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On Translating
Rabindranath Tagore and Others


One can divide translators into two groups. The first group is made up of those whose chief literary activity is translation. Many of them are professional translators. A few illustrious examples from the world of Anglophone letters are Constance Garnett, whose translations of the great nineteenth century Russian novelists influenced several generations of readers and writers; Helen Lowe-Porter, the authorized translator of Thomas Mann; Gregory Rabassa, translator of Garcia Marquez. To the second group belong poets and writers who do translations as a supplementary literary activity: Dryden and Pope, who translated Homer; and among contemporaries, the poets Michael hamburger, a translator from German, and Richard Howard, who translates from French. I would like to place myself in the second group.

My primary literary activity is as an Anglophone poet and essayist. The reason is that my education, first in English-medium schools and then in university English departments at home and abroad, has led me to adopt English as my literary language. This happens to be the case with many Third World writers today. At the same time I have a fair acquaintance with the literature in my mother tongue, Bangla, and many poems, essays and fictional works in the language are among my favourites. I also count a number of writers in Bangla among my closest friends. I like to think that we belong to the same literary milieu. It is therefore only natural that I should try to build a bridge between my two literary worlds through translation. Other Anglophone writers in the subcontinent have done the same, for instance A.K. Ramanujan through his celebrated translations from Tamil and Kannada. Nissim Ezekiel collaborated on translations from Marathi, and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra has translated from Hindi.

My first attempts at translation were of poems by Shaheed Quaderi, Shamsur Rahman, Rafiq Azad. The Selected Poems of Shamsur Rahman (Pathak Samabesh) is in its second edition. A substantial Selected Poems of Shaheed Quaderi is in the works. I came rather late to the translation of prose. It began when an old school-friend handed me the Vilayetnama, the late Profesor Habibullah's Bangla translation of the Persian Shigurfnama-e-Vilayet, the first book about the West by a Southasian, who happened to be my friend's ancestor. I was fascinated by the narrative, the work of a pre-colonial Indian mind, and decided to produce a modern English version. It was published by Peepal Tree Press, Leeds, and subsequently by Chroniclebooks, Delhi, and has been used as a course text at Warwick University in England and Vanderbilt University in the USA.

Like every Bengali boy I had my first taste of Rabindranath from poems and stories in school anthologies. In adolescence and youth I went through Galpaguchha and his most famous novel Shesher Kabita of course. My first Tagore-related writing was a review in London Magazine of the selections of his short stories translated by William Radice (Penguin Books) and Krishna Datta and Mary Lago (Macmillan). I praised the former and panned the latter.

Then, during a summer vacation, I read all of Rabindranath's novels and novellas. I read them chronologically. What a literary feast! They are not all of the same merit; some are seriously flawed; but in their varied totality they present a vivid and indispensable portrait of Bengali society over half a century. Of these dozen or so texts the one that produced the most powerful impression on me was also one of the shortest, the novella Chaturanga. It bowled me over completely. And I decided at once to see what I could make of it in an English version. The Bangla title refers to the four arms of the traditional Indian army, the infantry, cavalry, charioteers and elephant-mounted troops; by extension it can mean anything divided into four parts. The four parts of the novella are named after four of the principal characters: Uncle (Jyathamoshai), Sachish, Damini and the narrator Sribilash. It records the evolution of the personalities of Sribilash and Sachish in response to the dramatic unfolding of conflicts between western atheistic humanism and orthodox Hinduism, between humanism and Indian devotional cults, between mysticism and the demands of the life-force.

Sachish's uncle, Jagmohan, is a staunch atheist, humanist and Utilitarian. As Rabindranath's autobiography reveals, such personages were a lively presence in the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century. By contrast, Sachish's father Harimohan and elder brother Purandar, in their greed and hypocritical piety embody all that is wrong with traditional Hindu society. Sachish starts off as a clone of Jagmohan, but the shock of the latter's death drives him into the arms of the dubious guru Swami Lilananda. However incredible the conversion may appear, it is both psychologically and historically plausible. The psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar has explained that the Indian tendency to withdraw into mysticism (or, for that matter, political extremism) has its source in an underdeveloped ego, which needs the buttress of stable family and caste relationships. When these supports are threatened one feels totally lost and is likely to opt for irrational solutions to life's problems. In Sachish's case caste, religion and parents are renounced without loss of equilibrium because his uncle Jagmohan takes their place. But Jagmohan's death leaves him an easy prey to the lure of a devotional cult. Historically, the Indian humanists underwent a crisis at the turn of the nineteenth century, when they found that human problems were not particularly amenable to a positivist approach. Many of them turned round like Sachish.

Atheist humanism, orthodox Hinduism, the cult of ecstasy, Sachish's independent venture into mysticism, all are ultimately rejected. The deviation from linear narrative in the latter parts succeeds in capturing the novella's rising emotional intensity, and in convincingly projecting an idea of the good life through a tender love story. Sribilash is seemingly ordinary but is actually highly intelligent and of great integrity. He and Damini, the life-force personified, unpretentiously fulfil their commitments to themselves, their kinsfolk, friends and fellow citizens. Perhaps that is all one should expect from human beings. Sachish too returns to social work but without the aggressive propagandizing of the past.

I translated Chaturanga in a state of feverish excitement. For title I chose Quartet. I had no translation theory to apply. I kept rereading the text, resorting to a number of dictionaries and reference works, discussing problems with friends, and tried to capture the sense as well as emotional tenor of the original in my English version. Translation is just another form of writing, and as with anything else I write, here too I read out every sentence to myself and tried to make it sound right. The greatest difficulty was with the sections dealing with Sachish's excursion into mysticism. The terminology associated with it is culture-specific and had to be presented in a way that would not appear too remote or exotic to an Anglophone reader. Before sending the manuscript to the press I asked William Radice to go through it, and accepted many of his suggestions. The book appeared in the short-lived Heinemann Asian Writers series, and has had a second incarnation in the Penguin Tagore Omnibus, Volume One.

At Radice's suggestion I began translating another Tagore novel, his feminist masterpiece Jogajog. Only Gora is longer among his novels. Jogajog lacks the compactness and taut organization of a novella like Chaturanga, and I found the task of translation quite laborious. I kept putting it aside to do other things. By the time I finished a translation had already appeared, and another was in the press. But there is still room for a third. The last three chapters of my version have been excerpted in The Essential Tagore, a new anthology edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty and published by Harvard and Viswabharati. It also includes five of my translations of Tagore's free verse poems and of one of his prose poems.

My third and final venture in Tagore translation is a selection of his travel writings, which has been commissioned by Chroniclebooks, Delhi. The work is nearing completion. This time I have had to face a new problem. The travel books are made up of letters and diary entries which were not properly copy-edited before publication. They contain much slapdash writing, occasional syntactical problems, and some mixed metaphors. Obviously these cannot be reproduced in translation.

I had faced similar problems in translating Nasreen Jahan's Urukkoo, a task I agreed to undertake before having read the novel. If I had read it first I would have politely declined. The reason is that though the novel is a valuable existential document, its prose reads like a demented monologue. Translating it into readable English is no joke. But I pulled it off somehow, and the editor at Penguin India, who will publish it, was quite pleased. Still, translating is a thankless task. As someone said, if the translation is a success, the author gets all the praise; and if not the translator gets all the blame. I think I have done my bit as a bridge-builder between Bangla and English. My most recent translated volume is the Selected Stories of Anis Chowdhury (Writers.Ink, Dhaka); working on it introduced me to an interesting talent of the generation that matured in the post-Partition years. With the Selected Poems of Shaheed Quaderi, a poet I greatly admire, I will round off my career as a translator, and then concentrate entirely on my own writing.

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