

In the Bengali philosophy of life, as Mr. Tagore reveals it in his songs, there is no hatred, envy or malice. His world is serene and beautiful as one of our calm autumn days, when the mist lies opalescent under the golden sun in the valleys, and on the hill-sides the great trees stand expressive and immovable like eternal monuments (27).

The same continues as the news of the “Nobel Prize for Indian Poet” (30) is covered in Daily Express (November 14, 1913; P 5, Col 4) – “Mr. Rabindranath Tagore is a Bengali poet and mystic who has won world-wide recognition” (30). On the same day, Ernest Rhys in Everyman (P 145) writes:

“Gitanjali” – otherwise “Song Offerings’ – is in essence the song-book of an Eastern mystic and a God-intoxicated poet. Almost every page is touched by the suspense of the visionary who waits on the hour of illumination (35).

The Nation (December 13, 1913; P499) in “The Circle and the Centre” says:

The common way of misunderstanding the mystic – and the so-called “revival” of mysticism which we are now witnessing has not seriously affected it – is to regard him as a being set apart from the common life: living in contact with the eternal only because he has managed to escape from, or ignore, the flux. Those who admire him speak of his detachment from the world, the solitary character of his communion with reality (47).

The use of the words mystic/mystical/mysticism with reference to Tagore’s poetic output in English can be spotted at least thrice in the remaining part of the review. They can easily corroborate and be a corollary to the mystical (emphasis mine) aberrations of Rabindranath as the translator of his own poetry. The activity which he took to, initially as a pastime during his voyage to England (at least by his own admission) earned him worldwide fame and recognition as a poet and money for his school in Santiniketan but how far the plight of a translator, his predicament and the assessment worldwide of translated literature in general affected his concerns seriously may remain open to further enquiry. The apathy, distaste or aloofness which followed amongst British admirers, particularly after Tagore relinquished his Knighthood may, to a certain extent be attributed to the “false statement” (Mukherjee 123) he had once given on his own poetry through re-made translations to the West; the latter found his outburst of indignation and protest too much to swallow. They were disillusioned as their well-nurtured image of the Mystic poet, sage and prophet was shattered.

One more point calls for some clarification. It has often been stated (in favour of Tagore) that being the poet of the originals, one has the liberty to do whatever one likes with them. Tagore himself was not far from having such a view. But every individual changes with time and experience and the creative pursuits are not indifferent to these; in effect even a translator of one’s own work is, strictly speaking, a different person and has evolved mentally/ intellectually from the one that produced the original a few years (or even a few decades) ago. Therefore the sameness of the person is restricted to his external identity and whether this alone permits liberties in such abundance remains questionable. The original work was a product of a certain stage of development in the poet, an event in history. By making a plea for liberties on the basis of having produced them is erroneous not only because it ignores the specific spatio-temporal location of the original, but also because the original, after it has left the poet and seen the light of day, ceases to remain under his control and becomes eligible to evolve in meaning through the readers’ response. The poet is only another such reader when he takes up his own work for translation. The author is dead in the sense that the emotional experience recorded in the poem in a certain state of mind has passed away; it is not in the best interests of translation to modify that experience by the years that the poet-translator has added to his age and the destination that the translations are meant to reach. The emotional experience ought to be recaptured as closely as possible not through memory, but as apprehended through the words of the original. These songs, although translated as prose, were given the recognition of poetry in the West, and along with a few others, stay closer to the originals than most of Tagore’s poems in English; it gives some hint as to what would have transpired had he abstained from imposing upon himself the role of a purifier.


1. One of the five types of shift in translation distinguished by Popovic, ‘Notes to “Central Issues”’ in Susan Bassnett McGuire, Translation Studies (1980; corr. rpt. London and New York: Routledge, 1991) 139.

2. See Gitanjali (Song Offerings) in Works Cited.
3. The first part of a song, which is repeated in between, and at the end, its refrain
4. The intermediary part between the refrain and the final development of the music of a song
5. The third part or step of any of the Indian musical modes
6. A kind of concluding note in the Indian musical modes

Works Cited

Bassnett-Mcguire, Susan. Translation Studies.1980; corr. rpt. London and New York: Routledge, 1991. Print.

Kundu, Kalyan, Sakti Bhattacharya and Kalyan Sircar eds. Rabindranath and the British Press (1912-1941). London: The Tagore Centre (U.K.), 1990. Print.

Mukherjee, Sujit. “The making of Indo-English Literature” and “Translation as perjury” in Translation as Discovery. 1981; rpt. Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 1994. Print.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Gitanjali (Song Offerings): A Collection of Prose Translations Made By the Author From The Original Bengali. 1913; rpt. Chennai: Macmillan Pocket Tagore Edition, Macmillan India Limited, 1992. Print.

Thakur, Rabindranath. Gitabitan (the collected songs of Tagore in the original Bengali in 3 vols.).1942; rpt. Kolkata: Visva Bharati, 1968 (vol.1); 1942; rpt. Kolkata: Visva Bharati, 1994 (vol.2); 1950; rpt. Kolkata: Visva Bharati, 1969 (vol.3). Print.


Focus – "Reading Across Time": Tagore Today

  Amrit Sen : Editorial

Lead Article
  Udaya Narayana Singh : Redrawing the Boundaries

Critical Essays

  Nation, History, Cultural Exchange
    Avijit Banerjee : Tagore’s Visit to China
    Bijoy Mukherjee : Rabindranath and Indian History
    Biswanath Banerjee : Tagore and Acharya PC Ray
    Sagarika Chakraborty : Tagore the Diplomat
    Soumitra Roy : Tagore’s Ghare Baire

  Responses to Caste and Gender
    Dhriti Ray Dalai/ Panchanan Dalai : Tagore’s ‘Chandalika’
    Dipankar Roy : Women in Tagore’s ‘Domestic Novels’
    Sanjukta Dasgupta : “Streer Patra” - A Feminist Text?
    Swati Ganguly : Gender, Sexuality and Conjugality in Samapti

  Translation and Reception
    Anindya Sen : Tagore’s Self-Translations
    Jayati Gupta : Whose Gitanjali is it Anyway?
    Sushobhan Adhikary : Cartoons on Tagore
    Usha Kishore : The Auto-translations of Rabindranath

  Rural Reconstruction and Ecopoetic
    Bipasha Raha : Experiments with Village Welfare
    Debotosh Sinha : Tagore and Rural Reconstruction
    Falguni Piyush Desai : Floriography in Tagore’s Poetry
    Marie Josephine Aruna : ‘Letters’ and Ecopoetics

  Aesthetics, Paintings and Dance Dramas
    Aju Mukhopadhyay : The Poet of Sublime Love
    Raghupathi K V : Aesthetics of Tagore and Sri Aurobindo
    Sudeshna Majumdar : Paintings of Tagore
    Sutapa Chaudhuri : Dance Dramas of Tagore

  Tagore and the Short Story
    Dominic K V : Tagore’s Short Stories
    Mausumi Sen Bhattacharjee : ‘The Hunger of Stones’

  Tagore and Visva-Bharati
    Anindita Chongdar : Anecdotes of Santiniketan
    Debmalya Das : The Visva-Bharati Quarterly
    Subodh Gopal Nandi : The Visva-Bharati Library

Creative Responses

    Sanjukta Dasgupta : Remembering Rabindranath

    Frank Joussen : Tagore and Walt Whitman
    Nuggehalli Pankaja : The Voice of Tagore
    Sanjukta Dasgupta : To Rabindranath
    Shambhobi Ghosh : Yet

  Ahmed A H S : Birthday and other poems
  Anup Maharatna : From ‘The Last Writings’
  Ashoka Sen : Africa
  Barnali Saha : The Vacation (Fiction)
  Naina Dey : Chance Meeting
  Parantap Chakraborty : The Son of Man
  Suranjima Saha : Preamble to a Journey
  Swapna Dutta : The Editor

  Amrit Sen:Behind the Veil & Tagore and Modernity
  Kumaran S : Pathos in the Short Stories of Tagore

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