FOUR : SPHULINGA
By now readers will have formed some idea of the challenges of poetry translation and the problem-solving skills required. Turning to the last collection translated by Radice, Sphulinga or Sparks, I have decided to organize my comments in separate sub-sections. These sub-sections are not meant to be mutually exclusive; in fact they overlap. This is an arrangement for the sake of convenience, helping us to order and focus our gaze. I should mention that the textual history of Sphulinga is very complicated indeed. Radice follows the first edition of 1945, with 198 poems. The only text I have in front of me is that of Visvabharati’s Rabindra-Rachanabali, Magh 1393, Vol. 27, with 260 poems. The numbers do not match, but because the two sets are completely different (unlike the previous collection where they sometimes match and sometimes don’t) there is less chance of confusion. I am providing numbers for the Bengali poems, following the above-mentioned RR 27.
The first sub-section I shall call Naming. In this sub-section I shall note small problems related to the naming of objects, which includes not naming, misnaming, or not being aware of the full implications of a name.
When it bursts into flower
The creeper’s pride has no end -
As if it has received a letter
In the sky’s own hand. (6)
The poem is OK as it stands, but does not give us any indication of why, when the creeper bursts into flower, it thinks it has received a letter in the sky’s own hand. Because of other research work I have done, I knew straight away that the poet must have provided a clue. He would not have made such a statement without supplying a clue. And when I turned to the original poem, I found that my hunch was correct. There it was - the clue:
The common (top) and another variety of
Poem no. 120 refers to the shiuli flower, and no. 138 refers to the shephali. The names are annotated, but the notes suggest that the translator is not aware (or not very sharply aware) that the two names refer to the same flower, the first word being just a derivative of the second. This sort of thing can easily happen to a translator if he is not all that familiar with the source language’s natural habitat. It is not the end of the world, certainly, but a translator has to gather as much contextual information as possible inasmuch as such information can help him to understand the imagery-related meaning of a given poem. In Tagore this particular flower is very closely related to the idea of the transience of beauty. This knowledge helps the translator.
Naming has clearly become problematic in the following poem:
‘Come to me here!’
Sings the evening star.
When the lamp’s flames fail
They obey that call. (33)
The shuktara here needed to be translated as the ‘morning star’. The same heavenly body, Venus, as we know, is both morning star and evening star, and in translation the naming needs to be according to the context. The clue is given in the lamp’s flame dying. The lamp’s flame dying at dawn is a stock Tagore image. And when Tagore writes shuktara he almost always means the morning star, his preferred name for the evening star being sandhyatara. In poem no. 92 (Bengali no. 122) Radice translates shishu shuktara as ‘The young pole star’- I don’t know why. The pole star is another star, dhruba-tara. Here too ‘morning star’ is called for, and the rest of the poem clearly points that way. Finally, in no. 193 (Bengali no. 252) Radice correctly translates shuktara as ‘Venus’, in the context of dawn. But it is interesting that he has not used the name ‘morning star’ on any of these occasions.
I would say there is a naming-related problem in the following poem too:
‘Answer me, answer me, wife!’
The more the bird sings ..... (116)
There is no annotation, suggesting that the phrase bou katha kao may not have been identified in the translator’s mind as the name of the bird. The bird is so named because of a perceived similarity between its call and the phrase. Again, such ‘local’ information does help to decode a poem’s total meaning, and therefore a translator must have it under his belt, but it must be very hard for a translator not immersed in the ‘source culture’ to spot where such layered meanings may be lurking. There is no way out except to take the help of a friend who has this local knowledge.
In this second sub-section, I shall present a selection of examples which show meaning-shifts due to fairly small linguistic particles being translated in a particular way. Slight shifts of meaning are sometimes unavoidable, even inevitable, and in longer poems small local shifts can be easily accommodated, but when the poems are really brief, the detail can affect the meaning of the whole more dramatically.
I worship a value that is so supreme,
Neglect of it does it no harm. (30)
Here the overall meaning has moved away. Tagore is saying: ‘This is the supreme value of the nature of my worship - that even if I don’t worship I am not punished.’ The second it in the English translation is particularly problematic.
Still, every day, the dawn
Brings a blessing
To whatever is growing
Towards the sun. (31)
Tagore is saying that every morning the sun brings a blessing in the direction of whatever is still a mere sprout, growing, not fully grown. The word ‘still’ needs to be linked to the process of growth; it has been disconnected from that and re-connected to the sun’s action, emphasized by extra punctuation, thus causing a shift in the poem’s meaning. The Bengali poem begins with ekhono and the English with still, which may seem the same, but the words are functioning differently.
The sea wants to understand
The message, written in spray,
That the waves repeatedly write
And immediately wipe away. (73)
The meaning-shift here arises from a mistranslation of bujhabare, which is a causative form, meaning ‘to explain, to communicate, to cause others to understand’; it must have been confused with bujhibare, ‘to understand, to grasp’. This does result in a somewhat strange poem: why would the sea want to understand the message that its own waves, part of itself, write? What the original poem is saying is that the sea tries repeatedly, without satisfaction, to communicate - to the world, to the beach - the language of its waves. It writes the message and wipes it off in a repeated action.
A rather interesting series of meaning-shifts occurs in the following instance:
The goodness you show
To those who serve you;
The unconditional love
You attract towards you;
Their unimaginable energy,
Their tireless vitality,
Is not theirs by right:
It’s a gift, from you. (78)
My first feeling of something being not quite right was triggered by noticing that the adjective a-yachita in the third line had not been correctly translated: it does not mean ‘unconditional’; it means ‘un-asked for’. Love or service that was not asked for, was not demanded, but arrives suddenly, unexpectedly, is given spontaneously, magnanimously, out of the free will of the giver, is of a higher order in the Tagorean universe; he often speaks of the blessing of gifts that we receive without asking for them.
‘Your friendship has come to me unexpectedly,’ he wrote to Victoria Ocampo while sailing away from Argentina. Un-asked for love is a highly valorized commodity in Tagore’s world. After noticing the change of this concept to that of ‘unconditional love’, which has a very different flavour, I began to feel that there was a wobble in the first two lines of the translation. What is Tagore saying in the first four lines of this poem? I would paraphrase them thus: ‘The unsolicited love that your servant attracts towards himself when he engages in good deeds in your cause, in your service ...’ The poet is speaking of the unsolicited love that comes to those who serve God - coming in reality from God Himself, though mediated perhaps through fellow human beings. He is not speaking here of the love that comes from man to God, though that is not being negated or denied - obviously someone who serves God loves Him too. The poet is saying that he who serves God is filled with love, energy, vitality - all gifts coming from the direction of God Himself towards man. Again, I think that components of the original poem have been re-assembled in the new poem in a slightly different way, making new connections and causing shifts in meaning. The God who was giving unsolicited love is converted into a jealous taskmaster who demands ‘unconditional love’: a shift indeed. ‘Unsolicited love’ is a grace, but ‘unconditional love’ is a requirement, a demand, a command. Thus the very aura of God changes.
An analogous change can be seen in the following case:
Day and night without sleeping,
Eternity watches and waits
For a visitor who lives in no place,
Whom no one can name,
Who exists beyond all imagining. (85)
In the original poem Great Time or Eternity watches and waits for a future which at the moment does not exist anywhere, which is currently not known to anybody, a future which is unfamiliar, beyond all present imagining. In other words, the future is open. It cannot be predicted; it awaits creation. Radice turns this abstract concept of an unknowable, open future into a personalized ‘visitor’. Though the attributes of this visitor are more or less the same as those of the abstract future of the source-poem, the conclusion that this person ‘exists beyond all imagining’ delivers a resounding emphasis on the notion of his existence: though ‘beyond all imagining’, he nevertheless ‘exists’, is somehow pre-determined. This effects a closure, whereas the source-poem is much more open-ended, giving us a door open towards a future which is not only unknown, unfamiliar, and unimaginable, but also which does not as yet exist anywhere - jaha nai konokhane. This shift does change the philosophical flavour of the poem, introducing a touch of determinism which wasn’t there before.
A look at the following example is also instructive:
When a wind from across the sea
Comes to this shore,
Red fire ignites the Spring
And sparks the Ashoka-tree
Into golden fire. (90)
In the original poem, it is the month of Phagun, i.e., the coming of spring, that will light the fire and cause the ashoka-tree to burst into flower. In the translation it is the other way around - the subject and the object have changed places. Does it matter? I think it does, because the change causes the word ‘fire’ to be repeated twice in a strange sequence. If we compare the English version with the original, we see what has happened. In stead of spring itself lighting a ‘coloured’ fire, of which the ‘golden’ flowers of the ashoka tree are a part, a red fire from somewhere else comes along and ignites the spring, and in the process sparks the ashoka-tree into golden fire. It is interesting that Radice has translated rongin as ‘red’, though it is not clear if he was aware, when he was translating the poem, of the ambiguity of Tagore’s red-references. He does give a note on the ashoka-tree and the colour of its flowers, but does not mention Tagore’s difficulty with the colour red. ‘Coloured’ (rongin) is indeed Tagore’s oblique way of referring to a colour which has some red in it, while the adjective ‘golden’ reminds us that the colour of these flowers partakes of a fair amount of orange. When red and yellow/gold are mixed, Tagore emphasizes the goldenness, which he saw clearly, and somewhere in the language he ties a knot between the red and the gold. He does this often when describing sunset scenes. I surveyed Tagore’s colour imagery in minute detail in the book Ronger Rabindranath, and I do believe that from now on it will be an extra asset for Tagore translators if they are aware of the particularities of Tagore’s colour-world. Contextual ‘knowledge’ cannot but improve our ‘techniques’.
In these tiny spark-like poems the omission of just one crucial word can have a consequence on the meaning.
When the sun sets in the West,
Let Purabi sound in your ears -
Raga of the East. (101)
The omission of takhano takes away the punch of the little poem, which is in effect a joke in verse. The point is that Purabi is an evening raga, but the name also means ‘eastern’. Radice does provide a note to this effect, but the second line is crying out for the insertion of a word or phrase corresponding to takhano. Why not:
When the sun sets in the West,
Even then let Purabi sound in your ears -
Raga of the East.
At least the poem can then make its point.
One crucial word is missed out in the following example too:
To the woods. (105)
There is nothing in the English text to correspond to the adjective bipul, and this does make a difference to the feel of the poem. Also, given how tiny the poem is, translating the full phrase pushper mukul might have been advantageous. Though when people speak of ‘buds’, they do most often mean flower-buds, still the word ‘bud’ by itself does have a broader scope, inclusive of any ‘immature knoblike shoot from which a stem, leaf, or flower develops’ (The Concise Oxford Dictionary). Keeping the existing structure, the English poem could be re-written as:
bring immense solace
to the woods.
They bring immense solace because they suggest renewal. Flowers mean seeds; seeds mean more trees. The immensity of the solace needs to be stressed.
The meaning-shift in the following example is, I believe, due to the misinterpretation of a single word, as in the case of no. 73 above:
Love’s original fire fills
The sky with white-hot flame.
Descending to earth it separates out
Into colour, dress and form. (109)
Undoubtedly this is an image derived from the separation of white light into a spectrum of colours, but Tagore is not saying that white light descends to the earth separated out into three categories, namely, ‘colour, dress and form’. He is saying that it descends to the earth ‘in diverse forms, dressed in diverse colours’. I suspect that the last word of the poem, sheje, a verb of incomplete action, a present participle meaning ‘dressing up’, has been confused with the noun-word shaaje (locative of shaaj, dress, costume, make-up).
In my next example, two key words in the two opening lines of the poem seem to have been misunderstood:
In the monsoon, under a siuli-tree,
Sit ready for prayer.
Weave a garland of fallen blooms. ..... (120)
Shiuli, Shefali, orShefalika tree (top)
and flower (bottom).
could have escaped the attention of any advisors who offered comments on the drafts. The first word can mean ‘it rains’, but clearly not here. Here it is not a verb; it is a noun. In the context of our ‘workshop’, this is a caveat not only to translators, but also to any source-language consultants offering comments on drafts. If checking translations against original texts has to be done, far greater care is required. I have spent days preparing the material for this article.
The meaning-shift in the following example is no less intriguing:
When the Spring breeze maddens the woods,
The leaves quiver and sway.
Their dance is a tribute to Beauty:
‘We are blessed,’ they say. (125)
How did tumi, plain and simple ‘you’, become ‘we’ here? Is there a misprint in my RR 27? Is the reading different in the first edition used by Radice? But if the leaves are paying a tribute (arghya) to Beauty (in the abstract sense, sundar in the masculine gender), ‘you’ makes better sense. The meaning is not so much ‘you are blessed’ as ‘you are worthy of praise’. To translate into colloquial English, the phrase is something like: ‘You are great, you are fabulous, you are simply wonderful!’
The shift in the following example is more complex:
I have found what I sought from door to door,
Thinking I’d lost it again and again.
I shall blend it with my life within.
In my forms and conceits make it mine,
And scatter its nectar outside once more. (133)
The original poem does not open with a confident announcement like ‘I have found’. It begins with the perplexity of a quest. There a strong will to find the object of the quest. ‘I will find,’ is the message of the poet. What the poet had sought from door to door could be God or an ideal companion, or an abstract concept like peace or beauty or happiness. Again and again he thought he had got hold of this elusive thing or person, only to lose him/her/it again and again. But internally, within himself, he will blend this entity - appearing in many manifestations, decked in all manner of jewels - with his life. I quite like the last two lines of the English poem; I think they capture the depth of the original statement, but vis-à-vis the original poem, there is a strange meaning-shift in the two opening lines.
The meaning-shift in the following example has a philosophical dimension:
When the fierce pain of the world
Deals us a blow,
‘I am not here’ are the words
The heart seems to know.
He who is of all time
Is detached from this era:
His body displays no sign
Of the wounds we suffer. (179)
The problem here begins with the translation of aami je naai with ‘I am not here’. The interpolation of ‘here’, which does not exist in the original, masks the real intellectual position of the statement, which is not just about ‘here’ and ‘there’, but about existence itself. Buffeted by the world, the mind thinks: ‘I am not, I don’t exist.’ The answer to this question of existence is contained in the second half of the poem. But in the fifth line, there is another modification of the original statement. The Bengali line is not quite ‘He who is of all time’, but ‘He who is, is of all time’. So the original rhetoric of the Bengali poem balances ‘I AM NOT’ with ‘HE WHO IS’. Who is this ‘He who is’? The rest of the English poem tends to identify this Being with a distant, transcendent God-figure. However, the original poem is enveloped in the somewhat different conceptual space of atman and brahman which was Tagore’s Upanishadic heritage and was a very vital part of his outlook throughout his life. In this world-view, the atman within each one of us is indeed of the same substance as brahman, and coeval and coterminous with the latter. That is why it is important for the translator to offer some ‘resistance’ to domestication in the language and follow the original a little more carefully and imaginatively in order to convey the intellectual ‘alterity’ of the poem. Keeping the existing framework, let me re-write the English poem to show how the Hindu strands of thought could be teased out a little bit better:
When the fierce pain of the world
deals us a blow,
‘I am not’ are the first words
the mind seems to know.
He who is, is of all time,
detached from this era:
his body displays no sign
of the wounds I suffer.
When we suffer in this world, our very existence seems illusory. We feel annihilated. But it is only the perishable body, the temporal vessel in which the atman is lodged, that suffers and has wounds. He who exists for ever and ever is everybody’s real ‘I’, the atman nestling within each one of us, coeval and coterminous with brahman, the ultimate, abiding reality of the universe. This real ‘I’ cannot be wounded, cannot be killed. It is imperishable. Thus the poem begins with a genuine pain of the temporal ‘I’, to move forward to an assertion of the ‘I’ that is eternal and immortal - a solace that cancels the initial pain, but with a dynamics that is slightly different from, say, the Christian way of looking at it. The consolations of the different religious-philosophical traditions may all ‘boil down to the same thing’ in the end, but while they are boiling and bubbling, they do give off slightly different volatile essences, and it is one of the pleasures of reading the literatures of other cultures that we can sniff these specific aromas. As translators we should strive to bring out these flavours. It is important to understand that ‘He who is, is of all time’ does not refer directly to a Christian-like God-figure but signals the understanding of ‘So’ham’ or ‘I am He’, the identification of the atman with the brahman, the philosophical bedrock on which Tagore’s education rested. That is why I would write ‘I’, not ‘we’, in the last line, to align ourselves better with the pain of the ‘I’ that suffers, feels crushed and annihilated.
While on this subject, I would make another point. In the Introduction, discussing the elements of Indian tradition that went into the making of Tagore’s conceptual world, Radice refers to the Bhagavadgita as one of the elements that are ‘conspicuous by their absence’ (p. 28). However, the ontology of the Gita is substantially the same as that of the Upanishads, so the distance between Tagore and what might be called the theoretical discourse of the Gita text is not as great as is being imagined.
The third sub-section I shall call Style, hoping to show how even very small stylistic decisions taken by the translator can affect the translated text.
Let me begin with a very famous poem:
You are just you:
The debt I owe
I repay with my love
each day anew. (77)
It is neat, but what happened to the little stylistic tilt, the emphasis which makes it such a memorable poem in the original? In his anxiety to reproduce the extreme simplicity of the poem, the translator has pared away the connectives, but to capture the poem’s very own gesture, it may be necessary to restore the ‘that-clause’ within which the original poem is embedded:
That you are just you
is my debt to you,
which I repay with my love
Each day anew.
Interestingly, on the dedication page of this book - the book is dedicated to the German writer, scholar, and translator Martin Kämpchen - Radice quotes the first two lines of Kämpchen’s own rendering of this very poem into German, and Kämpchen begins with the connective particle da, indicating ‘because’:
Da du du selbst bist
bin ich in deiner Schuld ....
Some such device is necessary to capture the original gesture.
A stylistic decision to pare connective particles affects the following example also:
Up to the sky
My free thoughts roam:
In my songs they come home. (152)
Again it is a satisfactory, even pretty, rendering with the rhyme between ‘roam’ and ‘home’, but the ‘that-clause’ in which the original poem is embedded is omitted, giving the new poem a somewhat shrunken gesture. The poet is saying that his free thought is a bird that loves its freedom, but that same bird loves to come and ‘sit’ on his songs. The same bird needs both a sky and a nest - a very Tagorean image - but shouldn’t we also try to accommodate that image of the bird ‘sitting’ on the songs, like a parent bird sitting on its eggs - a clear metaphor of creativity? How could one give this statement a formal shape? Such tasks are not easy, but in poetry translation it is sometimes good to sit back and question just how useful it is to cling to any overarching preconception of ‘form’. Having decided ‘we shall do it this way’, we tend to become obsessive-compulsive about it, but if, in the case of any particular poem, the scheme does not deliver, should we try to fit the poem into the scheme, or find another way altogether? Does it matter if we can’t get hold of a rhyme? Can’t the design of the lines on the page help? After all, Tagore himself enlisted such aids.
That same free thought of mine
that flies towards the sky
comes to sit and brood
on my songs.
Won’t this do? Why not? I see enough poems in magazines which are written in this kind of style.
What can we do about this one? -
Brother kills brother when a war
Is against God’s law. (188)
What is gained by turning the statement around in this way? Is it just to get a measure of sonic echo between ‘war’ and ‘law’? But is it worth it? What about the original rhetorical gesture? Would it not be better to re-create something analogous?
is a war
against God Himself.
And here is another one:
The two shores yearn,
And the sea between
Sings of their bottomless pain. (86)
But the force of the original poem is in the statement that the sea IS the song. What would be the harm in keeping it like that? It needn’t interfere with the rhyme.
The two shores yearn,
and the sea in between
is the song of their bottomless pain.
To be fair to Radice, he does try to vary the form from poem to poem, and is genuinely creative. Very occasionally the form becomes a jacket that needs to be taken off. In these little poems the form is as light as a feather, so that an endeavour to fit a poem to a form shows through.
I found some poems where a change in the tense has had a subtle effect on the overall tone.
The lotus spreads out its petals
To receive what the sun’s rays write.
What happens to that fleeting message
When the sun sets at night? (99)
The original says not ‘What happens’ but ‘What will happen’, and I think there is a fine distinction. To say the former adds a faint tone of moralizing, assuming that the poet knows the answer to the question already; to say the latter retains the open-ended quality of the original statement, which is an exclamation as well as a question.
When, under dawning skies,
Darkness opens its doors,
The golden music of sunrise
Gathers the stars. (156)
In the Bengali poem the past tense makes it a unique event which was observed - this morning, as it were - with an innocent wonderment. Converting it to the present tense turns it into something that happens every day, making it a little ordinary.
There are some inspiring re-creative efforts which affect the style. These merit a closer look.
Anklets heard in the wood:
The Wanderlust in their jingle
Makes me want to travel. (56)
This is a free re-creation which is different in ‘feel’ from the original - drier, more like a haiku, yet it is appealing.
A very interesting thing happens in this translation:
Those rainless clouds
Assembling in crowds
At the edge of the sky
Write to say:
Let the world enjoy
A sky-high holiday today. (81)
I find this very appealing too. The phrase ‘sky-high holiday’ has a very English feel about it, but it is a genuine ‘cultural equivalent’ of the original image. Interestingly, this English image is ‘vertical’, with the fun and frolic rising upwards to the sky, while the original image, intertextually connecting with other Tagore lines -
is horizontal, suggesting a horizontal spread of fun across the sky.
Radice has hit upon another apt ‘cultural equivalent’ in the following transformation:
When a storm gatecrashes
Springtime’s party .... (124)
I would say this is a really inspired choice of an image. But in the following poem, there could have been a more ‘concrete’ equivalent:
Fanatical worship of memory,
Sacrificing the present
To praise what belongs to history! (192)
This is all abstract, with nothing to match the concrete image of the kapalini at her worship. Perhaps an opening phrase like ‘That fanatical priestess, Memory’ could do the trick.
In the end there is a strong subjective element in much of literary translation. We translate as we perceive the needs, as we hear the rhythms. Our own cultural moorings have a decisive influence. And when our work is published, people react to them from their own subjective centres too.
When daylight dims
And deep shadows fall
I come to the pond
With a pitcher to fill ..... (83)
I can just imagine how I would have myself struggled to incorporate into these lines the two missed out components: 1) the fact that the girl is on her own, and 2) the fact that filling the pitcher is really a pretext for her. What we struggle to hang on to, what we leave out as not so important - these are all very much connected to our own relationship to the text, to the cultural details embedded therein. Indeed gender matters too. The girl visiting the pond on her own in the evening - under the pretext of filling her pitcher - is a figure with whom I have subterranean links, so my relationship to this text will be a little different from someone who does not feel the same links.
The way we relate to texts - as readers and translators - is subjective. Nevertheless any craft has aspects that can be discussed. Ideas can be shared; work done can be looked at in detail with a view to further improvement; our professionalism can be polished. That has been the purpose of this exercise, mixing a conventional review with an unconventional element of workshop, hoping that it might clarify to some readers and would-be translators what the issues are in this kind of linguistic transfer and inter-cultural mediation.
Like Particles and Jottings, Sparks also has some admirable translations. I would ask readers to check for themselves nos. 10, 28, 29, 51, 72, 84, 93, 94, 98, 103, 104, 106, 107, 118, 127, or 190 for examples of really felicitous translation. This one is like a cameo:
Daytime: the hours cross over,
Bearing their burden of work.
Sunset: the boat’s magic cargo
Is coloured by light and dark. (84)
This one is brilliant:
With the past’s pen in my hand
I write my name on the future.
Superimposed are the signatures
Of later writers.
In Time’s notebook the muddle
Of old and new combined:
A ceaseless scribble. (104)
Let me leave readers with the following poem: I am sure many readers will easily recognize the original:
Too long I’ve wandered from place to place,
Seen mountains and seas at vast expense.
Why haven’t I stepped two yards from my house,
Opened my eyes and gazed very close
At a drop of dew on a stalk of rice? (127)
It captures the spirit of the original and at the same time works on its own as a beautiful poem. One could not ask for more.