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Usha Kishore : The Auto-translations of Rabindranath

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

Rabindranath Tagore (1861 - 1941) was the first writer to put India on the map of World Literature. The Nobel Prize awarded to him in 1913, was the start of recognition for Indian Writing in English, on a global scale. Tagore’s poetry carries transhistorical and transcultural significance as it defines the colonial and postcolonial eras of Indian Writing in English. Tagore primarily wrote in his native Bengali and then translated many of his works into English; subsequently, he started writing in English.

Tagore's work has been coloured by linguistic and cultural prejudices and only when the time and place of his work are considered, can the negative connotation of these prejudices be shed. His work is caught in the complex meshes of tradition, history and modernity. His poetic auto-translations are a creative synthesis that interweaves various cultural strands, incorporating revolutionary ideas and verse forms into the English language.

Tagore’s adoption of English as a literary medium and his use of various vernacular terms in English poetry was not only an assertion against the British Raj, but also a creative synthesis, which can be considered as the fore-runner of the postcolonial interlanguage1. Régine Robin defines “interlanguage” as an imaginary relationship, which the writer maintains with his or her mother tongue and with the other languages, which make up his/her linguistic universe. The linguistic world of Tagore, as in the case of other Indian writers, is a highly complex one. If the term “interlanguage” is applied, then Tagore’s linguistic universe would comprise of his native Bengali, other Indian languages like Urdu, Hindi and Sanskrit and English, the language of the coloniser. Tagore, however, is also seeking to assert himself by his medium of expression and by the creation of Indian English – English, which has been modified and adapted to suit his Indian sensibility. Thus Tagore’s poetry in translation sees the creative use of English, moving away from a Western perspective.

Tagore primarily wrote in Bengali but translated many of his works into English. Over the years, there has been many a debate as to the position of Tagore on the dais of Indian Writing in English. Tagore is undoubtedly a Bengali writer, but he belongs to Indian Literature in English too. In fact, the evolution of Indian Literature in English can be traced by Tagore's initial English translation of his works and his subsequent writing in English. Among his poetic works, translated by himself into English, are Gitanjali

  • The Lover's Gift
  • The Crescent Moon
  • The Fugitive and other poems.

The Child is Tagore’s poem, written in English. In this paper, I have mainly dealt with Tagore's auto-translations as I feel that the translations of other writers would bring in alternative interpretations. However, I have compared Tagore’s auto-translations with the translations of contemporary literary figures.

When translation is discussed, factors like language, culture and colonisation would all have to be addressed. Tagore’s auto-translations have come under fire by critics like Mahasweta Sengupta2 who feel that his English translations do not convey the cultural values of the source language that is Bengali, but cater more towards the target language and culture that is English. Sengupta feels that Tagore has been faithful to the TL (target language) audience in a way, which undermines the source language and culture and this proves to be problematic in the sphere of inter-locking cultural values, particularly those, which are part of the coloniser-colonised dichotomy. Although Tagore is accused of changing style, imagery and tone of the originals, it can be argued that the changes wrought were to suit the TL poetics of Edwardian English. Writing in the early 20th century, Tagore had to cater to his audience in India, in England and the rest of the world. In Tagore’s times, English in India and to a large extent in the rest of the world was a reflection of Edwardian English. Hence, his translations were adopted to suit the target audience. This brings to the forefront, Tagore’s discrepancy within his poetry in two different languages, viz. Bengali and English. This has to be examined within the framework of two entirely different cultural/linguistic systems and their inter-relationships. This takes me back to the introduction of English Literature into the Indian Education. English Literature, along with the medium of English and the English System of Education were all allies of the colonisers "to control the natives, under the guise of a liberal education" according to Gauri Vishwanathan3. But this had its repercussions as it led to the adaptation of the English language within the Indian context. This adaptation of the coloniser's discourse was in fact an act of both assimilation and resistance on the part of writers like Tagore. However, the English Language and Literature that Tagore was exposed to was that of the Edwardian, Romantic and Victorian periods. Hence, his usage of English has been influenced by all these period literatures and styles. The ambiguity in Tagore is the fact that although he disapproved of the imposition of English in India4, he chose to write in the Edwardian repertoire. To a certain extent, Tagore’s auto-translations are adjusted to suit the ideology of the dominating linguistic system of the British Raj. Like other postcolonial writers, Tagore too was aiming at a wider international audience and this was possible only through the medium of English and in order to attain published status in the West, Tagore chooses to aim his translations at the target audience. Hence, there is a symbiotic relationship maintained between the coloniser and the colonised. In the original Bengali version of Gitanjali, Tagore is certainly free of the trappings of an alien cultural and linguistic system and writes “in the colloquial diction of the actual spoken word5.” His translations are in the colonial context, where a colonial self finds expression in a native tongue. To a certain extent, e the adherence of Tagore to Edwardian norms within his auto-translations could be read as a consequence of colonial repression. The intellectual in Tagore perhaps knew that he had to translate within colonial norms in order to reach out to a wider audience. Although the faithfulness of Tagore towards the TL audience is illustrated in the English translation, the content of his poetry is invariably Indian. So, it can be argued that Tagore is translating his Indian cultural consciousness into another linguistic system. Through his translation, Tagore was introducing his themes, ideology and beliefs to a wider audience.

Tagore’s poetry is unique in the fact that the Indian marga (classical) and desi (folk) traditions interact with Western literary doctrines. Tagore’s poetry is a hybrid, incorporating Sufi mysticism, Vaishnavite ideals, Bengali Bau lyrics, Indian myth, folklore and philosophy and significant Western influences including literature and philosophy. Through his English translations, Tagore brings to the West, the mysteries of the East. Hindu literature and philosophy are explicated; at the same time, there is an attempt at unifying Islam and Hinduism. Tagore also revives Sanskrit classics and exports innately Indian themes into the Western context. This can be considered a creative synthesis. Here, the Indian culture becomes “the operational unit6” of Tagore’s auto-translation. The intercultural dimension is effectively exposed as Tagore translates his Indian culture into English, targeting a Western audience. Here, literature operates within the cultural framework. The historic context of this translation also needs to be taken into account. Tagore’s Bengali texts were auto-translated during the colonial period and the original Bengali text emerges from a colonised culture and is transposed through the English translation into the coloniser’s culture. Hence, the text and its translation have a place in both cultures.

Gitanjali7, translated as Offering of Songs, is Tagore’s auto-translation that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Gitanjali is written in prose-poetry, in the form of a monologue. The collection represents the poet’s faith in the unity of man and nature and encompasses both Eastern and Western ideologies. Tagore has preserved the classical Indian tradition of Bhakti and brought contemporaneity to it by his translations into English. Gitanjali can be interpreted in many contexts: the contemporary, the traditional, the reformist, the religious and the political.

Like other texts of Tagore, Gitanjali too shows an attempt to bridge Hinduism and Islam. This Tagorean concept of the confluence of Islam and Hinduism is perhaps a reflection of the continuous religious strife between these two faiths, in India. Tagore blends together, oppositional cultural practices of historically opposed religions that do not advocate integration, but promote rebellion and subversion. This interweaving of religious strands is a result of Tagore's cultural background. Tagore himself says: "I was born in what was once the metropolis of British India. My own ancestors came floating upon the earliest tide of the fluctuating fortune of The East India Company. The unconventional code for our family has been a confluence of three cultures, the Hindu, Mohammedan and British. 8" This is in fact implicit in the Sufi ideology portrayed in Gitanjali. However the Sufism does not occur on its own but is juxtaposed with Hindu ideology. The two centres of Sufi consciousness (Human and Divine) are mingled with the Hindu concept of Atma (self) and Paramatma (divine Self)9:

The day was when I did not keep myself

in readiness for thee; and entering my
heart unbidden even as one of the common
crowd, unknown to me, my king, thou
didst press the signet of eternity upon
many a fleeting moment of my life10.

The Sufi concept of “Thee and Me” as in God and Man has parallels with the Hindu Bhakti concept of addressing God as King/Master and Man as his subject/servant. The all-supreme formless God of Sufism/Islam intermingles with the Vaishnavite personal God. The mysticism and the contemplation of the nature of God and the synthesis of the personal and cosmic aspects of Divine Nature may be due to the influence of the Bhakti poet, Kabir11. The Sufi direct approach to God, its Universality, brotherhood of man, the passage of time during the travel of man in search of his divine lover, the identity of the self with the Supreme Self and the concept of God as King are all scattered in the lines of Gitanjali.

Gitanjali can also be read from a desi (Indian folk tradition) point of view as it epitomises the Bengali Baul concept of the eternal homeless wanderer, who searches for God, in synchronisation with the Universe:

Clouds heap upon clouds and it darkens,

Ah, love, why dost thou let me wait out-
side at the door all alone…
…I keep gazing on the far-away gloom
of the sky, and my heart wanders wailing
with the restless wind12.

The Baul philosophy of the body as a temple, in whose mystic shrine, the Divine appears before the soul is the desi interpretation of the Indian marga ideology of Tatvamasi. This also can be interpreted as the elaboration of the various Vaishnavite approaches to God – God as father, God as king and God as beloved:

…thou who art the King

of kings hast decked thyself in beauty to
captivate my heart. And for this thy love
loses itself in the love of thy lover, and there
art thou seen in the perfect union of two13.

The portrayal of love in Tagore's poems is again based on the Bhakti concept, which in itself is a hybrid of the desi and marga traditions. Love for the divine is manifested in conjugal love, fraternal and paternal love and affection between friends. Tagore’s poetry follows the Prema Bhakti shaka (or branch) that sees God as the lover.

The Hindu Advaita14 (non-dualism) tendency of seeking God in oneself, the concept of the Cosmic Lila, where God seeks man and the attraction between the finite and the infinite are also pictured:

Deliverance? Where is deliverance

to be found? Our master himself has joy-
fully taken upon him the bonds of creation;
he is bound with us all for ever15.

The Eco-mystical concept of seeing God in forms of nature is another Vaishanavite element, which is effectively highlighted by Tagore. Tagore was influenced by the Vaishanavite poets of Bengal like Jayadeva and Krishna Chaitanya. This idea of Krishna, the divine flute-player repeats itself in Gitanjali:

This little flute of reed thou hast

carried over hills and dales, and hast
breathed through it melodies eternally new.

The Prakriti-Purusha dichotomy contemplated in Tagore's works is based on nature (Prakriti) and the supernatural (Purusha). This idea is not a simple binary opposition but two equally important aspects of transcendent reality:

Thou art the sky and thou art the nest
as well.
O thou beautiful, there in the nest it
is thy love that encloses the soul with
colours and sounds and odours.
…But there, where spreads the infinite
sky for the soul to take her flight in, reigns
the stainless white radiance. There is no
day nor night, nor form nor colour, and
never, never a word.17

Thus, the verses of Gitanjali projects internal hybridity - a mixture of various strands of Hindu and Islamic thought. What is intriguing is not only the hybridity of Gitanjali, but also the fact that the medium of expression is English, which can be considered a hybrid in its own right. Tagore engages in a new and different linguistic process, outside the boundaries of "English". Therefore, he paves the way for a new hybrid, literary identity.

Tagore's poetry and his subsequent English translations are a dialogue between his past and present. He brings to light the past in the form of ancient Hindu thought and tradition, in the guise of ancient Indian poets like Kalidasa, Krishna Chaitanya, and links them to Western philosophy and Sufi thought. Tagore's work can also be perceived as literature that brings history to every age. The preserving of classics like Kalidasa 18(the Sanskrit poet of the marga or classical repertoire) is a living cultural tradition in India and Tagore acknowledges classics as examples and passes them down to the next generation. Tagore’s Meghaduta (Cloud Messenger) is a transcreation of Kalidasa's poem of the same name. Like Kalidasa, Tagore too, is traditionalist and romantic. The description of flora and fauna, the seasons, especially the monsoons, in Tagore's poetry is a direct inheritance of Kalidasa. Tagore's descriptions of the bakula, the ketaki and kadamba trees and the malati flowers seem to be straight out of Kalidasa's Ritusamhara (The Garland of Seasons). Tagore's observation of nature, his skill in depicting the Indian landscape in vivid colours, his concept of man and nature interpenetrating each other are very much Kalidasanesque. In his ode to Kalidasa, Tagore says:

…joys are not lacking to this
spring, though Kalidas sing no more; and I know, if he
can watch me from the Poet’s Paradise, he has reasons
to be envious. 19

Tagore’s "Urvashi"20 can also be considered a descendant of Kalidasa's Vikramorvashiyam (Urvashi won by valour). Tagore’s "Urvashi" has often been compared with Keats’s "La Belle dame sans Merci". Both women are enchantresses who destroy men. Urvashi is “neither mother, nor daughter, nor bride”, who rises from the sea with the cup of life in her right hand and poison in her left, while La Belle Dame with her “long hair, light foot and wild eyes”, leaves “death-pale” warriors, kings and princes in her wake. This is how Tagore portrays Urvashi:

Neither mother nor daughter are you, nor bride,
Urvashi. Woman you are to ravish the soul of
The world bathes your limbs in her tears; with colour of her
Heart’s blood are your feet red; lightly you poise on the
wave –tossed lotus of desire…21

Tagore’s innate Indian sensibility is brought out in the English translation. Indian myths like that of the above-mentioned Urvashi are revived. Indian characters like Raidas the sweeper, Kashi the singer, Rajah (king) Pratap and boatman Madhu and their significance in society are introduced to the Western audience through the narrative of poetry22. One such illustration is Verse XVII of The Gardener:

The name of our village is Khanjana, and Anjana
they call our river.
My name is known to the village, and her name
is Ranjana.

Other Indian religions like Buddhism too are highlighted in Tagore’s poetry. Verse XXXVII of Fruit-Gathering elaborates the story of Upagupta24, the Buddhist monk and the dancing girl. The rigorous asceticism and celibacy practised by the Buddhist monks are highlighted:

“Forgive me, young ascetic,” said the woman:
“graciously come to my house. The dusty earth is not
a fit bed for you.”
The ascetic answered, “Woman, go on your way;
When the time is ripe I will come to you.”

It is well known that Upagupta nurses the dancing girl, during her last moments.This poem throws light on the compassion of Buddhist monks and their rigorous celibate lifestyle.

Tagore has thus successfully translated the cultural consciousness of India into the English language. His poetry enables Western audiences to get a picture of the cultural diversity within India. Tagore may have shaped his translations according to the linguistic paradigms of imperialist Britain, but there was no compromise as far as the cultural element is concerned. This is an articulation of a complex Indian culture into the colonial linguistic and cultural system. This was perhaps a pioneering effort to build up a transcultural/translinguistic canon. If Tagore’s translations are tested on a culturally oriented touchstone, they can be considered bridging the gap between the two cultures. The source culture is transferred to the target culture by the target language. The essence of the East is thus brought to the West. Here, the cultural difference is a positive point as a new dimension is given to a colonised culture through the translation and enables the colonising culture to see beyond its political supremacy. This is a transfer of Indian thought and sensibility across linguistic and cultural boundaries. In postcolonial terms, I would say that Tagore’s translations are an assertion of Indian culture and a form of resistance as they project a complex heterogeneous cultural system as opposed to the homogeneity imposed by English and the Empire. The marginalised culture is thus projected to the dominant culture and paradoxically awarded with a Nobel Prize.

Tagore’s auto-translations, analysed within the cultural context fit in perfectly with the then orientalist notions of the West. This reflects the contemporary Western pre-occupation with the Orient and its mysticism as elaborated by Edward Said25. The pre-occupations with the East and the romantic assumptions about new cultures seem to be a prominent feature of the Edwardian Era and Tagore fitted the stereotype of the mystic East in the minds of the colonisers. His was “a voice that spoke of the peace and tranquillity of a distant world26” and an escape from the materialism of the contemporary West.

Tagore was very popular in the West, immediately after the publication of Gitanjali and the Nobel Prize. The West accepted Tagore as a mystic prophet, bringing the message of peace and spirituality to conflict ridden Pre-World War I Europe. Tagore’s translations fitted the Western stereotype of eastern mysticism. The West appreciated his work as an Eastern enigma and Tagore formed another basis of “the already existing superstructure of orientalism; he became a representative of the alluring ‘Other’. 27” At this point, I agree with Sengupta that cultural imperialism was exercised in the acceptance of Tagore by the fact that he was considered an extension of the Christian missionaries, who were freeing the natives from their bondage of tradition and history. The hegemony of British Raj is transferred to the cultural context by naturalising the native poet, Tagore as part of or an extension of the Empire. As a result, the cultural difference and the Indian sensibility within in the auto-translations were ignored in Tagore’s time. Sengupta28 feels that Tagore’s use of Edwardian linguistic norms made him part of the structure of imperial power. Hence, Tagore succumbed to the Western stereotype of the East and accepted the type-cast of the age - the mystic philosopher - in order to be hailed as a poet. On one hand, this argument can be sustained. The writer in Tagore had to succumb to the imperial pressure, in order to achieve world-wide readership. At this point, the historic context of his auto-translations and the political factors surrounding them also need to be considered.

Subsequently, Tagore’s Western popularity waned with his returning of his knighthood in the wake of the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre and his lecturing against imperialism and nationalism. The Western reaction prompted a mirrored Indian response. However, since the late 1960s, there has been many an attempt to revive Tagore, both at home and abroad.

The cultural aspect of his translations seems to be ignored by many of Tagore’s critics, Eastern and Western. The presentation of Indian culture, landscape and language to the West was a pioneering attempt. Here, the Indian culture becomes the operational unit of the translation. Tagore introduces the source culture, which is Bengali/Indian to the target culture, which is British. Tagore is in fact creating in English a national literature with its own cultural paradigms. Unfortunately, in Tgaore’s time, the national literature and its cultural paradigms operated under imperial control. The linguistic and stylistic elements were dictated by imperial norms, which had to be adhered to for the sake of a wider audience. Tagore’s auto- translations cannot be considered solely target oriented as only the linguistic norms are TL oriented, the cultural norms are very much source-oriented. Here, the translator is not a reader, he is also the re-writer of the original text. Hence, Tagore’s auto-translations could be considered authentic as he has interpreted his cultural paradigms to the target audience, in the best possible way under the circumstances. Here, the source language and target language are entirely different and hence the language chosen by the translator was that of his contemporary target audience. Although, Tagore complied with a linguistic stereotype, eastern mysticism, culture and religion seep through his auto-translations, which also gave him a pan-Indian readership. Tagore thus creates a national identity in colonial India, using the medium of English. You can see revivalism in the fact that Indian culture is translated to English (which was and is a pan-Indian language) and promotes nationalism within the Raj. A national culture is thus developed within the embryonic nationhood of India. Tagore’s is a culturally oriented approach to translation, rather than a linguistically oriented one. His auto-translations create a historic relationship between translation and literary rhetoric. Cultural difference is conveyed to his Western audience, while cultural unity that is projected to Indian readers. Tagore creates a poetic identity that explores the potential for cross-cultural contact in historical, political, cultural, linguistic and literary spheres. In doing so, his translations become a contested site that cuts across the binary opposition of coloniser and colonised. Here, the idea of the “contact zone29” can be discussed. Tagore’s translated text can be considered a space, where cultures previously separated come together and establish ongoing relations. This Tagorean contact zone has grown out of colonial domination and becomes a historic meeting place of inter and intra-cultural exchange and is contributory to the formation of a national culture within India. It is to be understood that Tagore was therefore multilingual and multicultural. The culture immediately around him was very much Indian and not British. The Western culture seeped into India, through the Raj and certainly Tagore has absorbed some elements of it. But, his translations in English clearly signal the “Otherness” or Indianness of his culture. This makes Tagore’s English, a hybrid. Tagore translates his texts from Bengali to English and at the same time, interprets his Bengali/Indian culture to the international audience. Hence, his is a cross-cultural translation.

In the poetry of Tagore, one can glimpse the dynamic relationship between a writer and the cultures surrounding him. Tagore is an epitome of what could be defined as confluent cultural identity. Some of the characteristics of this confluent cultural identity are as following: living in one culture but being aware of the many others surrounding it, engaging in intra-regional cultural exchange and fully being aware of the unifying factor of oppression, viz.the British Raj .This confluent identity is aware of differences and at the same time, maintains its own integrity. This identity negotiates a space for itself in the multicultural, multilingual congregation that is India. This confluent identity also displays an assimilatory temperament that anticipates the possibilities of postcolonialism. The poet negotiates his identity amidst the dynamic and eclectic Indian culture and carves a space with border crossings and exchange. Taking all these factors into account, Tagore’s translations can be considered a creative cultural synthesis.

Many Indian critics including the ardent Tagore enthusiast, K.R.S. Iyengar 30 have heavily criticised Tagore’s use of language in his auto-translations. Krishna Kripalani feels that, "the author's own attempt was suicidal; ours can only be murderous." Iyengar concludes that the English versions lose the Bengali music and exuberance. The idea of Buddhadeva Bose31 that the readers have to learn Bengali to appreciate Tagore's greatness, seems at times ridiculous. To appreciate literature in a multicultural/multilinguistic world, English translations are the only plausible solution.

Many writers, Indian and Western, have translated Tagore. Among the Indians, the translations of Aurobindo Bose, Krishna Kripalani, Amiya Chakravarthy and Sisir Kumar Das are prominent. Translations of Tagore by William Radice 32 (1985) and Ketaki Kushari Dyson 33 (1992) and Joe Winter (2000)34 have also been circulating internationally, in recent times. The translations of Ketaki Kushari Dyson and William Radice brought a new wave of Tagore enthusiasm.

Many of Tagore’s translators like Kushari Dyson, Mahasweta Sengupta and William Radice criticise Tagore’s auto-translations for altering the style, imagery, tone of lyric, register of language and diction of the original Bengali verse. They feel that Tagore’s adherence to the TL has resulted in not transferring the superb lyrical qualities of his Bengali verse into English.

At this point, I would like to compare Tagore’s auto-translations with that of William Radice and Mahasweta Sengupta. Radice’s translation of “The Broken Song” appears in his Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems, while Tagore’s auto-translation forms Verse XXX of The Fugitive and Other Poems.

Tagore’s translation – Verse XXX:

The crowd listens in wonder to Kashi, the young singer,
whose voice, like a sword in feats of skill, dances
amidst hopeless tangles, cuts them to pieces, and exults.

Radice’s translation – “The Broken Song”:

Kasinath the new young singer fills the hall with sound:
The seven notes dance in his throat like seven tame birds.
His voice is a sharp sword slicing and thrusting everywhere,
It darts like lightning – no knowing where it will go when.

If both these verses are compared, it can be ascertained that Tagore’s auto-translation is a good competitor to Radice’s translation. Tagore’s translation can be considered an interpretation, while Radice’s version is perhaps more literal, transferring the literary/linguistic aspects in the Bengali original like similes and metaphors into English. Again, Tagore’s version is prosaic, while Radice’s version adheres to verse form. The presentation of the Indian court-singer is very similar in both the translations. The cultural comparison of the voice of the singer to a sword is certainly Indian. However, Tagore’s translation seems to create more atmosphere than Radice’s.

Another comparison, I would like to make is Tagore’s translation of Verse V of Gitanjali with that of Mahasweta Sengupta.

Tagore’s auto-translation:

I ask for a moment’s indulgence to sit by thy side. The
works that I have in hand I will finish afterwards.
Away from the sight of thy face my heart knows no
rest or respite, and my work becomes an endless toil
in a shoreless sea of toil.

Sengupta’s translation:

Let me sit near you only for a little while
The work I have in my hands
I will finish later.
If I do not look at your face,
My heart finds no peace;
The more I plunge myself in work,
I wander in a sea that has lost its shores.

In Tagore’s version, the tone of the lyric, the imagery and diction is different from that of the original Bengali. Once again, Tagore’s version is a strong competitor. Tagore seems to be experimenting rather successfully in prosaic verse. Here, the imagery in Tagore’s version is very powerful and evokes a great atmosphere. Tagore’s critics seem to be dwelling on his language. But the fact that, Tagore’s ideology and cultural elements are expertly transferred to his English verse from Bengali, seems to be conveniently and constantly ignored. I agree with André Lefevere35 that “translation is one of the most obvious forms of image making”. It is responsible for the projection of the image of a work, the writer and the culture to the target audience. Translation is not simply transliteration, it is also the interpretation, especially when cross-cultural elements are signified. Tagore’s translations certainly project the image of India and Bengal in the minds of his wider audience. The language in the verse, although summative is not totally out of tune as accused by his critics. It is to be noted that an Indian sensibility is translated into the English language and adherence to structural elements often not possible.

Many of Tagore’s Britain-based translators want to give his poetry, an English form and style. Tagore’s use of Indian English and his prosaic, free-verse style, similar to that of Walt Whitman, does not seemingly appeal to a British audience. In Britain, where the colonial spirit is yet to be exorcised, Tagore’s own translations have been doomed as unsatisfactory and his phraseology considered unsuitable for the English reader. William Radice says in his "Introduction"36 to Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems that Tagore’s translations are unsatisfactory and that “any English reader will be worried by phrases such as ‘My Darling’, ‘the speech of the learned’, and ‘alas for me’." This criticism poses many questions. Isn't this so-called concern of the English readers, perpetuating superiority of some cultures, over others? Or is it just a Western sensitivity to tone and idiom? These comments are grounded on a set of assumptions that impose Western norms for the translation of non-Western cultures into Western categories37.

Tagore was one of the Indian pioneers of English translations. While translating between cultures, the problems facing Tagore were greater than those faced by translators, today. Before Tagore’s Gitanjali, there were very few Indian writers, whose works have been acknowledged/accepted by the West. Hence, Tagore’s attempt was more cross-cultural than linguistic. Tagore was in fact introducing his Indianness to an Edwardian audience. There is a great difference between contemporary language systems and the ones in Tagore’s times; Indian English was still in embryonic form, hence Tagore had to adapt the language of the Edwardians. The other noteworthy factor is that in Tagore’s auto-translations, there is no conflict between the author and translator. Therefore, Tagore’s translations are indeed multi-dimensional as far as language and culture are concerned. His translations cannot be primarily considered from a linguistic point of view. The implicit cultural, political and ideological aspects need to be addressed within the historic context.

Radice’s comments certainly reflect the confrontation between two cultural realities. The fact that Tagore's English signalled the birth of a powerful inter-language that is today's Indian English, seems to be overlooked. The use of phrases like "My darling" has to be put in the period and location of Tagore's writings and its influences and not to be dismissed as bad usage of Queen's English. The address of the beloved as "darling, can be attributed to the influence of Bhakti literature, where God as beloved is addressed as “darling” and “beloved”. This can also point to the nativisation of the English tongue by the Indians, which cannot be ignored. Tagore was one of the first to conduct this experiment.

The usage of non-standard English words, the importation of indigenous words into English and the use of established English equivalents of indigenous cultural concepts all serve to facilitate the intercultural transposition38. A perfect homology is impossible between text and translation. The translator has to make additions and omissions to suit the receptor language meanings. The differences between text and translation are susceptible to cultural basis. At the same time, some indigenous elements need to be present in the translation in order to transfer the cultural ideology of the source text. Isn't the translation of a literary work from a different culture meant to be sharing the customs, traditions and contexts or is it just a linguistic exercise? One is forced to quote Salman Rushdie, here -"We can't simply use the language, the way the British did… it needs remaking for our own purposes39". This relexification of the English language is another of Tagore's experiments. Tagore's language falls into the linguistic code of "englishes" as defined by Ashcroft, Tiffin and Griffiths40 - an "english" which has been transformed and appropriated to move away from the centre of “English”. Tagore does not show a linguistic alienation, which is typical of postcolonial writing; on the contrary, he seems to be to be quite at home with the wonderful mixture of Indian sensibility and the English lexis.

Although the new translations give new interpretations of the text and add colour to the poetry of Tagore, they seem to be imposing Western standards to an Indian text. However praiseworthy the wonderful sense of contemporary poetry in the translations of both Kushari Dyson and Radice is, one wonders why the original translations of Tagore should be totally ignored. We would certainly be doing both Tagore and Indian Writing in English a disfavour by not appreciating Tagore’s own translations. These new translations cannot be ignored either. They could certainly be compared with Tagore's originals and used to highlight the sensitive grounds of cultural exchange and to promote understanding of the context and evolution of cultural identity and difference. The linguistic difference, the historical situation and the cross-cultural transaction need to be addressed before dismissing Tagore's English as unsuitable for "English" consumption. The inter-cultural and intra-cultural dialogues in Tagore's poetry have to be inspected and the concept of "translating consciousness”, needs to be taken into account as the West conceptualises an eastern culture.

At this juncture, it is worth mentioning that to the Indians, English was the legacy of colonialism; but over time, it has acquired its own indigenous colours. English came to India with the British Raj, as a representative of the bourgeois culture. The imperial language has been internalised and used as an effective medium to portray a multifarious, Indian sensibility. Perhaps, the current shift of paradigm away from Eurocentricism, towards Ethnic Writing in English will enable the international reader to understand and appreciate the auto-translations of Tagore as a milestone in the history of Indian Poetry in English.

Whilst fully understanding the social, cultural and political implications of using a foreign language for expression, Tagore himself has paved the way for the school of thought that English is not necessarily for imparting Western traditions. To him, "the medium is non-native, but the message is not41 ." Tagore’s English also becomes a linguistic tool, here, which is very different to the native linguistic tools and traditions. Tagore is just moulding his language for a wider audience and at the same time, transferring the Indian culture into the English context. To a certain extent, the English language is appropriated42 to express widely differing cultural experiences. The language thus becomes a cultural mode of resistance in the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore.

1 Régine Robin’s definition of “interlanguage” cited in Sherry Simon, “Translating and interlingual

creation in the contact zone- Border writing in Quebec”, in Susan Bassnett and Harish Trivedi eds.
Post-Colonial Translation: Theory and Practice, London: Routledge, 1999. p. 70 – 71.

2 Mahasweta Sengupta, “Translation, Colonialism and Poetics: Rabindranath Tagore in Two Worlds”, in Susan Bassnett and André Lefevere eds. Translation, History and Culture, London: Pinter Publishers,1990.

3 Gauri Vishwanathan, "The Beginnings of English Literary Study in India " in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, eds., The Post-Colonial Studies Reader . London: Routledge, 1995. p.431-438.

4 Mahasweta Sengupta, “Translation, Colonialism and Poetics: Rabindranath Tagore in Two Worlds”, Translation, History and Culture .p.58-59.

5 Ibid

6 André Lefevere and Susan Bassnett in the “Introduction” to Translation, History and Culture.

7 Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, with an Introduction by W.B.Yeats, London: Macmillan and Co Ltd, 1913. (This Edition, 1987).

8 Rabindranath Tagore, The Religion of Man, London: Unwin Paperbacks, Revised Edition, 1988. p.105.

9 Atma (self) and Paramatma (Super self): This concept of Hindu Advaita (non-dualism) where the Super self or God resides in the self or soul can be traced back to the Vedic age 2000 -1200 BC. This came into prominence during the time of the Hindu philosopher Sankaracharya (AD 788 -828). Tagore combines this with the two Sufi centres of Consciousness - Human and Divine.

10 Gitanjali. Verse XLIII. pp.25 -26.

11 Kabir (1400 -1518) religious/social reformer and poet of the Bhakti Age. Kabir is a Hindu Brahmin by birth, brought up as a Muslim weaver. Kabir is fittingly described as the Indian Luther of the 15th century. Tagore was influenced by Kabir's philosophy and has translated Kabir from Hindi to English- One Hundred Poems of Kabir. (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd. 1915.)

12 Gitanjali. Verse XVIII. p.11.

13 Ibid. Verse LVI. p.37.

14 This concept of Hindu Advaita (non-dualism) where the Super self or God resides in the self or soul can be traced back to the Vedic age 2000 -1200 BC. This came into prominence during the time of the Hindu philosopher Sankaracharya (AD 788 -828). Tagore combines this with the two Sufi centres of Consciousness - Human and Divine.

15 GItanjali. Verse XI. pp.6 -7.

16 Gitanjali, Verse I. p.1.

17 GItanjali., Verse LXVII p.45.

18 Kalidasa - The Classical Sanskrit poet and playwright Kalidasa. Like many other ancient Indian poets, Kalidasa's life history seems to be shrouded in controversy. His life-time is debated to be in the BCs and the ADs. This is because he was the court poet of one King Vikramaditya. Kings of this name have been traced in the BCs and the ADs. His prolific works include : Shakunthalam, Raghvamsham, Ritusamharam, Kumarasambhavam and Meghadhutam. Kalidasa is well known for his descriptions of nature.

19 Rabindrananth Tagore, The Fugitive and Other Poems, in Collected Poems and Plays of Rabindranath Tagore, Madras: Macmillan IndiaLtd. 1991. Verse IX. P.407-408.

20 Urvashi - The beautiful heavenly nymph of Hindu mythology. She is considered to be the court dancer of Indra - the King of Gods. Tagore has written a poem on Urvashi, which is supposed to be influenced by Kalidasa's Vikramorvashiyam (Urvashi won by valour). This is the story of Urvashi and the Indian King Pururavas.

21 The Fugitive and Other Poems. Verse XI , Collected Poems and Plays of Rabindranath Tagore, p.409-410.

22 Collected Poems and Plays of Rabindranath Tagore,

23 Ibid. p.103 -104.

24 Ibid. p.194-195

25 Edward.W.Said, Orientalism, London: Penguin Books, 1978.

26 Mahasweta Sengupta, “Translation, Colonialism and Poetics”: Rabindranath Tagore in Two Worlds”. p.58-59.

27 Ibid. p62.

28 Mahasweta Sengupta, “Translation, Colonialism and Poetics”: Rabindranath Tagore in Two Worlds”.

29 Cited in Sherry Simon, “Translating and interlingual creation in the contact zone- Border writing in
Quebec”. Post-Colonial Translation: Theory and Practice.

30 K.R.S.Iyengar: Rabindranath Tagore - A Critical Introduction, London :Oriental University Press, 1986. p.p.31-32.

31 Harish Trivedi in “Introduction” to Edward Thompson, Rabindranath Tagore: Poet and Dramatist, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, Revised Edition, 1991. p.a1 -a3.

32 Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems – Translated by William Radice, London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1985.

33 Rabindranath Tagore: I Won’t Let You Go – Selected Poems - Translated by Ketaki Kushari Dyson; UK: UBSPD Ltd, 1995.

34 Rabindranath Tagore: Song Offerings (Gitanjali) - translated by Joe Winter; Calcutta Anvil Press Poetry, 2000.

35 André Lefevere, “Translation:Its Geneology in the West” in Translation, History and Culture.

36 William Radice, one of Tagore’s translators says in his introduction to Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems – Translated by William Radice that Tagore’s translations are unsatisfactory and that “any English reader will be worried by phrases such as ‘My Darling’, ‘the speech of the learned’, ‘Alas for me’. p. 31.

37 André Lefevere: "Composing the Other" in Susan Bassnett and Harish Trivedi eds. Post-Colonial Translation - Theory and Practice London: Routledge, 1999. p. 75 - 94.

38 Maria Tymoczko: "Post-colonial writing and Literary translation" in eds. Post-Colonial Translation - Theory and Practice p.p.23 -26.

39 G.J.V. Prasad: "Writing Translation: The Strange Case of the Indian English Novel" in
Post-Colonial Translation-Theory and Practice. p.41.

40 Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin: The Empire Writes Back, General Editor-Terence Hawkes. London: Routledge, 1989. (This Edition,1998) p. 8.

41 Braj.B.Kachru : "The Alchemy of English" in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin eds., The Post-colonial Studies Reader, London: Routledge, 1995. (Reprinted 1997) p. 294.

42 Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin: The Empire Writes Back. p.39.

Usha Kishore



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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