The first time I ever read Tagore was when I received a slim volume of his translated "Gitanjali" at the age of 12. I would read one or two little poems daily, mull it over briefly and get back to the busy life of a schoolgirl. The well-known "Where the mind is without fear" was already known to me, a staple in the Indian school syllabus as a prime example of the beloved Gurudeb's works.
That was a time when I was obsessed with the music, life,times of Meerabai, which I found more enchanting and romantic than abstract musings on a nameless Lord, rivers, storm clouds, moonlight, songs, flutes etc., that dominated what I read in the Gitanjali. The music was a prime factor; I could hear recordings of the Meera Bhajans and made every effort to figure out the meaning of even obscure words. It might have meant more to me, had renditions of Rabindra Sangeet, like this one been accessible.
At that time, it was no more to me than a source of amorphous pride as an Indian that Tagore won the Nobel prize based on his poems. I read the poems out of a sense of obligation, it was just one or two that appealed to me. The translations,by Tagore himself, had a self-conscious tinge that didn't quite pack the same punch as reading/listening to Meera wail to her Krishna:
"jal bin kamal candra bin rajnI, aise tum dekhya bin sajnI
Akul vyAkul phirU rain din, viraha kalejA khAy
divas na bhUkh neend nahi rainA, mukha se kathan na Ave bainA
kahA karU kuchha kahata na Ave, milakar tapan bujhAy"
(In rough translation:
"A lotus without water, a night without the moon, thus languishes this lover longing for your glimpse,I wander about restless, the separation eats at my heart,No sleep, no hunger pangs, no words from my speechless mouth,I know not what to do or say, please come to quench this suffering of mine.")
The Gitanjali didn't evoke similar emotions, the free-style prose seemed stilted to my ear. For example:
""My song has put off her adornments. She has no pride of dress and decoration. Ornaments would mar our union; they would come between thee and me; their jingling would drown thy whispers."
"My poet's vanity dies in shame before thy sight. O master poet, I have sat down at thy feet. Only let me make my life simple and straight, like a flute of reed for thee to fill with music."
Today, having access to the original Bengali version, I've revised my view. It seems to be a rather tame translation, based on what I can make of its similarity to other languages that I know. (Maybe Ruchira can weigh in with her translation for this)
- Amar e gan chheŗechhe tar shôkol ôlongkar
- Tomar kachhe rakhe ni ar shajer ôhongkar
- Ôlongkar je majhe pôŗe milônete aŗal kôre,
- Tomar kôtha đhake je tar mukhôro jhôngkar.
- Tomar kachhe khaţe na mor kobir gôrbo kôra,
- Môhakobi, tomar paee dite chai je dhôra.
- Jibon loe jôton kori jodi shôrol bãshi goŗi,
- Apon shure dibe bhori sôkol chhidro tar.
I found this excellent article that explained much regarding Tagore's own mistranslations
of his originals. It was undertaken in an effort to live up to an image that he had cultivated,maybe inadvertently at first, but calculatedly later on, as the soulful philosopher-poet to his Western audience.
"In my translations I timidly avoid all difficulties, which has the effect of making them smooth and thin. I know I am misrepresenting myself as a poet to the western readers. But when I began this career of falsifying my own coins I did it in play. Now I am becoming frightened of its enormity and I am willing to make a confession of my misdeeds and withdraw into my original vocation as a mere Bengali poet."
Tagore, Letter to Edward Thompson, 1921
From Somjit Dutt's article:
"The 26th lyric of the book, as published, is: "He came and sat by my side but I woke not. What a cursed sleep it was, O miserable me! ... "
As I write these lines, the strains of the melody ring in my ears and I deem it necessary to cite the original Bengali lyric before setting forth the complete English version. Rothenstein, of course, is unlikely to have ever listened to a rendition of the Bengali song.
"se ye paashe ese basechhila tobu jaagini / kI ghum tore peyechhila hatabhaaginI // esechhila nIrab raate bInaakhaani chhila haate -- swapan maajhe baajiye gela gabhIr raaginI // jege dekhi dakhin-haoyaa paagal kariya gandha taahaar bhese be.Daya a.Ndhaar bhariya/ kena aamaar rajanI yaaY, kaachhe peyey kaachhe naa paya-- kena go taar maalaar parash buke laageni//"
The English version runs thus :
"He came and sat by my side but I woke not. What a cursed sleep it was, O miserable me! He came when the night was still; he had his harp in his hands, and my dreams became resonant with its melodies. Alas, why are my nights all lost ? Ah, why do I ever miss his sight whose breath touches my sleep ?"
The original Bengali is clearly seen to be imbued with a subtle sensuality: whereas the English version appeals far less to the senses, since much of the mood of passionate and partially corporeal yearning for communion has been deleted for the sake of bringing in a spiritual mood. Amazingly, or perhaps not at all amazingly, the unmistakably sensuous lines
"jege dekhi dakhin haoyaa, paagal kariyaa gandha taahaar bhese be. Daya a. Ndhaar bharia"
(I wake and a south wind is madly
Its fragrance drifts and fills the darkness
all around me.)
have been expunged !
The last line "kena go taar maalaar parash buke laageni//" was one which Tagore could not bring himself faithfully to translate, given his need to please Rothenstein initially and the West finally.
So this is not new, the phenomenon of tailoring one's work to appeal to the market. I thought that hallowed writers such as Rabindranath Tagore could produce works on their own terms, as he most surely did in his own language, but he succumbed to the need to play act a different role for gaining a larger audience.
This is no different from the endless tours, book signings, and now Twittering and Facebooking that authors and wannabe-novelists are subjected to build up a market for their works. They are often forced to tailor their writing to fulfil what the publisher may deem to be saleable, straitjacketing themselves into what they may not want to write.
In these days, maybe the freedom to write what one wishes comes after fame, not before it. But it is surprising to learn that the 'manufactured fame' that precedes the release of an author's work can become a different kind of burden.
I came across this recording of Tagore rendering one of his own songs (quite well, given the quality of recording in those days)