Tagore could not resist the urge to simplify when he translated some of his poems into English. The Gitanjali translation, which he made himself first and then got some help from WB Yeats in redaction, is taken by modern critics as an example of the disservice he did himself as a poet. To quote Fr Pierre Fallon (a Jesuit who taught Comparative Literature in JadavpurUniversity when I was in college at St Xavier's): “The Western Gitanjali loses much of the musical beauty and evocative power of the original poems.” Yet he calls it a 'jewel' in the category of English religious poetry.
Rabindranath was not unaware that he cut corners when it came to translating his own poetry. He wrote to his friend Rothenstein who introduced him to London, ” I send you some more of my poems translated into English. They are too simple to bear the strain of translation.” What he meant, I think, was that he could not bear the strain of translating his poems and therefore he simplified them. Another critic says Rabindranath wished to present himself as a devotional poet in English and avoided the mass of his poems of landscapes and first-hand observation, and so on which could not be presented in that vein. In his next volume of translation, The Gardener, “the poet is carried away by the idea of simplicity and clarity, for which he sacrifices whatever was intense or complex in his original poetic texture.” (Subhas Sarkar, in Studies in translation By Ed. Mohit K. Ray).
Take the excerpt
Gopan taba charan pheley
Nishar moto nirab ohe
Sabar dithi eraye ele
Faithfully, it may be rendered:
Your feet came treading secretly
Silent as the night, O Lord,
Unobserved by anyone
With secret steps thou walkest, silent as night
eluding all watchers.
As another example, toward the end of the poem Aji jharer rate tomar abhisar some wonderfully balanced rhyming lines are translated by him. In the original it reads:
Gahan kono baner dhare
Gabhir kono andhakare
Hatecho tumi par
Paransakha bandhu he amar.
Here is Tagore's translation:
Tagore's prose dispels the poetry of the original which is far more suggestive; and of course he has completely neglected the balance and repetition of the first 3 lines, and the apostrophe that elevates lines 4 and 5. Verily, as Robert Frost said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”
Yet we must translate poetry, for how else shall we enjoy the riches of the world of poetry which lie in every language? I consider translating a poem as an anatomy experiment in which you try to get below the surface and approach as close to the bone as possible, to understand what the poet was only partly expressing in words, but fully experiencing as s/he wrote. And then you can appreciate even better the rhythm and the feeling of the poetry, the essence they say is untranslatable because all words in a language are imbrued with contextual meaning, which cannot be transferred easily to another. However, to gain even a faint idea of that, adds to the relish of any poem, to which you may have felt partial without knowing just why; trying to translate it will disclose the reason. Indeed, trying to translate it, and coming back to refine and pack into the translation as much as possible of the vibrations excited by the original, helps assess just where the original poet has lavished his/her care, and talent for words – or shall I say, genius for words, in the original Bengali of Tagore?
Here is my translation of the five lines, faithful, but striving to capture the rhythm and feeling:
Across a dense forest passing,
Though the utter dark piercing,
You entered the gate ―
Most beloved, my heart's own mate.
William Radice in Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems has translated 48 poems, selecting 16 each from the early, middle and late period of the poet's life. Radice is an English poet and translator of many books from Bengali. His is the first of the modern translations that try to render what is in the poems of Rabindranath without glossing over the difficulties. At the back he provides extensive notes to each poem: the original title in Bengali, the volume of Rabindranath's verse from which it is taken, the political background of the times, the poet's state of health, the place it was written, and what events occasioned the poem, and where it was first published. The notes refer to the original Bengali words often, to explicate their significance. It is a very thorough work and I hope it presages many more such efforts to come. For a short review of Radice's book refer to:
Ketaki Kushari Dyson, the well-known literary figure, who writes in Bengali and English, and is herself a poet, uses the occasion of a book review to dwell at length on the difficulties of translation:
Her comments on Radice's work (Rabindranath Tagore, Particles, Jottings, Sparks, The Collected Brief Poems) are illuminating and expert. She says “sheer brevity and tautness of construction can be a trap in some of these aphoristic poems.“ She commends Radice's translation of the more romantic poems in the collection with these words: “the translator has achieved a fine balance of ‘faithfulness’ to the source poems, innovative and imaginative ways of resolving problems, and an inspired choice of words and rhythms by means of which the re-created poems explode into little coruscating circles of meaning and evocation in the new language.” High compliments indeed.
Meanwhile, news arrives that Ketaki Kushari Dyson is herself coming out with a translation of selected poems by Rabindranath. Tagore lovers and English poetry readers will be delighted to have their hands on the volume around the time of the 150th birth anniversary on May 7, 2011 from Penguin India.
http://books.google.com/books?id=Puy3WGwVWXoC Studies in translation By Ed. Mohit K. Ray. Chapter 16 Tagore in Translation by Subhas Sarkar