• Parabaas
    Parabaas : পরবাস : বাংলা ভাষা, সাহিত্য ও সংস্কৃতি
  • পরবাস | Rabindranath Tagore | Essay
  • Listening to Gitanjali: Parables for Translators : Carolyn B. Brown
    Listening to Gitanjali: Parables for Translators | Twelve Poems from Gitanjali

    “Now, I ask, has the time come at last when I may go in and see thy face and offer thee my silent salutation?” This question closes one of Tagore’s self-translated prose poems. The corresponding Bengali poem (Gitanjali 44) promises not a mute gesture but jaidhoni, a joyous shout of victory. The mutation from Bengali to English might serve as a parable for the translator’s plight: the poet-musician’s “instrument” goes silent; he can no longer play the banshi, his bamboo flute, in another language.

    It takes only a line or two of the Bengali Gitanjali to demonstrate the celebrated music of his poetry. Tagore, the poet-translator renders the first line of Gitanjali 20 in English as follows: “Art thou abroad on this stormy night on the journey of love.” In Bengali, the poet writes: aji jhorer rate tomar obhishar. Even in this simplified transliteration, the characteristic consonant linking is apparent, as j’s give way to r’s and t’s, then the labial m and b, with the final shar a softened echo of the earlier jhor. The line contains no verb—Bengali does not need one—just a storm, night, a person (“you”), and a lovers’ meeting. The spare simplicity of the line and the general legibility of elliptical constructions in Bengali serve to amplify the distinctive texture, the “music,” of the original poem. In his English version, Tagore turns to rhetorical artifice—and often excess. Through the “mazy depths of gloom,” the shore is “dim,” the river “ink-black,” the forest “frowning,” whereas the evocative Bengali lines work primarily through rhythm and sound patterns, large and small, without “adjectival insistence”1: sudur kon nodir pare / gohon kon boner dhare / gobhir kon ondhokare.2 Line by line, the sound deepens and darkens into the low rumbling of the paired gobhir ondhokar (the k is almost indistinguishable from g in the phrase), the deepest densest darkness of the stormy night.

    The very compactness of the poems in Bengali is a challenge: Could an English version possibly come close to their frugality, allowing only a few words within a line? The twelve translations from Gitanjali that accompany this essay are an experiment in minimalism, shaped as well by a second question: What if the translator were to insist on listening to each line—in Bengali and in English—following the lines not only with an eye for meaning but also with an ear for its poetry. Another parable for translators takes the stage, first in Tagore’s version: “My song has put off her adornments. She has no pride of dress and decoration. Ornaments would mar our union; they would come between thee and me; their jingling would drown out thy whispers.” The music of the Bengali poem (Gitanjali 125) is in fact rather harsh. The central words (for “adornments/ornaments,” “decoration,” and “jingling”) are olongkar, ohongkar, and jhongkar, and throughout consonants such as k, kh, chh, g, j, jh, t, th, and dh dominate.3 The lesson for the translator is not only to strip down but also to listen, to hear the entire range and all the collocations of expressive sound.

    The intricate rhyme schemes of Tagore’s Gitanjali are a significant temptation for any translator interested in retaining some small portion of what Joe Winter calls “the great song of the Gitanjali.”4 He renders the first stanza of Gitanjali 125 as follows:
    This my song has cast off now
    all adornment and frill:
    proud apparel, in your presence,
    it must not wear still.
    Trinket-jinglings fall between
    our time-of-closeness, like a screen . . .
    and all you say to me is lost
    in that loud thrill. (160)

    In Bengali, the first four lines and last two rhyme, as do lines 5 and 6, with apparent ease and naturalness.5 Winter has translated all 157 poems in the Bengali collection, restoring its “poetic format”—a impressive accomplishment, and yet perhaps also a misguided one given the need to add adornments and frills all for the sake of rhyme’s “loud thrill.”6

    For me Gitanjali 125 may offer the quintessential lesson. To translate the first two lines as “My song has cast off / its bangles” is as if to say my translation has cast off rhyming. “No point preening” or demonstrating technical proficiency; “bangles just get / in the way / their jangling / drowns out your voice.” In other words, I feel that I hear Tagore’s voice better without wrenching syntax so as to rhyme in English. Tagore’s turn to prose for his own translations offers a lesson as well, but perhaps he concedes too much, abandoning word play, turning from listening to performing. Unfair as the comparison may be, it is hard to avoid. Bengali has far greater resources for rhyme than English does, not simply because Bengali is a highly inflected language, but also because it has a much greater allowance of phonemes. The English consonant t is no match for Bengali’s set of four phonemically distinct consonants (a dental and a retroflex t, each with an unaspirated and aspirated form). Entire sets of consonants are available for rhyming syllables. With the addition of -e, for instance, as a final vowel, the poet can alternate locative and dative case endings with a frequent verb ending (infinitive, conditional participle, past participle, and for second and third person in multiple tenses); in addition, Bengali verbs generally come at the end of lines and sentences. Rhyme, then, seems to happen almost as naturally as exhaling, without the strain and unavoidable interpolations evident in attempts to replicate Tagore’s rhyme schemes in English.

    Driven by rhyme, Winter must find something to chime with the final word of his first stanza (“unseen”) to end Gitanjali 34: “O great king, fragrance-charged with you a wind / arrives, is keen” (60). Talarovic’s free-verse translation, the poem ends with “Zephyrs play about, great King, carrying Your fragrance.”7 Prasenjit Gupta offers an avowedly literal rendering, “The wind comes, oh great king, / Wearing your fragrance” 8 His 2023 volume, translating anew the Bengali poems on which Tagore based his 1912 English Gitanjali, is another impressive accomplishment, as is William Radice’s 2011 volume, based on the original manuscript for the English Gitanjali.9 Radice has chosen to treat many of the poems from the Bengali Gitanjali as songs; that is, they are arranged to be sung, with repetitions that do not appear in the source poems. Thus, in his version, “The wind, great king, / seems to bring your fragrance,” is followed a repetition of the opening lines:
    When will you come for your merger with me?
    Will moon and sun still keep you
    hidden somewhere?
    When will you come for your merger with me?10

    Although in contrast to the original English manuscript, the English Gitanjali, or the Bengali original, Radice poses the lines as questions, perhaps to enliven them, to my ear the result is oddly flat. Without melody, the song doesn’t sing; with no ear for the sound of the words, the verse is no longer a poem. Indeed, the initial question sounds as if it might be addressed to a CEO, not to God in the guise of a lover. Tagore’s own English prose version, “I feel in the air a faint smell of thy sweet presence,”11 subdues the original “batash ashe, he maharaj / tomar gondho mekhe.” He abandons the wind as the active principle, replacing it with “I feel the air.” With the barest literalism, the lines might be rendered: “Wind comes, oh great king / your smell spreading.” Compared to the rich soundscape of the Bengali, the English is impoverished, offering only a bit of end rhyme with “king/spreading.” The CEO would cancel the merger appointment; the lover would never show up for the rendezvous. Bengali, although it compensates with compound forms, it is relatively verb-poor; as a result, a single verb can be highly resonant with multiple meanings and associations. The verb in the phrase, mekhe, suggests smearing, daubing, rubbing—oil on a body, whitewash on a wall, or frequently, mixing spices into food—which invites my own “figuratively literal” lines, “oh maharaj, the breeze / is spiced with your scent,” justified as much by the ear as by the dictionary. In Tagore’s initial manuscript translation of the poem’s ending, ink squiggles obscure the final words, which he has revised to “of the sweet presence.” He appears, however, to have first written “I feel in the air a faint smell wafted from thy feet” and then thought better of it.

    Tagore’s original translation of Gitanjali 34.

    In any case, the musical cadence and texture of Bengali poetry, even in contemporary free verse, lies mainly within the line, not at its end. The sound play can be constantly surprising, a steady source of delight. Consider five attempts to render the first stanza of Gitanjali 26, in which a woman is about to go to the river to fill her pitcher with water. Tagore writes, “The evening air is eager with the sad music of the water” (92); Winter, “Dusk is restless in the sky / with the water gurgling by” (52); Talarovic, “The sound of rippling water / disturbs the evening world” (46); Radice, “The evening sky is uneasy / when waters murmur” (18); and Gupta, “The sweet murmur of flowing water / Makes the evening sky restless” (188). All are perfectly plausible, but perhaps no English phrase can approximate the felicity of the Bengali, in which the sound of the flowing water in the fifth line is koloshshor, which both states and imitates the sound of water filling the woman’s earthen jug, her kolosh (lines 3 and 9 in the first stanza in the original Bengali and the next-to-last line in the second stanza).12 Bengali is a language that savors its own sounds, for instance, in “reduplicative” forms of various parts of speech, on-the-spot rhymes that add a playful echo to a word, and pairings that, no matter how often they recur, still strike a nerve. In the final stanza of Gitanjali 132, for instance, “joy and sorrow” or “pleasure and pain” is sukh-dukh in Bengali, yoked together as permanently in language as in life.

    Within such a repertoire, individual poems remain quite distinctive in tone and voice—the music is infinitely variable. The speakers of the Bengali Gitanjali would not recognize the elevated, “poetic” eloquence of Tagore’s English versions. For instance, Gitanjali 103, my favorite among the dozen, is spare and plainspoken in Bengali; it is informal, personable, even funny. The poem has a distinctly “bumpity” rhythm. Lines stop short of full length and contain little catches or hiccups—jai je, se chai, se je—that, however commonplace in themselves, have a cumulative effect that contributes to the poem’s drama. The poem seems to be written against smoothness, fluidity, and fluency; it is very much “about” listening with acute attention. Someone is following the speaker: apod, “danger” or an unpleasant, irritating person, a word that Tagore surely entertains as a pun. Orthographically, and sometimes as pronounced, apod can vary freely with apad, “from the feet” (pad is foot or step). If so, can a “stalker” be far behind? Indeed, here is another parable for translators! We try so earnestly to track a poem, we put it into our own words. This is our pleasure. And then, when we hear our own voice, we wonder whether we have made fools of ourselves. This is our plight. Even if my own experiment is not altogether persuasive, I would still urge its premise. We may know we cannot sing, but if we keep listening to the poem when we shape a line, perhaps the poet will give us the notes.

    An earlier version of this essay and the accompanying translations appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, no. 21 (2003).

    1 The phrase is F. R. Leavis’s, describing his sense of Joseph Conrad’s stylistic excess in Heart of Darkness to express “inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery,” when the “actual effect is not to magnify but rather to muffle.” The Great Tradition (1948; New York: Viking Penguin, 1983, 204–5). Even if not agreeing with Leavis, I hear his words as a warning for translators.

    2 Where Sanskrit-based transliteration uses an a, I have used o’s for first-syllable vowel sounds to represent more closely the actual pronunciation; s is almost always pronounced sh.

    3 The h’s indicate aspiration; most consonants in Bengali are paired in unaspirated and aspirated forms.

    4 The Gitanjali of Rabindranath Tagore, translated from Bengali by Joe Winter (Kolkata: Writers Workshop, 1998), 23.

    5 আমার এ গান ছেড়েছে তার
    সকল অলংকার,
    তোমার কাছে রাখে নি আর
    সাজের অহংকার।
    অলংকার যে মাঝে পড়ে
    মিলনেতে আড়াল করে,
    তোমার কথা ঢাকে যে তার
    মুখর ঝংকার।

    6 William Radice bests Winters by two additional end rhymes, but with increased strain:
    This song of mine has thrown away
    all ornaments;
    It’s kept for you no pride any more
    in garments.
    Trinkets that fall between
    Divide us like a screen;
    Their jingle-jangle pushes away
    what you say.

    Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali: Song Offerings, translated by William Radice (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 136. Radice bases his text on the Rothenstein ms. of Tagore’s English Gitanjali, which includes poems from Gitanjali (1910), Gitamalya (1914), and Gitali (1914).

    7 Show Yourself to My Soul: A New Translation of Gitanjali , translated by James Talarovic (Notre Dame, IN. Sorin Books, 2002), 54.

    8 Prasenjit Gupta, Tagore’s Gitanjali: A New Translation with the Bengali Originals and the Tagore Translations (Howell, NJ: Parabaas, 2023), 100.

    9 The Rothenstein manuscript, written in both English and Bengali, is held at Harvard University; it has been digitized and is available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Original_manuscript_of_Gitanjali_-_Rabindranath_Tagore_-_Rothenstein_collection.pdf.

    10 Radice, 22. Radice writes that he has translated the songs from Gitanjali, “in a way that I hope will instantly convey their song-like character. I preserve the repetitions of the lines that are obligatory when the songs are sung, I indicate the four-part structure of the song by inserting line-breaks, and I also put the second and fourth part of the song in italics. This is to evoke the way in which, in almost any song by Tagore, the fourth part has the same melody as the second part” (xii). Radice explains the structure underlying his rendering of the songs, based on the notations compiled by Visva-Bharati, in his introduction (lxvii–lxviii).

    11 Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali: A Collection of Prose Translations Made by the Author from the Original Bengali (New York: Scribner, 1997), 62.

    12 My decision not to translate kolosh may seem strange. But when the context makes it clear that it is a vessel to be filled with water, does it really need to become a leaden “jug” or “water pot”?

    13 For instance, in the second stanza of Gitanjali 34, the “tremulous” feeling in Tagore’s prose version is a “quiver” for Talarovic (54) or a “shiver” for Winters (60) and Gupta (60); in Radice’s “song” version, it turns into a veritable seizure, “a frisson all over / gives me tremblings” (repeated twice, 22). The original Bengali is simply an evocative, imitative, doubling: “কেঁপে কেঁপে” (kepe, with the initial e nasalized).

    Also read the accompanying article Twelve Poems from Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore and translated into English by Carolyn B. Brown

    অলংকরণ (Artwork) : By macmillan and company, london - https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Gitanjali.djvu/11, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29788090

    Tags: Gitanjali, Tagore
  • Listening to Gitanjali: Parables for Translators | Twelve Poems from Gitanjali
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