The Elusive Tagore

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Searching for the poet’s genius amid the mediocrity of his English translations
Rabindranath Tagore, more than anyone else, represents Indian poetry to the rest of the world. He does so in an iconic, canonical sort of way, with works of Renaissance-like artistic versatility and with his stately good looks and air of gentle authority.

The first non-European to win the Nobel Prize, friend to William Butler Yeats and interlocutor to Albert Einstein, Tagore helped strengthen the intellectual bridge between India’s civilisation and the West’s. Yet his poetry, which is admittedly his primary accomplishment, remains elusive in the English language.

As someone who does not know Bengali, I often wonder: why does Tagore seem so untranslatable? I must assume that he is terrific in the original. It is impossible to believe that he, who is held as the greatest Bengali poet of all time, could merely be mediocre, even if the English translations often make him seem so. Why then has he never been translated in a way that even hints at good poetry, let alone anything outstanding?

Variations on the question of Tagore’s poetic greatness have occurred to other non-Bengalis as well. Often, these are muted by a cultural politeness, but a few notable writers have voiced their scepticism.

When John Berryman, the great American poet, gave a lecture tour of India in 1957, he fell ill ‘with virus and a high fever’. When he reached Ahmedabad, his condition worsened; by then he had become noticeably thin, already having lost ten pounds. Still, he decided to proceed with his scheduled lecture. Berryman’s biographer Paul Mariani writes of this fascinating moment:

‘As Munford finished his talk, he saw Berryman standing in the doorway, trembling, his face drained of color. Then Berryman walked up to the podium and delivered a lecture unlike anything he’d given so far on his trip. For six weeks, he told his small audience, he had been told over and over by his Indian hosts that America had produced no poetry and that the Indians were the most poetic people in the world. But what he’d seen of Indian poetry seemed nothing more than a loose sort of “spiritual sentimentality.” Now he was going to tell them what real poetry was. He quoted a passage from Rilke in German and then a passage from Lorca in Spanish, translating into English afterward for his audience. Great poetry, he explained, sprang only from the pain and anguish of human experience. The audience sat listening to his stunning, fevered performance. If they felt angry or patronised, they did not show it.’

In this case, Berryman’s fever was the likely cause of his bluntness. He had come to Ahmedabad directly from Kolkata. Tagore would have been on his mind. There can be little doubt that in speaking of “spiritual sentimentality”, Berryman was referring to Tagore, whom he would have read in translation. That’s exactly how Tagore comes off in English.

But it does not take a Westerner to question Tagore’s importance. In the novel Narcopolis by Indian poet and novelist Jeet Thayil, there is a character named Bengali, a peculiar street philosopher who makes profound pronouncements on all manner of philosophical, literary and cultural matters, including Tagore:

‘He shared the regional affliction that Bengalis were prone to, the conviction that they were the most artistic and talented people in the world. But Bengali was a maverick Bengali and some of his views were a kind of blasphemy. What if Tagore had not won the Nobel Prize when he did? Bengali asked. How would it have affected his work? I suspect it would have made him more open to experimentation and more interesting in every way, especially in his poetry, which, I have to say, is not very good. And why shouldn’t I say so? The point about Tagore is that the whole was far greater than the sum of the parts. It is the composite figure that matters. But Tagore the mystic and poet? Tagore the painter? Tagore the composer? None of those Tagores is worth very much.’

Great poetry may be untranslatable, but why does it seem impossible to make Tagore sound not-half-bad in English? In some cases, translations of poetry can convey, if not the greatness of the original—that would be a rare achievement—then at least some inkling of it; some way of imagining what greatness there might be in the original.

While reading Tagore in English, it is hard to see where that greatness might reside. In English, the poems appear not to contain a single memorable line or notable thought. They are large, flat, belaboured, tedious clichés.

It will be pointed out in objection that Yeats admired Tagore’s English translations of his poems and helped him polish them. Yet the truth of the matter is more complicated.

For Yeats, Tagore embodied the very idea of a Hindu mystic poet. Yeats’ fascination with Tagore has much to do with his lifelong preoccupation with various forms of mysticism and occult spiritualism, his interests in astrology and theosophy.

The point here is not to criticise these leanings, but to make clear that Yeats’ admiration of Tagore was not based on the quality of execution exemplified by Tagore’s self-translations.

‘Damn Tagore,’ Yeats wrote in a letter dated 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.’

Tagore did not have a sufficient command of English to pull off good poetry in it. Moreover, by choosing to translate his poems into free verse fraught with florid King Jamesian diction, he set the trend for many of his subsequent translators.

This was perfectly consistent with the contemporary practice of translating any poetry uniformly into English free verse. The twentieth century was an incredibly lazy one when it came to English translations of poetry. As a result, even writers who ‘do know English’ have not fared much better in translating Tagore than Tagore himself.

Let us consider a particular example, one from William Radice. His translations of Tagore are supposed to be among the best, judging from their critical acclaim. His translation of Tagore’s Maran-milan (‘Death-wedding’, 1902) can be found in his lecture on ‘Tagore’s Poetic Greatness’, originally delivered in Ahmedabad in 2003. The first stanza reads:

‘Why do you speak so softly, Death, Death, / Creep upon me, watch me so stealthily? / This is not how a lover should behave. / When evening flowers droop upon their tired / Stems, when cattle are brought in from the fields / After a whole day’s grazing, you, Death, / Death, approach me with such gentle steps, / Settle yourself immovably by my side. / I cannot understand the things you say.’

In his lecture, Radice says about this translation: “In translating a poem of such technical and formal virtuosity, my first objective is to find an equivalent form in English that will not be the same as the Bengali but which will immediately convince the reader of the poem’s craftsmanship.”

This reader was not convinced of the poem’s craftsmanship either immediately or afterwards. The text is downright terrible from the very start, devoid of the spark of poetry. It is of room temperature. It reads like a barely edited literal crib, with some foreign diction still creeping in. ‘Settle yourself immovably’? In English, we ‘sit still’. It goes on like this for all of its eighty lines. Radice’s English is idiomatically awkward throughout, whether due to careless editing or to a deliberate effort at an outlandish quaintness of impression, perhaps to cloud the utter absence of linguistic sparkle or intellectual interest.

Where, for crying out loud, is the promised virtuosity? Where is a line worth remembering? As you read on you encounter ‘the serpents hissing round / his hair’; ‘the bom-bom sound as he slapped his cheeks’; ‘If I am immersed in work in my room / When you arrive, Death, Death, then break / My work, thrust my unreadiness aside’.

‘Thrust my unreadiness aside.’ Really? We don’t ‘break’ someone’s work in English, we interrupt it. The text plods on to this finale:

‘I shall go to where your boat is moored, / Death, Death, to the sea where the wind rolls / Darkness towards me from infinity. / I may see black clouds massing in the far / North-east corner of the sky; fiery snakes / Of lightning may rear up with their hoods raised, / But I shall not flinch in unfounded fear - / I shall pass silently, unswervingly / Across that red storm-sea, Death, Death.’

I had to force myself to finish reading it. There is no playfulness here, no humour, no magic in the language. One may wonder how something like this could have fallen from the pen of an alleged genius. But I have no doubt it must all be extremely different in the original.

For what it’s worth, I do not believe that the entire class of educated Bengalis—no-nonsense literary scholars and writers, general readers and millions of Rabindra Sangeet fans—can be altogether wrong about their cherished master poet. I believe there is a ‘there’ there when it comes to Tagore. It is not a simple trick to be so loved. I ‘buy’ his greatness. His aura strikes me as genuine.

I strongly suspect Tagore’s poetic excellence stands upon the subtlety and freshness of his language, the first casualty of translation.

Furthermore, I notice when I read such translations as Radice’s, that they are nothing like the original in one crucial respect: Tagore’s writing is intricately rhymed and structured verse, while these translations are not.

Curiously, Radice himself is a sophisticated versifier. His original poetry—much of it hilarious and delightful light verse—shows he does not lack the right skills to attempt a more formally robust translation, yet he chooses not to engage those skills in translation.

Like numerous others, he is a victim of the 20th-century Deathly School of Translation, which invariably crunches up the unique character and distinct essence of any original into faceless free verse with random-sounding line breaks. This school is founded on the pandemic delusion that ‘poetry’ is more important than verse and that one can, moreover, isolate the ‘poetry’ from its verse and translate the ‘poetry’ alone, skipping the verse and just ‘getting to the point’, as it were.

Recall that Radice’s self-admitted “first objective is to find an equivalent form in English that will not be the same as the Bengali”. And that ‘equivalent form’ is usually presumed to be homogenised and suffocated free verse, very much of this kind.

Why would I care to read a translation whose first objective is not to be like the original? Granted, perhaps the translated form cannot be exactly ‘the same’ as the original, but how can one justify the absence of form as the best choice of an ‘equivalent’? In particular, if the original is rhymed and metrical, why not make a rhymed and metrical translation? What is a good reason not to do so, other than the inability to pull it off?

While suffering through Radice’s text, I caught myself trying to imagine what it might feel like to read the poem in Bengali. To amuse myself, I wondered if I could not use Radice’s lines as a crib to the original’s meaning.

Unexpectedly, the first stanza came out, and then the last. By and by, everything in between filled out too. The whole thing came to me naturally rhymed in couplets. I even thought I could reconstruct all of Tagore for myself in this way, retranslating him from others’ attempts. Perish the thought: I would rather learn Bengali, and in fact I still hope to one day.

Until such time, I will let my version, my hallucination of Tagore illustrate the closest I have come to grasping—or imagining that I grasped—something of his spirit. I am most likely wide off the mark here. Although my basis is Radice’s text, any errors and all subjectivity are entirely my own.

Death Wedding

Why tread so soft, Death, Death, / Creep up on me, all stealth? / That’s not how lovers act! / When evening flowers react / To dusk, drooping their shields, / When cows return from fields / Filled with chewed wealth of health, / Come quiet to me, Death, Death, / Sit still by my side, stay, / Though I don’t get a thing you say.

So, will you take me, Death, / Like thieves, masters of theft, / Anoint my eyes with sleep / Before you make your steep / Descent into my heart, / Let your soft slow pace beat / My blood pulse, your ankle bangles / Lull my ears with their jangles, / And when I lie all filled with dreams, / Whisk me away in your cold arms?

Death, Death, your wedding style / Seems strangely dry and stale, / Lacking the spark of prayer. / Bring on your shock of hair, / Hair-raising, inspiring dread, / Coiled crown of tantric dred. / Who, waving your victorious banner, / Will light along our holy river / Sad red-eyed torches in your wake? / Won’t the earth itself quake?

When Shiva came to claim his bride, / He rode his fearsome bull in pride / With all the proper trappings, / His posh tiger-skins flapping. / Fierce cobras hissing in his hair, / His horn erupting with a blare, / He slapped his cheeks like hollow drums, / Swinging his necklace of wild skulls: / That’s a superior way to wed, / Death, Death, to how you wed the dead.

On hearing that approach of his, / Gauri’s eyes wept their tears of bliss, / Her sari quivered at her chest, / Her left eye fluttered ah so fast. / Her heart, Death, Death, was pounding / A drum rhythm beyond counting. / The rest was filled with thrilled delight. / Wild soared her fancy at great height. / Mom smote her head and dad cried doom / At the prospect of such a groom.

Why do you always, with your swift ease, / Death, come in the wee hours, like thieves? / Nay, bring on not those wails of mourning, / But party instead all night till morning, / Blow your victory conch, wear blood red, / Hold my hand, partner, make me drop dead! / Fear not what others might think, Death, Death, / I’ll gladly follow upon your path / Of my very own free will / If you but beckon me, grand-style.

And should you find me all wrapped up / In work, by all means interrupt, / Or should you find me, not yet dead, / Asleep in the comfort of my bed, / Or half asleep, gripping my heart, / That’s where you play your mighty part, / That’s where you fill your conch with breath, / Your deadly breath, Death, darling Death. / You fill the conch with breath and blow— / Fleetly to you I’ll up and go.

I’ll run to where your boat is moored, / Death, Death, unto the windy sea shore / Where darkness will roll and roar at me / Like waves out of infinity, / Where jet black clouds lie piled up high / At the northeast end of the sky. / A fiery snake of lightning’s hood / Will rear up, but fears, unfounded, / Won’t drive me from my silent path / Across your red storm-sea, Death, Death.