One Hundred Years Ago: A Prize which Changed the World (Lecture/Vortrag)

[Lecture delivered at the Udo Keller Foundation, Neversdorf on 14 November 2013]

One Hundred Years Ago: A Prize which Changed the World

On 14 November 1913, Rabindranath Tagore was, as the first Asian,  awarded the Nobel-Prize for Literature. What were its Implications for India and in Germany?

Martin Kämpchen

A book on the year 1913 by the journalist and popular author Florian Illies received a good deal of attention earlier this year in Germany.[1] It chronicles the important events of that year Europe-wide. The author’s perception is that in 1913 the seeds of many events which would shape the twentieth century were planted. The varied political, literary, artistic turning-points he mentions are indeed striking. But significantly, he omits one event which would have far-reaching consequences, namely the award of the Nobel-Prize for Literature to Rabindranath Tagore.

What is the special significance of the Nobel Prize awarded to Tagore?

The Nobel Prize for Literature was being awarded since 1901. In the twelve years that had elapsed since then, the Nobel Prize had been awarded exclusively to European authors. Among them were not less than four German writers, most recently, in 1912, Gerhard Hauptmann. Among them was also Rudyard Kipling, awarded in 1907, a British writer born in India and famous for his novels and stories based on Indian colonial life. He may be seen as a kind of antipode to Tagore.

With Rabindranath Tagore, the Swedish Academy which decides on the awardees, for the first time looked beyond Europe, even beyond North America whose authors still had to wait for a good many years before being considered. Putting it differently, a colonizing continent, Europe, deigned to bestow its most important cultural prize on a writer from one of its colonized countries, India. At one stroke, the culture, especially the literature, of India, and with it, all British, French and Spanish colonies, were being honoured. With this Prize, the literatures of the colonies were considered worthy of being compared with the literatures of Europe. In 1913, Tagore was regarded worthier of the Prize than the several European competitors whose names filled the discussions before the 14 November 1913. Among the strong contenders was the Austrian writer Peter Rosegger.

The message was clear: Although India, as a colony, was politically dependent and socially humiliated, the Nobel Prize for Literature announced to the world-at-large that India possesses a culture and literature which is not dependent on Europe, which has not been subdued by colonialism. Rather, India‘s literature has a strength and quality which makes it worthy to be read outside India, in Europe and in the world. This message was understood spontaneously.

Soon after this event Rabindranath Tagore began to travel, first to the East – Japan and China, then, after the First World War, to Europe and North and South America assuming the authority that this Nobel Prize had bestowed in him. Tagore became the Voice of India, the Voice of the colonized and non-Western countries in the world. In his speeches and countless presentations Tagore projected the positive and constructive contribution India and Asia could give to the world community spiritually, intellectually and socially. This idea that India, though economically weak and challenged socially by countless problems, has something to offer to the world community has taken root in Europe, at least in Germany. The seeds of this idea, however, were disseminated by Tagore and a few other personalities of his era.

The events of 14 November 1913 in Santiniketan

Let us briefly trace the events of that day one hundred years ago, the 14th November 1913. Rabindranath Tagore had returned from England two months earlier, in September. In England, Tagore’s first book in English prose verse, Gitanjali, published in London in 1912, had witnessed an extraordinary success. The poet himself had paraphrased his own Bengali poems in rhythmical English prose. Within one year ten reprints appeared, and Tagore became the toast of the élite cultural circles in England. Tagore spent the winter of 1912-1913 in the USA where his eldest son was a student of Agriculture, then he returned to England in May, he was again fêted, and escaped to India in September.

Apparently, Tagore had not anticipated this honour. Did ever rise a writer to such prominence worthy of a Nobel Prize on the strength of one slim book? True, before the declaration of the Nobel Prize Tagore’s prose poems of The Gardener and his English lectures under the title Sadhana had already been published. But were the representatves of the Swedish Academy aware of Tagore’s status as the foremost Bengali writer of the day and had they taken it into account? Cultural politics, the lobbying of William Butler Yeats and other writers on behalf of Tagore and then mere chance played a rôle. The debate about how exactly the Academy arrived at its decision continues to this day.

The announcement that Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize was made on 13 November 1913, and it was broadcast to the world on 14 November. The news reached Tagore at Santiniketan in the late afternoon. Tagore’s immediate reaction was by no means unmitigated joy. He had tasted the success and adulation he faced in London with a mixture of elation and embarrassment. The students at the Santiniketan school erupted in joy. They just understood that soemthing great had happened. But Tagore confided to a British guest who happened to be present: „I shall get no peace now. [...] I shall be worried with appeals, all kinds of people will be writing to me. [...] I feel as if it were too much for me, as if I could bear it no longer.“[2]

And in a letter to his British artist friend William Rothenstein, Tagore wrote candidly: „The very first moment I received the message [...] my heart turned towards you with love and gratitude [...] But, at the same, it is a very great trial for me. The perfect whirlwind of public excitement it has given rise to is frightful. [...] I am being smothered with telegrams and letters for the last few days and the people who never had any friendly feeling towards me nor ever read a line of my works are loudest in their protestations of joy.“[3]

While Tagore was anxious to protect himself from intrusion, anxious to continue writing with his customary leisure, he also wanted to seize the opportunity to use the attention for making his works known, for bringing his ideas across and be heard as the Voice of India. This tension between the need for obscurity and the urge to make an impact publicly never was resolved in Tagore’s life.

The reception of Tagore’s Gitanjali in Germany – The „official version“

Let us now turn our attemtion to the reception of Rabindranath’s Gitanjali in Germany. It was mired in comical and strange events. How did the manuscript of Gitanjali reach the German publisher and how did it get published? – Until this day, there is no unequivocal answer to these questions.

Kurt Wolff, Rabindranath’s German publisher, was an energetic and hugely ambitious young man . He was the son of a sophisticated middle-class family and married Elisabeth Merck who hailed from a family of industrialists with a long tradition of cultural involvement. Kurt Wolff did not care to finish his study of literature. Instead, he began a publishing business in Leipzig. First he had a partner, but soon he broke away and established the Kurt Wolff Verlag on his own. Only nine months after establishing his independent publishing firm, Tagore received the Nobel Prize. Kurt Wolff was a mere 25 years old.

Who sent Gitanjali to Kurt Wolff and when? Was it the original British publisher, namely Macmillan in London, or was it Marie Luise Gothein, the German translator of Gitanjali? Further, was Gitanjali sent to Kurt Wolff before 14 November, the day when the Nobel Prize was announced, or thereafter?

Let me first quote the “official version”, that is the version which Kurt Wolff himself publicised among his associates. Soon after the Nobel Prize announcement Kurt Wolff wrote letters to two of his friends, both authors of his publishing house. To Franz Werfel he wrote: “You can congratulate me. I have acquired the authorisation for the German edition of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’ which has been crowned with the Nobel Prize. What is more, the translation is already complete. In ten days’ time I shall bring out the book.”[4]

The second letter, to Walter Hasenclever, is even more explicit: “A very good piece of news for our publishing house is that we have received the Nobel Prize; and the joke of it is that we had secured this Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore for our publishing house before it could be foreseen that he would receive the Nobel Prize…”[5]

Towards the end of his life, in 1962, Kurt Wolff once again reminiscenced about this early event in his career. For a radio-talk he wrote:

“I am no longer certain who mentioned to me that a book of poems by an Indian writer by the name of Rabindranath Tagore had just been published in London, poems with a unique flavor which nonetheless appeared to be eminently translatable.  […] I learned that Tagore’s poems, translated into English by the author, had caused quite a stir in England. […] It wouldn’t do any harm to inquire about the book and the German translation rights, I thought. […] A copy arrived, and with it the information that no other German publishing house had made an inquiry. And then, sad to say, it fell victim to an all-too-common vice in publishing houses: the book lay around for weeks before anyone took a look at it. I, the publisher, was unfortunately unable to do so, since at the age of twenty-six I could neither speak nor read English. […] Gitanjali was sent out to readers and, as so often happens, what they had to say was so contradictory that the reports cancelled each other out. […]

After brief vacillation I decided in favour of publishing it – not least because everyone agreed that there would be no translation problems […]. This decision then received support from a most unexpected quarter: Rabindranath Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, even before the German edition appeared.” [6]

Here, Kurt Wolff took full credit for “discovering” Rabindranath Tagore for the German language and the German book-market.

However, Kurt Wolff’s declared promise of publishing Gitanjali “in ten days’ time” and making a real kill of it in terms of fame and profit, could not be redeemed. A comical incident invaded his plans. When the German translation was already page-set and ready for print, Kurt Wolff’s colleagues compared the translation with the English original and discovered a few expressions that they thought did not exactly represent the original. As time was short they corrected them without consulting the translator, Mrs Gothein, and got the book printed. Thereafter the translator was asked to give her approval. Instead, she got furious and went to court to obtain an interim injunction staying the distribution of the book. A court hearing was fixed. Marie Luise Gothein who lived far from Leipzig, wanted the best copyright lawyer to represent her, and she was recommended a suitable person. Unfortunately for her, she appointed another person by the same name who, however, was an inexperienced, young lawyer. Neither the young lawyer nor the judge knew English and they were unable to evaluate the unauthorised changes in the translation. On the publisher’s side, however, representatives were able to defend the changes and won the case. Hence, Gitanjali could be published, albeit with a delay of several months, in January1914.[7]

Is the „official version“ true?

This is what I called the “official version” which was offered by Kurt Wolff and his colleagues. Except one colleague: Willy Haas. He was a respected German-speaking writer and cultural journalist from Prague, later the editor of a leading cultural journal, Die literarische Welt. Willy Haas was part of the editorial crew that Kurt Wolff had hired. In an essay which Haas published as late as in 1971 in the German daily newspaper Die Welt, Willy Haas claimed that the Kurt Wolff publishing house first rejected the Gitanjali manuscript and then hastily accepted it after the Nobel Prize had been declared. “I was there myself”, Willy Haas maintained. According to him, when the news of Tagore’s Nobel Prize broke in the evening newspapers, Kurt Wolff thought: “Hasn’t a book of poetry by this man been offered to us? Where is the manuscript?” Haas continued:

“People searched and searched, but nobody could find it. Finally we found out that the manuscript had been read and rejected by one of the main editors of the publishing firm. It had left one hour earlier with the last mail.

Without losing a moment, Kurt Wolff rushed to his car and drove to the main post-office. He was away for over an hour, but then he returned with the manuscript under his arm. Surprisingly, he did succeed in having the huge mountains of the evening post inspected, under the supervision of the director of the post-office and got back the manuscript. Presumably this was possible only because [Kurt Wolff] knew the director personally.

There was tension in the room as the manuscript was unpacked. A few pages were read, and the editor who had turned it down was applauded. It was indeed a rather weak affair. But Kurt Wolff with his proverbial luck naturally knew the translator. He telephoned her that the manuscript was accepted, but it had to be revised, and he probably immediately settled the question of royalty with her.”[8]

This “rejection version”, as I may call it, appears to be credible as it is so full of details and conclusive in itself. However, there is one hitch: Is Haas’ claim “I was there myself” true? According to the Wolfram Göbel’s exhaustive monograph on the history of the Kurt Wolff Publishing House, Willy Haas arrived in Leipzig to join Kurt Wolff in “spring 1914”[9], while here we recall events which happened in November 1913. So, the question remains: Who remembers what actually happened? If the version of Willy Haas was an invention, it was, however, not his own invention. Because this rejection version has been mentioned long before 1971, and this rumour was even picked up in a conversation with Franz Kafka who hailed from Prague like Willy Haas.[10]

Let me recall here, that Willy Haas, the main player in this affair opposite Kurt Wolff, had a special relationship with India.[11] As a German-speaking Jew he was one of the very few intellectuals who escaped the Nazi prosecution of Jews and the holocaust by fleeing to India. He reached Bombay in June 1939 and joined the Bombay film industry as a script-writer. Besides, Haas wrote a large number of essays on Indian life and published them in Indian journals. After the Second World War, in March 1947, he returned to Europe and established himself as a leading cultural journalist in Hamburg. There he died in 1973.

Back to the events of 1913. While the court-case about the translation copyright lingered on, another scenario unfolded. Kurt Wolff heard of the enormous impression which André Gide‘s French translation of Gitanjali had made on Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke wrote to Wolff (on 6 December 1913):

“I am eagerly awaiting the German edition of Rabindranath Tagore. André Gide has recently acquainted us here with his impression of this poet. His translation of Gitanjali, from which he enthusiastically presented a few extracts, seems genuinely to be animated by the spirit of the original poems.”[12]

Both were leading writers of their language, Rilke in German, and Gide in French. Gide had recited from his Gitanjali-translation in a Paris salon while Rilke was in the audience. Quick to see his advantage, Wolff offered to Rilke that he translate Gitanjali into German. That is, Wolff was prepared to reject Marie Luise Gothein’s translation which was ready and possibly already being printed, in order to bring two famous poets together in one book – Tagore as author and Rilke as translator. This had happened in England where William Butler Yeats wrote the Foreword to Gitanjali; it had happened in France where Gide translated Gitanjali and Tagore‘s play The Post-Office; and it was soon to happen again in Spain where Juan Ramón Jiménez and his wife translated Tagore’s poetry.

Rilke considered the offer deeply for some time and ultimately rejected it. This is the explanation Rilke gave in his letter to Kurt Wolff:

“I do not find within myself that irrefutable call for the proposed assignment, from which alone could emerge a definitive and responsible work. Although much in these stanzas has a familiar ring, it seems, so to speak, to be borne towards me on a tide of unfamiliarity […] This may be partly due to my meagre acquaintance with the English language.“[13]

How were Tagore’s books received in Germany?

The response of the German public to Gitanjali was by no means unequivocal. Many had expected the much-favoured Peter Rosegger to be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913. The disappointment was palpable in the German press. Other commentators were just dumb-founded by the totally unheard-of, exotic name which was difficult to pronounce. The name was the butt of several jokes in cartoons and anecdotes. The cultural press was largely undecided; it oscillated from adulation and idealisation to sarcasm and rejection. On the whole, the reaction was marked by a feeling of uncertainty how to evaluate and appreciate this kind of writing which was so new and unusual.

Kurt Wolff published the German translations of almost all new books by Tagore which Macmillan in London brought out. But the literary criticism and increase in the knowledge of the poet’s life and achievements could not keep pace with the speed in which these new books came out. When in 1925 the last book by Tagore, published by Kurt Wolff, came out, they numbered 24 books in the span of 11 years – from 1914 to 1925. In addition, Kurt Wolff published an eight-volume Collected Works of Tagore in 1921 when Tagore visited Germany for the first time.[14] “By the end of 1923 over one million copies” of books by Tagore had reached the book-market.[15]

This kind of explosive reception of Tagore, engineered by Kurt Wolff, was not equalled anywhere else in Europe, except perhaps in Great Britain and in Spain. Yet, after 1925, Tagore’s star began to decline in Germany. The poet fell into oblivion and was anathema during the Hitler Regime and the Second World War. From the 1950s onwards, however, reprints came out and also new translations from English, also of Gitanjali.[16] Gitanjali was translated into German fully only from English but never from Bengali. Helene Meyer-Franck selected a few poems from Gitanjali in her pioneering book Mit meinen Liedern hab ich dich gesucht[17] which collects her poetry translations made from original Bengali and published in 1946. Three times I myself published selections of Gitanjali in German, translated from Bengali, in the context of wider collections of poems spanning the entire creative life of Rabindranath Tagore: in 1990[18] and again in 2005[19] and last in 2011[20].

Tagore in Hamburg

I deliver this lecture today in Neversdorf which is in the vicinity of Hamburg. Therefore it may, in conclusion, not be out of place to point to the special position which Hamburg holds for Tagore and Tagore Studies. He visited the city three times – twice in 1921 and again in 1926. In 1921 he arrived in Hamburg from Switzerland and Darmstadt and proceeded to Denmark and Sweden where he formally accepted the Nobel Prize. He stayed in the house of his translator, Helene Meyer-Franck, and her husband in Hamburg-Wandsbek, Königstrasse 41. I wonder whether this house still exists. Perhaps the Indian Consulate General of Hamburg could take it upon itself to locate it?

Helene Meyer-Franck was a very special person. She translated the bulk of Tagore’s prose writing as soon it appeared in English by Macmillan in London. Once Kurt Wolff was unable to publish more Tagore books because of inflation and the devaluation of the Mark, Helene Meyer-Franck began to study Bengali, solely aided by a few Bengali students staying in Hamburg. After making a singular effort to learn Bengali living in Hamburg, she translated three stories by Tagore into German. They were published by Reclam in 1930. Thereafter she translated a slim volume of poetry, Mit meinen Liedern hab ich dich gesucht, which I have already mentioned. These are the very first Tagore translations from Bengali to German.

What is more, Helene Meyer-Franck was the one and only German personality who conducted a long and dedicated correspondence with Tagore which lasted from 1920 until 1938, that is for eighteen years. Meyer-Franck’s letters to Tagore are preserved in the archive of Rabindra-Bhavan, the Tagore Research Centre at Tagore’s University in Santiniketan. In the 1990s I discovered Tagore’s original letters to Meyer-Franck with the publisher Otto Melchert in Hamburg. These letters are now a treasured possession of the Deutsche Literaturarchiv in Marbach, a premier archive and library for German literature near Stuttgart. This correspondence has been collected in a book in English, published by the University in Santiniketan, as well as in German translation.[21]

Helene’s husband, Heinrich Meyer-Benfey, a professor (Dozent) of German Literature at Hamburg University, was the one who wrote more scholarly and popular essays on Tagore than anybody else in German language. He continued writing even during the dark times of Hitler’s Third Reich. Besides, Heinrich Meyer-Benfey penned the first scholarly German biography of Tagore[22] and was, with his wife, editor of the eight-volume Collected Works of Rabindranath Tagore in 1921.

All of this emerged from Hamburg. So it is not a coincidence that this lecture to commemorate and celebrate the Indian poet takes place today here, near Hamburg. Again, it may not even be a coincidence that the richest collection of Tagore books in Germany is deposited in this very room, the library of the Udo Keller Foundation.



[1] Florian Illies, 1913. Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts. Frankfurt: S.Fischer Verlag 2012

[2] Quoted in: Krishna Dutta & Andrew Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore – The Myriad-Minded Man. Bloomsbury London 1995, p. 181. – The description of Tagore’s reaction to the Nobel prize relies on pp. 180-181.

[3] Quoted in op. cit., p. 181

[4] Kurt Wolff, Briefwechsel eines Verlegers 1911-1963. Edited by Bernhard Zeller and Ellen Otten. Frankfurt: Verlag Heinrich Scheffler 1966, p. 102.

[5] Op.cit., p. 7.

[6] Kurt Wolff, “Rabindranath Tagore”. In: Kurt Wolff: A Portrait in Essays & Letters. Edited by Michael Ermarth. Transl. by Deborah Lucas Schneider. Chicago / London: The University of Chicago Press 1991, pp.116-117.

[7] See Arthur Seiffhart, Inter Folia Fructus. Aus den Erinnerungen eines Verlegers. Berlin: Fundament Verlag [1948], pp.37-39.

[8] Caliban [pen-name of Willy Haas], Lesehilfe für notorisch faule Leser. In: Die Welt (Hamburg). 27.2.1971.

[9] Wolfram Göbel, Der Kurt Wolff Verlag 1913-1930. Expressionismus als verlegerische Aufgabe. Frankfurt: Buchhändler.Vereinigung 1977, column 613.

[10] The details and all the ramifications of this affair are narrated in the book by Martin Kämpchen, Rabindranath Tagore in Germany: Four Responses To a Cultural Icon. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla 1999, pp.66-74.

[11] See Anil Bhatti, Willy Haas and Exile in India. In: Jewish Exile in India. Ed. by Anil Bhatti and Johannes Voigt. Manohar & Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi 1999, pp. 113-124.

[12] Wolff, Briefwechsel. pp.136-137.

[13] Op.cit., pp. 138-139.

[14] See Rabindranath Tagore and Germany: A Bibliography. Compiled by Martin Kämpchen. Rabindra-Bhavana, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketsan 1997.

[15] See Wolfram Göbel, op.cit., column 640.

[16] See Rabindranath Tagore and Germany: A Bibliography.

[17] Rabindranath Tagore, Mit meinen Liedern hab ich dich gesucht. Gedichte. From Bengali by Helene Meyer-Franck. Deutscher Literatur-Verlag Otto Melchert 1946.

[18] Rabindranath Tagore, Wo Freude ihre Feste feiert. Gedichte und Lieder. Selected, translated from Bengali and introduced. Verlag Herder, Freiburg 1990.

[19] Rabindranath Tagore, Das goldene Boot. Edited by Martin Kämpchen. Verlag Artemis & Winkler, Düsseldorf and Zürich 2005.

[20] Rabindranath Tagore, Gedichte und Lieder. Selected, translated from Bengali and introduced. Insel Verlag, Berlin 2011.

[21] My dear Master. Correspondence of Helene Meyer-Franck and Heinrich Meyer-Benfey with Rabindranath Tagore. Edited by Martin Kämpchen & Prasanta Kumar Paul. Visva-Bharati, Kolkata (2nd. ed.) 2010. – German translation: Rabindranath Tagore / Helene Meyer-Franck und Heinrich Meyer-Benfey: Mein lieber Meister. Briefwechsel 1920-1938. Herausgeber Martin Kämpchen und Prasanta Kumar Paul. Draupadi Verlag, Heidelberg 2011.

[22] Heinrich Meyer-Benfey, Rabindranath Tagore. Brandus’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Berlin 1921.

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