On translating Tagore

Robert Frost once famously quipped that what was left behind was poetry, what translated, was in fact prose. Judging by this austere parameter, you could very easily argue that attempting to translate poetry is a perilous act. Jorge Luis Borges took the diametrically opposite view when he asserted that translations of poetry are in no way inferior to originals, only completely different.

For the most part I am inclined to agree with Frost, in particular when it comes to the translation of poetry from Bangla to English. Part of the difficulty is inherent in the language and cannot be circumvented easily by any translator: for example, Bangla, like many other Indic languages has three forms of “you” (aapni, tumi, tui) complete with complementary verbs, but no pronoun or verb form that distinguishes between the male and female “him” or “her”. But there is more that lies beyond the nuances of language and the mechanics of meter and rhythm. Words in languages have meanings with specific cultural connotations; they tap into unique symbolism which cannot be transferred. For example, because Bengal is inextricably linked to its rivers, words associated with their waters are metaphors for life, love, sorrow, and loss.

The “problem” is compounded further when you audaciously attempt to translate Rabindranath Tagore, whose mastery of words and rhyme are unparalleled in the Bangla language. I have come to the conclusion that it is simply impossible to convey an iota of the feeling expressed in his original poems and songs in any other language. Should you then resist the temptation to translate Tagore?

George Steiner in After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation argues forcefully that since language can only imperfectly express thoughts and ideas, all speech, even speech considered original, is translation, and that “attacks on the translation of poetry are simply the barbed edge of the general assertion that no language can be translated without fundamental loss.” In essence, what he is saying is that translations provoke our sentiments because we emphasize territoriality over languages and their incipient totems.

This leads to an obvious question: is the act of translating poetry useful?

Well, it certainly is useful to the translator. If I experience the majestic grandeur of a sunrise from a mountain-top, I am not dissuaded from sharing a glimpse of it in a photograph, even though the photograph cannot capture the thrill of being there. I perceive translation done with integrity to be similar. I was there when I read the poem, and my translation is a snapshot of it. Of course, by translating it, I changed it: I added filters of words and connotations, but it gave me pleasure to share it, even though it pales in comparison to the original. Isn’t the desire to share what is perceived as beautiful, universal?

Songs have an added layer beyond words. They are masterful, even if you don’t understand the language. Nearly 100 years ago, Prince Wilhelm of Sweden visited Jorasanko, the home of the Tagores, and was fortunate enough to listen to a private concert put together in his honor. Of this experience he writes in a memoir, “Seldom or never have I been present at a moment so instinct with feeling; it actually brought tears to one’s eyes, and one scarcely dared to breathe for fear of breaking the spell.”

Lines linger and often serve as bridges between others. Repetition and cadence add richness to meaning. I am certainly not the first to say so, but I do think that it is appropriate to represent songs, even in translation, not as they are written in their original language, but as they are sung. In listening to one of Tagore’s songs that is very close to my heart, today I had the wild temerity to attempt to translate it. I encourage you to view it from my perspective- as Vasco Núñez de Balboa looking for the first time at the wonders of the Pacific Ocean. But if you understand Bangla, the language in which it was meant to be seen, you really should visit it firsthand instead of looking at my discolored snapshot.


Into the flow of this mournful breeze, tender blossoms wither

I have picked them up; I have placed them at your feet
Take them, take them in your caring hands

When I am gone, they will blossom in your lap
When I am gone, they will blossom in your lap
Let the fingers you use to weave garlands
Remember me in sweet sorrow.

Into the flow of this mournful breeze, tender blossoms wither

The four-note koel cries of futile pain on this enchanted, sleepless night
The four-note koel cries of futile pain on this enchanted, sleepless night
The two of us whispering carefree words
The two of us longing desperately to be united

Lost… All is lost in a stream of moonlight on this dol purnima night!
Their traces will remain to be woven into a garland
For another day, for an afternoon you will spend absentmindedly.

Into the flow of this mournful breeze, tender blossoms wither


(A version of this post appeared earlier as a column).


One thought on “On translating Tagore

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s