Abridge between home and the world

Gora - The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore - The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore - The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore

June 20, 1997

The English language occupies a unique position in India. It is the language of central government, of higher education, of national commerce and of many significant novelists - but it belongs to no region of India. It binds the subcontinent together, and yet has no deep roots.

The life and works of Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel prize in literature on the strength of work he himself translated into English from his native Bengali, epitomises the contradictions inherent in Indian English. For although Tagore had a great love for English literature, especially the 19th-century Romantics, he found writing and speaking in English something of a trial. He was over 50 years old, with prolific volumes of published work in Bengali behind him, before he began translating and writing regularly in English. Despite showing extraordinary creativity and wit in his second language, he never learnt to write it idiomatically, nor even (by his own admission) how to use prepositions and articles confidently.

Tagore's copious output in English translation and his smaller, but still very substantial output written in English, has not been easily available, much of it lying in journals, newspapers and out-of-print books. What was available lacked important contextualisation and annotation. Now India's national academy of literature, the Sahitya Akademi, has filled a real need by collecting together, in three volumes, the poetry, plays, short stories, essays, lectures, statements, forewords, interviews and other items by Tagore in English that were his own work; "exclusively prepared by Tagore'', in the words of the editor, Sisir Kumar Das. The many translations by others, revised by Tagore, such as his best-known novel, The Home and the World, have therefore been excluded. His large number of outstanding letters written in English to such figures as Yeats, Pound, Gandhi and Nehru have also been excluded, on the sensible principle that these are still being collected together and deserve their own volume.

The volumes are undoubtedly a welcome and useful addition to Tagore scholarship in English. The editor is often refreshingly frank, free of the excesses of Tagore worship that invalidate so much work in this field. Particularly valuable is his hunting down of the Bengali originals of Tagore's translations of poems. These are "not easy to identify'', Das comments - an understatement, given Tagore's tendency to compress and alter his Bengali meaning while translating into an alien language.

There are, however, quite a number of incomplete references, omissions and factual errors. The editor asserts, for instance, that Tagore's Collected Poems and Plays (the standard work in English for decades, though most unsatisfactory) has an "unknown editor''. Its editor was Ernest Rhys, the founder-editor of Everyman's Library, who took no credit, though he worked with the entire confidence of Tagore. Volume 3 republishes the 1931 version of the Tagore-Einstein conversation, without comment on its disabling inaccuracy, instead of publishing the 1930 version seen by both Einstein and Tagore that appeared in The New York Times. Tagore's arguably finest essay on Gandhi, published in the Calcutta Statesman in 1938, is simply omitted. And it is staggering to come across not a single reference to Satyajit Ray, the great interpreter of Tagore on the screen, who has done so much to make him appealing to today's world.

Ray thought that the English translations of Tagore, taken as a whole, were "indifferent''. He avoided them in his moving documentary film on Tagore made in English. "People would wonder - well if this is the stuff then he couldn't have been a very great poet'', he thought.

A new translation of Tagore's other novel known outside Bengal, the major work Gora, provokes reflections similar to Ray's. The first translation was published in 1924. Though it caught the attention of, among others, Leonard Woolf, it did not make much literary impact. The translator, though unnamed at his own request, was an English friend of Tagore's, W. W. Pearson, corrected by Tagore's nephew. But, as Tagore later remarked in a letter to another English friend: "Macmillan in their haste only had the half of the corrected version and the latter half remains untouched with its ludicrous mistakes and crudities."

Sujit Mukherjee, author of a significant study of Tagore's reception in the West, has produced a far more accurate translation of the novel, which also restores some material missing from the 1924 translation. "Let me claim'', he says modestly, "that if it is has no other virtue, at least it is a complete and unabridged rendering of the standard (Bengali) text."

Unfortunately, in the discharging of this service to scholarly readers, most of the literary merit of the original has evaporated. To take just one example, the 1924 translation opens as follows: "It was the rainy season in Calcutta; the morning clouds had scattered, and the sky overflowed with clear sunlight.'' The new translation opens: "The clouds had dispersed on this Shravan morning, leaving the Kolikata sky full of clear sunlight.'' Shravan is the Bengali month, July-August, the peak of the monsoon; Kolikata approximates to the Bengalis' pronunciation of the name of their city. The second version is more authentic, no doubt; but the authenticity has killed the readability for anyone other than a Bengali - who is in no need of a translation.

Tagore, for all his faults as a translator of his own work, seldom fell into this particular trap. Much of the translations in The English Writings are readable, especially when he listened to sympathetic suggestions from native speakers such as Yeats, Rhys and others. Tagore's urge to abridge his own work in translation, though it may offend Tagore scholars, was not as misguided as it may seem. He told Pearson: "I find that English readers have very little patience for scenes and sentiments which are foreign to them, they feel a sort of grievance for what they do not understand -and they care not to understand whatever is different from their familiar world.'' He wrote this three-quarters of a century ago, during the British Raj. Salman Rushdie and others have broadened English readers' sensibilities since then - but Tagore's basic perception still has, alas, much validity.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES; his edition (with Krishna Dutta) of Tagore's Selected Letters is published by Cambridge University Press this month.


Author - Rabindranath Tagore
ISBN - 81 760 02 7
Publisher - Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi
Price - Rs185
Pages - 497
Translator - Sujit Mukherjee

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