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Volume 6 | Issue 05 | May 2012 |


Original Forum

Media Governance in Bangladesh:
Rhetoric and Reality of Broadcasting Policy
-- S M Shameem Reza
Social Media:
The debate of freedom and responsibility
-- Fahmidul Haq
The Healthy Effect of New Media--Naimul Karim
Freedom on Screen:
The long route of short films

-- Zakir Hossain Raju
Come Freedom, Come Responsibility-- Interview with Professor Dr. Gitiara Nasreen
Television Journalism as a Field
--- AJM Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan

Rabindranath and the Translation of Gitanjali
--Rifat Munim


Photo Feature
Live True Life or Die Trying

International Crimes and the Tribunal in Bangladesh

-- Mubashar Hasan

Politics for Quality of Life: A new perspective for Bangladesh politics
-- Syed Fattahul Alim

Education for Regional
Connectivity in South Asia

--Shakil Ahmed
If you can't grab a bull by its horns,
grab its tail

--Nofel Wahid
The Fall of Dictators
-- Syed Badrul Ahsan


Forum Home

Rabindranath and the Translation of Gitanjali

On the occasion of Tagore's 151st birthday, RIFAT MUNIM revisits Rabindranath through an interview of William Radice, one of the best known translators of the Nobel laureate writer.

The year was 1912. In the preceding years, Rabindranath Tagore had sustained some terrible personal losses. The cumulative effects of those losses, when compounded with his illness, urged him to pay his long due visit to England for a change. In addition to quenching his insatiate thirst for traveling, upon reaching England, he had also wanted to share his work, especially some of his poems and lyrics, with the westerners. But faced with the sheer untranslatability of his songs in terms of the prosodic and poetic potentials, he had decided to translate his own work in the belief that perhaps a free, prosaic rendering would at least serve to capture the essence of his songs. So he did and arrived in England with an English manuscript in which were poems and songs from three of his volumes titled Gitanjali, Naibedya and Kheya.


There he visited Rothenstein, a famous British painter and intellectual, whom he had met in India some years ago through his nephew Abanindranath Tagore, the famous Bengali painter. Rothenstein introduced him to English literary and intellectual circles and sent a copy of the manuscript to W B Yeats. Yeats, who at that time was at the height of his fame as a poet, was impressed having read the manuscript. Shortly thereafter, he delightfully helped Rabindranath edit and publish the poems in November 1912. Following its publication in the title 'Song Offerings', Rabindranath dominated the limelight in the English literary world for quite some time. Ezra Pound, among many others, accompanied Yeats in a number of literary gatherings with Rabindranath. In a letter to Harriet Monroe, editor of the American literary magazine Poetry where many of Rabindranath's poems were published, Pound wrote that the Bengali poet had become quite a sensation in England. This vigorous attention owed substantially to Yeats. Yeats found in Rabindranath a strong resemblance with his own vision of constructing an imaginary world as opposed to a material one, where eastern spirituality wins over western materiality. The rest is history as we all know. Rabindranath won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 and took the world by storm.

However, the tide of Tagore ebbed as quickly as it had come. It is true he got translated in all the major languages of the world and was given warm reception in many a country. His sweeping influence in Latin America especially over the influential Argentine author Victoria Ocampo is now no news. But outside the Indian subcontinent, Rabindranath remained mostly as a mystic, or at best as a spiritual poet. This narrowing label was attached to his identity at the very beginning by the very person (Yeats) who promoted him the most.

In his introduction to the 'Song Offerings', Yeats likens Rabindranath, though not directly, to a sage in contemplation. Although he admits that Rabindranath's poems issue directly from the heart, the philosophic stature overshadows this spontaneity. Rabindranath becomes more of a philosopher guide than a poet. Hence, Yeats defines Indian culture and identifies Rabindranath's poems in that light:

William Radice, Photo Courtesy

“The work of a supreme culture, they yet appear as much the growth of the common soil as the grass and the bushes. A tradition, where poetry and religion are the same thing, has passed through the centuries, gathering from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion, and carried back again to the multitude the thought of the scholar and of the noble. If the civilization of Bengal remains unbroken, if that common mind which---as one divines---runs through all, is not, as with us, broken into a dozen minds that know nothing of each other, something even of what is most subtle in these verses will have come, in a few generations, to the beggar on the roads.”

Evidently, Yeats contrasts eastern spirituality with western materiality and idealises India as a uniform culture which is not internally split along the lines of class, race and gender. Furthermore, he takes it for granted that poetry and religion in India are the same. Such an understanding resulted in giving an overtly religious fervour to Gitanjali.

All these served to establish Rabindranath as a mystic bard with a strong message. His language became secondary to his message which is essentially spiritual. The poetic potential along with the sheer diversity of his work was thus reduced to a single characteristic which forms only part of the whole that Rabindranath represents. But this is not to trivialise the fact that Yeats was highly delighted in discovering Rabindranath and that it was he who first introduced Rabindranath as a poet greater than any of the living western poets. His introduction bears testimony to that fact. In fact, the whole western world perceived Rabindranath as a mystic during that time. As Hasan Ferdous points out in his book Rabindranath, Gitanjali and Dui Harriet, Rabindranath himself was partly responsible for this overpowering of the philosophic tone in Gitanjali and his other literary works. Subsequent translations of his other works failed to make any difference as most of those were quickly done by the publishing house Macmillan to cater to readers' need.

However, it was since the 1990s that things began to change as some truly gifted translators, most of whom are distinguished writers in their own right, embarked on translating Rabindranath's poems, fiction and drama.


'Rabindranath's genius was actually there'

William Radice is one such name who, amongst others, has contributed substantially to introducing Rabindranath in the international arena fundamentally as a poet and fiction writer. Last year his translation of the Gitanjali was published by Penguin India. His translation is based on Rabindranath's own translation as found in his unedited manuscript and is very close to the original Bangla.

In the excerpts that follow, he reveals that the unedited manuscript that Rabindranath handed over to Yeats was a tremendous achievement in English and was very close to the original Bangla. However, those potentials were compromised as Yeats, prior to its publication, made many unnecessary and faulty changes to the manuscript. Yeats, Radice argues, has done serious injustice to Tagore's own translation.

Rifat Munim (RM): In some of your write-ups, you have said that Tagore did serious injustice to his translations including the prosaic rendering of Gitanjali. Many writers have agreed with this view. How did you feel about this while translating Gitanjali?

William Radice (WR): Well, my views about that have changed somewhat. Because, if you look at my new translation of Gitanjali, you'll find that as well as being a new translation of all the poems contained in the English Gitanjali, not the Bangla Gitanjali, my starting point has been the English version although I have translated each poem from the original Bangla version. But I have done a great deal of work on Rabindranath's own translation and studied the manuscript of it very closely. And truly speaking, there is a huge gap between Rabindranath's original manuscript and the published text. It was done by WB Yeats since he edited the manuscript before publication. But this fact hasn't yet been clearly mentioned before and this is what is really new about my Gitanjali book where my translations alternate with the new texts of Rabindranath's own translation.

RM: So what did you find in Rabindranath's own translation?
Well, there are huge differences. I'd like to make a few points here. Firstly, the number of poems is different. There are 83 in his manuscript, others were later added but they weren't part of his original conception which I think was a very clear conception. There's this notebook or manuscript which is not a first draft; he's clearly written the poems and songs in this notebook, numbering them carefully and conceiving it as a whole. Secondly, the arrangement is quite different. Since 20 more poems were added later, the arrangement was also changed consequently. The sequence that he so carefully designed was completely changed and I think spoilt. And I just don't think the standard text as edited by Yeats has any logic in the arrangement at all except they put the poems about death at the end which is very Victorian. Thirdly, the punctuation also differs significantly. Rabindranath wasn't used to using many commas, he knew how to use commas, but he was using his ear and he wanted the commas to indicate the breath groups. So, if you look at his manuscript, you'll find that the whole energy is quite different because of different punctuation. Whereas the standard published text is full of commas which made it sound very biblical because one feature of the English Bible is, it has many commas used as frequently as possible.

RM: So, this feature of the Bible was imposed on Rabindranath's own translation?
Yes, yes, very much. The fourth point I'd like to make is about paragraphing which is another feature of the Bible. The published book has many small paragraphs like the Bible. 'Where the mind is without fear'-- new paragraph, 'and the head is held high'-- new paragraph. It resembles the Bible and is not found in the original manuscript. Just read his translated sonnets such as the above-quoted one ('Where the head is held high'). There is just a single paragraph in the manuscript which gives it quite a different energy. And finally, there are many changes to words and phrases which are often mistaken changes because Yeats did not know the Bangla, so he just changed it thinking this would sound better. If you look at the manuscript you can see what he meant. So, it's an extraordinary story. And eventually, people are coming to know this by reading my book. The problem was the first English version was very easy which got the Nobel Prize. But Rabindranath felt very upset about it because it was taken out of his hands, basically. It wasn't the book that he really wanted. For one hundred years no one has objected to this text, everyone's accepted it as the standard text. And all the translations of Gitanjali into other languages have been based on this text. But actually it's a bad text, very bad text.

RM: You've given us a tremendous revelation here, mentioning the huge gap that exists between the manuscript and published text. But still, despite that difference or gap, don't you think Rabindranath did a little injustice to his work when it came to translation, in terms of literary value and retaining the essence of the original?
I think later he did. This is where my views have changed having studied the manuscript. After the Nobel Prize, he did translations to order, he had to do them. I don't think his heart was in them. But what's very striking if you look at the way he himself described his translationof 'Gitanjali', he found a very special joy when he was doing it. It was a new journey, a new discovery to attempt to translate some of his poems and songs into English and to try to bring the Western-Indian sides of his nature together. It is true his rendering wasn't perfect and needed some improvement. In my new text I have made some corrections. There were some minor mistakes in articles and prepositions. However, it didn't need the thorough kind of going over that Yeats subjected it to.

In spite of those minor mistakes, I think it was an extraordinary achievement, such that it was hard for him to repeat. Obviously, there were things he couldn't do. He couldn't represent verse, he couldn't represent solid form or rhyme or anything like that. There were limitations that he had. But Rabindranath's genius is actually there. If you read the manuscript, you'll hear the original voice of Rabindranath; you'll hear a rhyme which is very close to the original Bangla. The energy is quite different. Seeing this I was very much surprised, I was very much impressed. This is a case where I admit I had a preconception. But I never knew this manuscript existed and I never thought it would have such an impact on me. I believe I haven't become an apologist for all of Tagore's translations. And he himself knew that he had misrepresented himself in many of his translations. Many of them became very slapdash, inadequate in all sorts of ways. But I do think Gitanjali was different actually. I think it was special.

RM: So, you are saying in the later translations with Macmillan that he had to churn out quickly, he misrepresented himself and did injustice. But the English manuscript of Gitanjali was different.

WR: Yes. That is my opinion now. And I'm hoping that my new book gives what I call the real Gitanjali, which is a mixture of things: it's the main Bangla, it's Rabindranath's own translation in the manuscript, it's my text of that and it's my new translation . So, my book combines all of these and I'm hopeful that readers will get the taste of the original Gitanjali insofar as it is possible in English.

Rifat Munim is Senior Editorial Assistant, The Daily Star. He can be reached at rifatmunim@gmail.com.


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