On the Wings of Hummingbirds, Rabindranath Tagore’s Little Poems: An Invitation to a Review-cum-Workshop [Part 3]
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
THREE : LEKHAN
Turning next to Lekhan,
Radice’s Jottings, we notice
immediately the more romantic and lyrical mood of this set of brief poems.
Amongst several very competent renderings I would single out some as particularly
well-chiselled examples of the craft of poetry translation. If readers compare
nos. 4, 54, 60, 66, 75, 79, 83, 86, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 103, 107, 114, 117,
146, 164, or 170 with the corresponding originals, they will see for themselves
how 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. A few
examples will not be amiss. Let me mention that of the two editions of Lekhan I have at home, only one assigns
numbers to the poems, but these numbers do not always correspond to the numbers
of Radice’s English versions: sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. To
avoid confusion I am not assigning any numbers to the Bengali poems. (Radice
explains the complicated publication history of Lekhan in the Introduction.)
Dreams are nests that birds
In sleep’s obscure
Build from our talkative days’
Discarded bits and
Spring, you’ve come to this place in error,
It seems to me.
If so, please leave at least one flower
On the wizened tree.
Fiery the path that grief must burn
To a place
beyond all pain. (86)
The following poem is not unlike some of the poems of Kanika in its spirit, and I admire the
ingenious way it has been tackled in English, the two lines of the original
being re-shaped into four :
By twisting it too hard,
The bully spoils the
In the end he must use an axe
To assert his authority.
And here is a sample where a poem of two long lines has been
re-designed into six short lines full of verve:
Off it goes!
Away it floats!
The lazy load
Of my idle hours
In my playfully made
If anyone wants to understand what is meant by ‘creating afresh in the
new language’, then this act of comparison should elucidate the process. The
poetic skill behind this act of ‘creating again’ can be fully appreciated only
by those who can compare the two pieces, the original and its transformation.
Faith is a bird at dawn
Whose song says, ‘Light,
Before night’s dark is gone. (117)
I would say the transformed piece almost has the edge on the original
here! And I believe that is exactly how bilingual readers should feel from time
to time when comparing source-poems and their re-incarnations - if that is to
say, they have some training in the poetics of the two traditions. It is, after
all, one poet answering the challenge set by another, which should make the
second poet’s adrenaline to flow, and there will be occasions when skill and
luck come together to deliver a firework of meaning. Other analogies are a
tabla ‘replying’ to a sitar, or an actor on form delivering his lines in such a
way that the meaning that had been sleeping ‘on the page’ is suddenly woken out
of its sleep ‘on the stage’. Indeed, I would be tempted to apply the message of
one of these poems to this very process of emulation:
O flock of ducks in the wind in winter,
The wine of flight inspires your wings!
Ecstatic with dreams of
Drunk with the sky’s
Tell me, how can I fill my songs
that same liquor? (146)
This is indeed what the translating poet tries to do, to fill his or
her songs with the rasa of another
It follows that it is the bilingual reader versed in the poetics of two
cultures who will notice when the actor fluffs his lines, so to speak. Most
people watching a play do not notice the slips and near-misses of actors, or
realize where they are improvising to cover up something that has gone wrong.
These things are only noticed by someone who knows the play very well.
By comparing the English texts with the originals I have noticed how
Radice, like an actor, slips in an ‘ours’ or ‘your’ which is not in the
original text, or for some mysterious reason omits a ‘my’ that should have been
there. ‘May love, like the sun’s brightness’ (9) should really have been ‘May
my love, like the sun’s brightness’ -
There is really no stylistic reason why ‘my’ has to be omitted. But
such omissions often come about because of the genuine human difficulty of
maintaining focus on two texts, one given and fixed, in front of the eyes, the
other in the process of being built by oneself. Apart from the intellectual
rigour involved, the sheer physical strain of shifting the eyes from one text
to the other can generate omissions/additions in the translated text.
In a nest, silent and shadowy,
That is ours alone,
Speechless, secret agony
Dwells on its own. (39)
The idea that the nest is ‘ours’ has been interpolated. The original
poem suggests that there is really only one person occupying this nest. The
second line could have been written: ‘Where the soul is alone’. Similarly,
there was no need for ‘your’ in ‘When I wandered into your garden’ (48),
because the original just says:
A very interesting consequence flows from this kind of deviation in
poem no. 47, the original of which will be familiar to many Bengalis:
Delay on my journey:
This cherry-blossom fell
Before I could give it to you.
But your gift, how it cheers
This azalea’s smile
Shows I have not upset you. (47)
This is a very special interpretation of the meaning of the poem. Until
I read this translation, I had never interpreted the poem quite in this way.
There is no mention of an exchange of gifts in the Bengali text. It is not
explicit. Could it be implicit? To some readers perhaps, but not to everybody.
As I interpret it, not one particular blossom, but all the cherry-blossoms have fallen because the traveller has taken
too long to reach his destination. I have always associated the traveller’s
regret with the Japanese spring ritual of ‘viewing the cherry-blossoms
together’: because all the blossoms are gone, he can no longer view them on the
trees in the company of his beloved. It is like arriving too late to play with
colours for the Holi festival. Yet, though the season of cherry-blossoms is
over, the azalea is now in bloom, incarnating, as it were, the forgiving smile
of the beloved. Though he is late, the traveller knows from this signal that he
is forgiven. The interesting point is that I can say these things only because I can compare the two
versions. If I could not read the original poem, I would see nothing amiss in
the English poem; it works perfectly well as it is, as an independent poem with
its own logic.
It is important to understand this: a collection like this book works
for its target audience because of its intrinsic overall strength. Each English
piece has been given a reasonable poetic shape and internal logic, and aligned
with English euphony. Overall, it is a good ‘show’, and should please the
audience. Having said that, what I am trying to do is to peep behind the
scenes, look at the script to understand what cuts and additions have been
made, imagine what went on at rehearsals, what ‘fixes’ were made in the
greenroom. This for me has an educative value, the value, as I said, of a
workshop. We complain that not enough translations are done from the Indian
languages, or that there are not enough competent translators to do these jobs.
But so little is actually done to ‘train’ prospective translators. Some of us
are already practitioners in the field of literature and have been writing and
translating for years. But there are others from other backgrounds, from the
other branches of the humanities, or even with backgrounds in science and
technology, who have the sensibility to contribute to the literary arts, are advanced
bilinguals, and are already budding writers. Some of them could indeed become
skilled translators if given some training and made aware of the technicalities
involved. Translation is a specialized
form of writing, and while every good writer in the other genres cannot become
a good translator, to be a good translator one needs to be a good writer in the
This is a broad socio-cultural matter and should have a special
interest for those of us who are in diaspora. The energies and talents that
went into the literary arts in previous generations are so often diverted
nowadays, because of the exigencies of earning a living, into other branches of
human activity. Yet from what I see around me, many fellow-Bengalis in
diaspora, when pursuing engineering or IT or whatever else that will earn them
a living, have a hole in their hearts filled with a longing for their culture.
Many of them are advanced bilinguals or trilinguals; quite a few already have
some experience of writing. Competent translators could be recruited from their
ranks, working in either direction between the languages in which they are
grounded, enriching our own literature or making our literary works better
known to those who cannot read our language. The dissemination and appreciation
of the literary arts, and the arts in general, are of great importance in our
times - globally - as it is through these processes that many of those human
values with which we desperately need to be in touch for the world’s well-being
can be properly inculcated: they are being grossly neglected, with dire
consequences. Tagore himself, if we care to remember, strove hard to bring the
arts to education. The hole-in-the-heart longing for our cultural roots that I
have just spoken about - isn’t this phenomenon itself to some extent derived
from our shared Tagorean heritage? Somewhere along the line, his thinking and
his works have shaped us, influenced us, made us aware, deep down, however
overlaid we may be with other concerns, that the arts do matter, that they are
not about easy entertainment or about making money: they are about making us
fully human. They matter for a community, for all humanity, and at the deepest
level. We cannot leave them to the mercy of market forces: we need them to achieve
all our human potentialities in a harmonious manner.
Training, of course, can only be given if we are prepared to focus on
details. The advantage of the Internet is that space is not at a premium, and a
detailed discussion can take place which many can access but which need not
annoy the editor ‘because it is taking up too much space’. I appreciate the
hospitality of Parabaas in
facilitating the possibility of a discourse like this. Being short poems, the
poems in the book being reviewed lend themselves well to a focused look for an
educative purpose. As Radice himself says in his Introduction, ‘The
friendliness of Tagore’s brief poems can, I believe, be conveyed in
translation, but only if it is done as a reciprocal act of friendship. If the
translator is grudging, thoughtless or impatient, he will not be able to
capture their sparkling yet tender spirit’ (p. 26). It is because his
‘reciprocal act of friendship’ has been successful in large measure that a
closer look at the ‘mechanics’ of these brief poems becomes rewarding for
apprentices in the craft of poetry translation. Needless to say, we approach
this task in a ‘reciprocal act of friendship’ too. With this ‘recap’ of my aims
in this article, I shall now continue to move through Jottings in search of examples that could be educative for us.
My dreams are gems of sparkling life,
In the still depths of the dark night,
This is OK as an independent poem, certainly, but not quite as powerful
as the original poem. There is a whiff of the effete in it, partly induced by
the rhyme flitting/darting. How can
we improve it? By going back to the original and looking at it closely. By
looking at it closely, by speaking and hearing the lines again and again, we
realize that though the ordering of the images is not so crucial in lines 3 and
4, they are very important in lines 1 and 2. It would be an advantage for the
translator to stick to the order in which the images are introduced in the
first and second lines of the original poem.
The poem is a little dance in four steps, each step concentrating on an
image. The first step is crucial. ‘My dreams are .....’, begins the poet, and
as he does so we as the audience begin to strain our ears to hear the rest.
What is it that his dreams are? We want to know, we care, because we share his
humanity. His dreams concern us, because maybe they are our dreams too! ‘My dreams are -’ says the poet, with a minute
break in the rhythm, a mini-caesura, to hold our attention, and then delivers,
with some panache, ‘ - fireflies’:
and that is the image that I
would say needs to be evoked first, no matter into which language we are
translating. It is the image of the firefly that generates the next image,
and not the other way around. Radice translates this second image well
- ‘gems of sparkling life’. This step is well executed, but needs to be the
second step of the dance, not the very first. This change would affect the
sonic patterning of the new piece, of course, but that can be tackled. Skirting
close to what Radice has written, one could re-write the English poem in a
number of variant ways.
My dreams are fireflies,
light’s particles darting
in the still
depths of dark night.
My dreams are fireflies,
light’s particles darting in the
still depths of
‘The’ can be omitted before ‘dark night’ without any loss. Breaking
lines 3 and 4 in the slightly unconventional second manner, along with the
cutting out of the word flitting and
the rather effete rhyming of flitting
and darting, gives the poem a
face-lift that makes it a more satisfactory English poem for a contemporary
audience. The vowel-dependent assonance in -flies/life/night
is quite adequate. Lines 3 and 4 could be re-written in a number of other ways:
in the still dark night they fly -
specks of light.
they fly in the still dark night -
And so on. Readers can imagine them. But I think the first line really
does benefit from being the simple ‘My dreams are fireflies’.
Now let us look at no. 21 of Jottings:
Clouds of the morning floating,
Light and shadow playing,
Like somebody passing
With a smiling childish
But it is not any old ‘somebody’ who is playing out there. It is clear
in the original poem, from the verb-forms in the honorific mode, that it is God
who is being talked about. The subject ‘He’ is omitted, but the verbs leave us
in no doubt about who the subject of those verbs is. The poem could be
paraphrased thus: ‘Setting afloat rafts of clouds, [He] plays a game of lights
and shadows. As a child with children, [He] spends the morning smiling/having
fun.’ So in a poem-version is it important to indicate that the player is God?
I think yes. God being the player in the morning sky, not only setting clouds
afloat, but also perhaps sailing on them, smiling, playing a game with lights
and shadows, like a child with other
children - this is what gives the images of this poem a very characteristic,
very recognizable Tagorean stamp, and I think being faithful to that would give
the poem more ‘dignity’. I am sure it can be done without too much hard work.
We can do it ‘like a child playing with other children’.
My next choice for comment is no. 27:
In my songs, O Lord,
touch I feel,
Like a mountain’s touch on the sea
a waterfall. (27)
Here it is the third line that perplexes me. ‘Like a mountain’s touch
on the sea’? I would have said: ‘As a mountain touches the sea/ Through a
waterfall [or stream, or fountain, whatever].’ The only way a mountain can know
the sea, glimpse the sea, is through the medium of water that issues from
itself, flows over its own surfaces, trickles as a stream at first, then
gathers force and volume, cascades as a waterfall, perhaps eventually even goes
hundreds or thousands of miles to meet the sea. Similarly, the only way we can
discover God, suggests the poet, is by means of our own creativity, through the
creations that issue from us.
It is instructive to look at no. 30:
O flower of mine, do not become
A foolish fop’s
Receive instead at your life’s dawn
Of the several meanings of maal
available, Radice has chosen one. Personally, I would have chosen the meaning
of ‘garland’: this is sanctioned by the dictionary in a poetic context. But I
would not single out this decision for comment. We all make personal choices of
one kind or another, and if it works reasonably well in the new poem, no harm
is done. More important than the translation of this or that noun are the
sinews of rhetoric that hold a poem together. So I would prefer to follow the
original and write ‘may you never become’, expressing a wish, instead of the
command ‘do not become’, and I would clarify that this wish itself is the
poet’s benediction. ‘Know that this is my benediction towards you at your
life’s dawn’: that is what is being said. There is nothing corresponding to
‘Receive instead’ in the original.
My comments on no. 32, however, do concern name-words!
O crescent moon,
Late is your
But the perfumed flowers of the night
There is nothing wrong with ‘crescent moon’ as such, as in English the
phrase refers primarily to the sickle-shape, without reference to whether the
moon is waxing or waning. But the original does refer explicitly to the moon in
its waning phase, and such contexts and their associations are paramount in the
imagery of Tagore’s literary language. Etymologically, the English word crescent means ‘growing’ (from Latin crescere, to grow), and there is
actually an adjectival use of this word meaning ‘increasing’ (such as ‘crescent
fortunes’). I would therefore avoid using it in this context and go for ‘waning
moon’, which would match better with the wistful mood of ‘Late is your rising’.
And I would name the flower, as Tagore has done. The tuberose is an important
flower in Tagore’s floral imagery, and in this night-poem it does need to be
named, to link it with other famous lines of the poet where it is named. These
two points in the poem are places where what the theoreticians call
‘resistance’ is called for. The translation will benefit if the translator ‘resists’
simple urges towards ‘fluency’ and ‘domestication’ and moves closer to the
specificities of the source language. That way he or she will capture the
Bengali ‘otherness’ of the poem for those who are reading it in English.
I am not sure what is happening in the third line of no. 33:
The wind is up, the sails tug,
But the anchor is stuck
in the mud.
Ashamed at being unable to find it,
The boat wants to hide its
There is nothing in the original to suggest the third line. The boat is
not searching for its anchor. It knows the anchor is stuck in the mud.
And that is its shame. The wind is
favourable, but the moored boat cannot get away without another’s help and
therefore does not know where to hide its head in shame. It is ashamed of its
inability to set sail on its own, its lack of agency. As so often in Tagore,
these simple images are charged with spiritual meanings. The boat is man, stuck
to the ‘mud’ of samsara, unable to start his spiritual journey without the
grace and assistance of the boatman (God).
Speaking of God, I am not sure if He should really be referred to in
line 2 of no. 52! -
I receive for my work
God’s fair estimation.
I receive for my songs
His tender affection.
My personal reaction to the Bengali poem is that prabhu in the second line stands for an earthly master. Others may
not agree with me. I doubt if Tagore thought that we get ‘honour’ (maan) from God for our ‘work’. Doing
work is a mundane thing, for which we get praise from our bosses on this earth.
It is only when we sing, and give praise, that God notices us and gives us His
love. Again, this is a very Tagorean sentiment.
I would like to make a stylistic comment on no. 57:
The timid shadow deep in the wood
Adores the light.
When the flowers are told this by the leaves,
They smile with delight.
The poetry and the humour get somewhat muted and need to be gently
brought out. The passive voice in the third line does not help. We need the
active voice here. Sticking to the overall framework Radice has constructed,
the poem could be re-shaped as:
Shy shadow, deep in the wood,
is in love with light.
Leaves report it to the flowers,
who smile with delight.
The question of bringing out the poetry is relevant also to no. 61:
When once you gave me, Beauty,
A sharp-thorned flower,
I smiled and thanked you gladly. (61)
‘Beauty’, as used here, immediately suggests a female figure in the
English context. However, as the original makes it clear, there is no such
necessary association with femaleness in the poet’s mind, and sundar is indeed masculine. If Tagore
had really wanted to evoke a female figure, he would have said sundari, but he doesn’t, because gender
is not the point here. The point is the connection between beauty and pain -
beauty pleases, but when we establish a relationship with it, it also hurts.
Beauty is not just physical beauty. In Tagore, sundar in the masculine form tends to be a shorthand for the
‘terrible beauty’ of our emotional lives, of human love, of our surrender to
God. All these are gifts with double values, flowers with sharp thorns. We have
to accept the pain along with the pleasure. The other point to note is that sundar is not introduced till the third
line. As in the opening poem of Lekhan,
we need to pay attention to the dance of the four lines, which unfolds the
poetical logic; reducing the poem to three lines does not, in my opinion, help
it. In fact, it becomes rather like one of Tagore’s own much-maligned
paraphrases. I would get closer to the Bengali and re-cast the English version:
Once you gave me a flower:
pricked me, alas!
Yet, beautiful one, I smiled
and gave you a namaskar.
In other words I would offer ‘resistance’ to domestication - to Beauty
with a capital B which can be abstract (‘Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty’) but
can also mean ‘beautiful woman’ in an individual and collective sense (‘Beauty
and the Beast’), and to a very English phrase like ‘thanked you gladly’, which
takes us away from the real intended meaning of the line. It is not a question
of low-key thanking in return for a bunch of flowers. Giving a namaskar is not thanking, but acknowledging
the presence of ‘terrible beauty’ in our lives, greeting it and welcoming it
with a smile, saying, ‘Yes, you exist, and I accept you.’ Normally, in a longer poem I would have
looked for a suitable English equivalent for namaskar, but the exigencies of form in such a short, tightly bound
poem call for a word that will give us some help with the patterning of sound.
This word, namaskar, is dignified -
in fact, Radice himself uses it in no. 139 - and it does the trick, giving us a
vowel-based assonance with ‘alas’, and also a consonant-based assonance with
‘flower’. So using this original Bengali word becomes a good strategic choice
at this point.
In poem no. 74, has the translator fallen a victim to a misprint?
When we’ve paid in full for a new existence,
We are free to enjoy it, without any hindrance. (74)
This does not really make good Tagorean sense. In the original poem it
is nara-janam, not naba-janam, in two separate editions I
have at hand, and only the former makes sense. The poem means: ‘When we have
paid the full price for our human existence, only then shall we gain liberation
[in the spiritual sense].’ I wonder if there was a dot missing in the edition
Radice consulted, turning nara-janam
into naba-janam. I am surprised that
none of those whom he consulted noticed the problem.
In no. 80 I understand why Radice uses the word ‘freeze’ -
When Spring appears in Winter’s yard too early,
It soon withdraws.
The mango-buds that rushed to greet it gladly
Are left to freeze.
He needs an assonance with ‘withdraws’. Yet I cannot but feel that
‘freeze’ is a little too strong in the tropical context. An untimely spring
that comes too soon and then withdraws may nip the buds, but renewed winter will
not cause ‘freezing’ in the ‘northern’ sense. The original simply says that the
mango-bud that rushes out prematurely without a thought does not return: it
The message of the following poem of Lekhan is after my heart, because I have often pondered this very
Each champak-flower brings
A message unchangeable
From time immemorial! (85)
I think that as in the original, the name of the flower needs to be
repeated, underlining the unity of the one and the many. All champaks bring to
the poet a message from the very first champak, the ur-champak from which the
rest have descended.
No. 89 is worth a glance, in the context of that comment of Radice’s to
which I have already referred: the ‘friendliness of Tagore’s brief poems’.
To dew, the sun
Is only knowable
A droplet’s spherical.
I would say the English version is a little ‘precious’ and does not
capture the ‘friendliness’ of the original poem. This is a case where I would
just translate simply, quietly, faithfully:
The dew knows the sun only
As a drop within its own breast.
And I would leave it at that, not worrying about rhyme or assonance,
because the message is so simple and at the same time so big that it can carry
itself without any other sonic embellishment.
Two poems not so far from each other have intrigued me because of
Radice’s omission of the same word in each case.
Let my love, in my work by day, find energy;
Then, in the night, find deep peace and harmony. (119)
The earth looks up at the midnight moon and muses,
‘What language is this
When she wordlessly
smiles and gazes?’ (124)
The word not represented in each case is milan. I think an equivalent is needed in no. 119 because the idea
of love gaining strength by day’s work is balanced by the idea of love finding
its ultimate peace in night’s union. And it is also needed in no. 124, because
there is an erotic cast in this poem. It is not any old midnight, but a
midnight of union. Between whom? Between the earth and the moon! Radice has
problematically turned the moon into a ‘she’, when it is the earth which is
always a ‘she’, both in Indian lore and in Tagore’s own imagery, and it is the
moon which is a male god in Hindu mythology. I think this is another instance
where the cultural specificity of a poem needs to be restored.
Comments can be made on some other poems, but I fear this discussion is
growing too long even for the Internet, and I have not even begun my discussion
of the last book in this collection! In no. 147 the meaning gets garbled;
readers can find it out by comparing it with the original. In this section I
shall comment on two more poems only.
One who would do good is
never asked to stay.
One who just is good is never
turned away. (179)
The phrase ‘One who just is
good’, though balanced against the previous line’s ‘One who would do good’, is nevertheless not a
satisfactory rendering of what in the original is plainly ‘One who can love’.
One who can love is obviously a good person, but the two phrases are not
identical. Tagore is saying that a do-gooder is not welcome in people’s homes, but
a person who is capable of love is always welcome everywhere. I shall conclude
this discussion of Jottings by
looking at one last poem:
This sumptuous palace is a ravenous demon
Whose arms are tied by
the weight of possessions;
I recall how its rooms were once empty and poor,
And arms were free for
the heart’s affection. (154)
The problem here is in the word ‘its’ in the third line. In the
original, the poet is not recalling how the rooms of the sumptuous palace
itself were empty and poor once, but standing in the rich man’s palace, is
recalling a poor man’s sparsely furnished dwelling which was nevertheless warm
in its welcome. Again, I am not sure how or why this transformation of meaning
has occurred, but it is not necessary for the sake of form. The third line
could be easily rendered more faithfully without upsetting the overall