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Translating Tagore

Tagore has been a favourite with translators and William Radice's translation of his lesser known occasional verse is a distinguished addition to the corpus, says SABYASACHI BHATTACHARYA.

"DAMN Tagore". Thus W. B. Yeats, writing to Sir William Rothenstein in 1935. "We got out three good books, Sturge Moore and I, and then, because he thought it more important to know English than to be a great poet, he brought out sentimental rubbish and wrecked his reputation. Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English." Since then, parallel to Tagore's own efforts, generations of fairly competent translators abroad have Englished his verse and prose.

William Radice's translation of Tagore's brief poems is a distinguished addition to that category of literature. He is not only a translator: this teacher of Bengali language and literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London brings to his task a wealth of knowledge about Tagore's corpus of writings in its cultural and historical context. Radice probably shares with Yeats (whose statement above he does not cite) a certain skepticism about the quality of Tagore's own translations. Radice has offered here his own translations in place of some of the poems Tagore himself translated into English. More of that later.

The collections which have been translated by Radice are Kanika (1899), Lekhan (1927), and a posthumous publication Sphulinga (1945). Tagore himself pointed to the origins of these "particles" of poetry which he called kabitika or verselet. Many of these poems of two to six lines were written in China and Japan on silk fans or handkerchiefs and the like, some were written as a personal note to individuals. "Their chief value is to introduce myself through my own handwriting. But not only through my handwriting: through my swiftly written feeling too. In printed form this kind of personal contact is spoilt - these writings would seem as pallid and futile as an extinguished Chinese lantern." (p. 11) To some extent this judgement is true of some of these poems.

Tagore also pointed to, as far as I remember, another kind of origination of his jottings in this genre. Old Bengali and Sanskrit authors wrote the dwipadi or poems of two lines. The udhbat slokas in Sanskrit and Prakrit, as Radice mentions, form a part of this lineage. Many of the didactic aphorisms in Tagore's Kanika are of this kind.

The poet was rather skeptical of his acolytes' habit of collecting "every verbal scrap" that came from his pen - "Things that belong to the dust should be left to drop." At the same time, he took care to preserve some of these scraps and once took a great deal of trouble to write them in his own hand on special metal plates for reproduction in his own handwriting. That is how Lekhan came to be published. The unconsidered trifles of this genre and verselets written after 1927 were put together four years after his death in Sphulinga.

One cannot be sure whether indeed Tagore looked upon these verselets as trivial and ephemeral. Radice raises the question: "What is their place in world literature? How do they relate to the mass of poetry that we regard as native to the 20th Century?" (p. 26) A perfectly valid question, but I do not quite understand how he answers that. He points to the fact that Tagore represented to his Western readers, at the time he won the Nobel Prize, a kind of counter-culture, "an alternative to their own societies and the modernist literature that they were producing." (p. 26) Radice points to Tagore's deep interest in science (p. 28) and his "clear understanding of literary modernism." (p. 31) Radice seems to suggest that Tagore represents today, at the cusp of the two centuries, something new, "a new kind of classicism" in place of the "collapsed romantic confusion and chaos of the 20th Century." (p. 31) I am not sure if this is the answer to the question about the place of the brief poems in world literature. What rings true is Radice's statement about his own experience of "living with Tagore's brief poems and translating them over the last three years": he felt that "a quality of goodness is what shines forth most strongly. It sets him apart from most other 20th Century poets... That and a sense of mystery." (p. 33)

Finally, as regards the translations Radice made in this book, he took the bold decision to set aside Tagore's own translations. Some of the poems were translated by Tagore experimentally, almost in a playful mood. While Radice's own translations are appropriate, sometimes impeccable, it would have been worthwhile to reproduce side by side Tagore's own translation. Radice's judgement about those is that some of them were alright but some others were "almost nonsensical", or full of unclarities, or so translated as to make it impossible to make out what they "actually mean". (pp. 18-19) On the whole his judgement is that to read those translations by Tagore "is a frustrating business." There may be room for difference of opinion on the relative merits of the translation. Which one is better? "I hear the prayer to the Sun/ from the myriad birds in the forest/ 'Open our eyes'". (Tagore's translation). "O listen, listen/ To the birds in the wood whose cries/ To the Sun say 'Open,/ Open our eyes'" (Radice's translation). To the readers of Tagore, what the author meant to say is in his text, whatever may be the quality of the English. This is why the value of this excellent volume would have been enhanced if Tagore's own translations had been reproduced, wherever such translations are available, along with William Radice's translation.

Particles, Jottings, Sparks: the Collected Brief Poems of Rabindranath Tagore, edited and translated by William Radice, HarperCollins India, 2000, p.202, Rs. 195.

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