Translating Tagore

Reading Tagore in translation is frequently a torture for those familiar with the original, for the lyrical simplicity of his language is nearly impossible to translate in all its layered complexity.

For those who know nothing about him, Rabindranath Thakur was India’s first Nobel Laureate, it’s only ever in Literature. That is the best inadequate description of him I can provide off-hand. Urban middle-class Bengalis frequently claim that modern Bengali society has been shaped by his ideas, which is what makes it so enriched aesthetically, philosophically, spiritually and politically. Every society needs illusions to validate their sense of smug superiority, so we shall not dwell on this claim.

The real catch of loving Tagore in a multilingual milieu, however, is the desire to lend a touch of magic to the world by sharing glimpses of his gift with it. But this sharing must necessarily happen in a language Tagore didn’t write in, and be presented to a sociocultural context Tagore didn’t write for. In other words, it’s an exercise wracked with guilt and personal inadequacy. After a few enthusiastic beginnings and despondent ends — especially for foreign friends and beloveds — I gave the project up entirely.

Now, after all these years, Tagore translations are back in my life as an unavoidable project at work. A piece I’m translating — on the inadequacy of our syllabi-planning — begins with a very apt and touching quote from Tagore’s verse-poem ‘Chheleta’, or ‘That Boy’. The trouble with this poem — from a translator’s point of view, at least — is that it includes its own poet in a self-referenced speaking part. Now, this isn’t a new trope in the Tagore canon. It surfaces in a few of his prose pieces as well. (I particularly remember the meta references in Shesher Kobita, because warring members of my family haven’t yet settled whether he wrote it ‘in all sincereity’, or whether it was an ironic comment on his fame, its envious detractors, and young men with doomed poetic aspirations and a slight case of the air-head.)  My specific trouble at the moment lies not in the actual poem — I shall struggle along with that, somehow — but in crafting a one-line introduction to ‘That Boy’ that encapsulates this poet-within-his-poem situation without messing things up too much.

The quoted line in the article has ‘that boy’s’ teacher complaining to Tagore about the child’s truancy:

ShishupatTh-e aapnar lekha kobitagulo
Porte ore mon lage na kichhutei

Emni niret budhhi.

[“He’s such a thick child that he refuses to read even the poems you write especially for children”]

Even if we overlook the intranslatability of ‘shishupatTh’ as a single word, how does one encapsulate the self-references here in one succinct, descriptive sentence? A typically faithful attempt might read:

In Tagore’s ‘That Boy’, the eponymous school-child’s teacher complains to Tagore about the boy’s lack of interest in schoolwork, even in the poems Tagore had written especially for children, concluding that the child must be dull.

Useful, perhaps, but ungainly and convoluted. But how else does one remain faithful — to both Tagore and the quotatory wishes of the author of the article — and not present the reader with a bloated transmorgification of a simple, supple, sentence?

I can already feel the guilt and headache come back.



  1. One of many reasons why I would not attempt translation. Gah. I personally when reading in a foreign language literally translate word-by-word, and then have my brain synthesize into something pretty while also appreciating the beauty of the spoken original. But that’s no way to actually translate! 😛

  2. […] doing the illustrations for has been published, and I’ve just finished translating the text. (Here is the first of my translation tales. There’ll be more stories of my Bangla-to-English […]


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