On the Wings of Hummingbirds, Rabindranath Tagore’s Little Poems: An Invitation to a Review-cum-Workshop [Part 2]
Ketaki Kushari Dyson
Rabindranath Tagore, Particles, Jottings, Sparks, The Collected Brief Poems Translated with an
Introduction by William Radice; Angel Books; London; 2001; ISBN 0-946162-66-2
TWO : KANIKA
First, Kanika, Radice’s Particles. Radice does succeed in
re-creating many of the poems of Kanika
in a pithy, witty, didactic English style. There is a good match, so to speak, between
the spirit of these poems – their dry humour, their rhetoric – and the
translator’s genius. One can hear the spoken voice, how the lines need to be
read, the points of emphasis – sometimes indicated by the translator by means
of added italics. Let me quote two examples where the translator’s gifts and a
happy serendipity combine to make excellent translations. The original poems of
Kanika are not numbered, so I have
not assigned them any.
39 Faith versus Zeal
Though her hands are empty, Faith is serene.
Says Zeal, ‘Please show your riches to me.’
‘They’re within,’ says Faith, ‘there’s nothing to see.’
‘Just look,’ says Zeal, ‘at the wealth I gain.’
57 Good and Bad
Says the net, ‘I’m not lifting mud any longer!’
‘Then you won’t,’ says the fisherman, ‘catch fish either.’
Radice has a penchant for constructing good rhyming couplets that
conclude poems, clinching the point:
‘Be free to speak plainly all the year long.
I’m happy with the truth of my own sweet song.’ (From no. 18, Plain
‘If all,’ said the mountain, ‘were flat and even,
How could rivers bring manna from heaven?’ (From no. 22, The Need for
Now let us look at some examples of how in the translation of poetry
into poetry the exigencies of maintaining a formal structure in the new text,
including a scheme of rhymes/assonances, can cause ideas/images to move away
from the original.
Let me be a flower, dear God,
in your kindness,
And pierce with beauty instead of sharpness! (From no. 12, Assailant’s
Here the original rhetoric is modified, and this new rhetoric is fine
in its own way, except that in the original poem the garland-maker’s needle did
wish to be released from the hateful role of piercing altogether! Is there any
way we could accommodate the original idea better? Keeping Radice’s first line
intact, we could write:
Let me be a flower, dear God,
in your kindness,
a flower that opens, not a needle that pierces!
I would say that kindness/pierces
will be good enough as a rhyme or near-rhyme, allowing us the advantage of
getting closer to the original idea. Another person may not agree.
Let us look at the last four lines of another poem, where the bee is
speaking to the butterfly:
‘You are,’ said the bee, ‘lovely indeed,
But you have no hum to make yourself heard.
When I gather nectar, who doesn’t know it?
I steal the heart of the flower and
the poet.’ (From no. 14, Speaking Up for Yourself)
Again, this is fine as it goes, but could we perhaps get a little
closer to the point that the bee was originally making? Because the bee was
making a subtle point – that we should not just make our own voices heard, but
give praise and thanks where they are due. Staying reasonably close to the
structure Radice has built, and adding some ‘lateral thinking’ to our task, we
‘You are,’ said the bee, ‘lovely in yourself,
but you have no hum in praise of loveliness.
When I gather nectar, I go singing its praise,
and thus I steal the hearts of flowers and poets!’
Again, I feel this much of rhyme/assonance is quite adequate for the
sonic patterning required. It is my impression that in this book Radice has
depended a great deal on consonant-dependent assonance (as in indeed/heard). But assonance dependent
on vowel-sounds (as in yourself/loveliness)
can be very effective too and is a much-used technique of sonic patterning in
contemporary English poetry. This way we do not sacrifice the magic of sound,
but still capture some of the moral high ground of the bee’s position.
Let us look at the conclusion of the poem where Radice leaves the word Bápu intact (as I have already
mentioned) and has to gloss it as a ‘somewhat patronising endearment’:
The cloud says, ‘Bápu, don’t
be so haughty.
Your watery depth redounds to my
glory.’ (From no. 17, Emptied by Giving)
The exhausted cloud is speaking to the rain-fed lake. I myself would
have gone for an English equivalent of Bápu,
and one could even angle for a neater end-rhyme, thus:
The cloud says, ‘My dear fellow, don’t be so haughty!
Your watery fullness is but my
The first line can take the extra syllables without any problem, I
The rendering of the following poem I find a little problematic:
44 Canal’s Grievance
‘Why, to make me, must labour be large,
when rivers dig themselves as they run?’
A courtier speaks: ‘But you are the one
Who is served by the rivers,
The last word is then glossed in the foot-note as ‘Great King’. I think
that in the first two lines here the meaning has really moved away from the
original more than is necessary. And the translation of the title too is
misleading. The canal hasn’t got a grievance: it is actually congratulating
itself. The error arises from a misinterpretation of the idiomatic expression matha-kotakuti. This phrase does not
mean large labour. It means bashing the head in an act of desperate
supplication, a gesture of submission and frantic pleading from a social
inferior towards a social superior. The canal foolishly imagines that it is
receiving this homage from the rivers that feed it, and the flattering courtier
strengthens this illusion. In reality, the canal wouldn’t exist without the
bounty of the rivers, just as a king is nothing unless his subjects and vassals
pay taxes and tributes. One could give a stronger tilt towards the original
meaning by writing:
The canal says, ‘The rivers – how they fall at my feet!
They roll and run to me of their own sweet will!’
‘Because,’ says a courtier, ‘you are
streams big and small supply you with water!’
Here is an oft-quoted poem all Bengalis will recognize:
64 Prudent Mediocrity
The finest are happy to walk with the lowly,
Those in between are not so friendly.
Again, this is one way of doing it, but the strong rhetorical nature of
the original is not maintained. The punch of the last line has been sacrificed.
How about this? –
The highest are happy to walk with the lowest.
Those who keep their distance are just the second-best.
Or consider this two-liner:
‘I am,’ says Time, ‘this world’s Creator.’
‘Then I,’ says the clock, ‘am Creation’s maker!’
Does this deliver the punch? Why not the following? –
‘I am,’ says Time, ‘this world’s Creator.’
‘Then I,’ says the clock, ‘am the Creator’s maker!’
I am puzzled by Radice’s tackling of the opening of no. 90, which is a
Says Man, ‘Come on, be brave, go for it!’
Says Woman, ‘Really! Whatever next?’ (From no. 90, Beauty’s Discipline)
I quite like the second line, but in my view the first line needs to be
a blustering assertion of collective male identity rather than an exhortation
to the other camp. It should not be too difficult to translate closer to the
poet’s original intention. Readers can have a go at making up their own
The last poem of Particles
that I shall discuss is no. 105, another rendering that I find problematic.
‘I’ve vanquished the world,’ cries fearsome Death.
Life keeps trying its best to disrobe him.
Whatever the stripping, God still protects him:
Increases non-stop the supply of cloth!
Though the English poem as it stands makes sense as an independent
piece, that is not how I understand the original poem, where the roles of Death
and Life are, I think, reversed. I would paraphrase the original poem thus:
‘Saying “I’ve won this world”, fearsome Death tries to rob it [i.e. the world]
of Life, which is its robe. The more he pulls at the cloth, by the grace of God
the cloth goes on increasing for ever and ever.’ Though Radice does not provide
a note to alert readers, the disrobing is, of course, on the model of the
attempted disrobing of Draupadi in the Mahabharata.
In that context it is clear that the force of jinechhi is ‘I have won’ rather than ‘I have vanquished’. Death
thinks he has ‘won’ the world, just as the Kauravas had ‘won’ Draupadi at the
game of dice, and proceeds to take off the world’s robe, which is Life itself,
just as Duhshasan had tried to pull off Draupadi’s sari. But thanks to God’s
blessing, this cloth is for ever renewed, just as Draupadi’s sari had been
augmented by Krishna. Though the struggle between Life and Death can be viewed
either way as a no-win situation, yet the image of Death as the persistent
disrober who is persistently foiled in his attempt, is far more logical in our
creaturely context. I wonder if Radice’s interpretation stems from a
misinterpretation of the word bole in
the first line. This is not present indicative, but a verb of incomplete
action, a present participle, the contracted chalit bhasha form of boliya,
as indicated by the apostrophe, which exists in both the editions which I have
at hand. There is no stop after the first line, which flows directly into the
second, and it is only with karichhe
haran that Death’s action in the sentence spread over two lines is
completed. We need to read the lines thus:
The sheer brevity and tautness of construction can be a trap in some of
these aphoristic poems.