“Helene Meyer-Franck and Rabindranath Tagore: The Correspondence” (Lecture)

Lecture at Lipika, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan

on 15 March 2013 [Seminar “RabindranathTagore - Man of Letters”]


Helene Meyer-Franck — Rabindranath Tagore

The Correspondence

by Martin Kämpchen

Rabindranath Tagore had a special affection for the people of Germany because they had been humiliated by the victor countries after the First World War. Rabindranath hoped to give Germans succor and encouragement in their time of emotional and cultural crisis. Rabindranath’s affinity to Germany was all the stronger because his country, too, was being humiliated by the British, which was one of the victorious allies in the war. In India and Germany Tagore saw a striking and painful incongruity between their cultural strength and their present political dilemma. Therefore the Poet made it a point to visit Germany as soon as he was able to travel in Europe. He first visited Germany in 1921 for about a month, and again in 1926 and 1930. His visit in 1921 was nothing short of triumphant with lectures in overflowing halls and a general craze to see and hear the Indian poet.

Unfortunately, however, Rabindranath was unable to foster enduring friendships in Germany, as he did in other countries, especially in Great Britain. Thus his correspondence with German personalities is rather limited. The three persons of consequence he had a prolonged correspondence with were Count Hermann Keyserling, Paul Geheeb and Helene Meyer-Franck. Keyserling was an eminent philosophical writer whose Travel Diary of a Philosopher (1918) was one of the most successful books to be published in post-war Germany. Paul Geheeb was, along with his wife Edith, the founder of the renowned Odenwaldschule, an experimental school in Germany. Finally Helene Meyer-Franck, the Poet’s translator from English to German, maintained the longest and most dedicated correspondence with her “Master” Tagore. It began in 1920 – before Tagore’s visit to Germany in 1921, and ended only when infirmity and old age took the pen out of Rabindranath’s hands, in 1938. Meyer-Franck was married to the scholar of literature, Heinrich Meyer-Benfey, who participated in this correspondence and who wrote widely on the Poet.

The relationship Helene Meyer-Franck and her husband, Heinrich Meyer-Benfey, developed with Rabindranath was quite unique. Starting from his very first book published in English, Gitanjali, the couple unequivocally appreciated Rabindranath Tagore’s English writing. Since Helene Meyer-Franck translated the majority of Rabindranath’s English books into German, she knew his writing probably more intimately than anybody else in Germany. Is it not a fact that in the process of translation the strengths and weaknesses of a text, and especially the weaknesses, reveal themselves to the translator more acutely than to any other reader, even the most careful one? In spite of this intimate knowledge of Tagore’s English writings, Meyer-Franck never expressed even faintly any apprehension about the Poet’s own English renderings of his Bengali poems.

Yet, Helene Meyer-Franck and Heinrich Meyer-Benfey did apparently develop a sense of insufficiency regarding the English text. They were the only persons from among the many cultured and knowledgeable admirers (including a few Indologists) that Rabindranath had in Germany, who did not stop at this sense of insufficiency. Instead, they desired to probe deeper and decided to learn Bengali in order to read the Indian poet in the original.

The relationship of Helene Meyer-Franck and Heinrich Meyer-Benfey with Rabindranath Tagore was unique in the absolute sincerity and purity of their love for the Poet, a love which they nourished unfalteringly for about twenty-five years, that is until their death. They did not, as other intellectuals did, distinguish between the person and his works, but they saw both as one. They met the Poet on four occasions, and yet his personality did not take precedence over his writing in their appreciation and devotion.

Between the two, Helene was clearly closer to Rabindranath. She also spent considerably more time for him, first translating his works from English, then learning Bengali and thereafter translating his texts from Bengali. Reading her letters, one is struck by the mellifluous, lyrical tone which is not unlike Rabindranath’s own poetic speech. Indeed, it appears that through her simple and pure devotion she had entered Rabindranath’s mind more deeply than possibly anybody else in Germany who has articulated his or her opinion on Rabindranath.

The Poet acknowledged her wonderful qualities of heart when he made a striking and unique remark about her in a letter to C. F. Andrews:

She is a sweet woman and her devotion for me is pathetic. I say pathetic, because I feel I am not worthy of it.

Helene Franck was born on 28 September 1873 in Schwerin. She trained as a secondary school teacher in Göttingen where she met Heinrich Meyer-Benfey, one of her teachers. They married on 5 October 1906, and in 1911 they moved to Hamburg. She taught at a secondary school. They settled in a suburb of Hamburg, Wandsbek, from where most of her letters to Tagore were written. She abandoned teaching in late 1920 in order, as she wrote, “to be able to give my whole time to this task” of translating Tagore. In 1935, the couple moved to Buxtehude where her husband died in December 1945; she followed him a year later, on 26 December 1946.

Helene Meyer-Franck was not the first person to translate Rabindranath Tagore into German. It is only from 1918, when seven Tagore books, translated by others, had already appeared in the book-market, that Helene Meyer-Franck received her opportunity to begin translating Tagore. In what is probably her first letter to Rabindranath Tagore, written in February 1920, she related the circumstances which led her to embark on this translation work. True to the cultural mould in which she lived, she hastened to declare her husband’s role in her work. He had introduced her to Gitanjali and aroused her interest in the Indian poet in the first place.

Within the short span of seven years (1918-1925) not less than fourteen volumes of translation prepared by Helene Meyer-Franck appeared in print — a stupendous achievement considering that among them there were such complex and voluminous books as the novels The Home and the World, The Wreck and Gora! As if that was not enough, she and her husband Heinrich Meyer-Benfey also jointly compiled and edited the eight-volume Collected Works of Rabindranath Tagore which appeared when the Tagore cult in Germany peaked in 1921. It was the first Collected Works of Tagore in any foreign language.

Kurt Wolff, who possessed the exclusive German right on all translations of Tagore’s works from the English, frequently blocked attempts by other translators or publishers to have new German translations published elsewhere. This Wolff did even after he himself had lost interest in publishing new titles by Tagore. Helene Meyer-Franck, in an attempt to circumvent this rigid attitude, asked Tagore to send her “something” which had not yet been published in England. This, then, could — without Wolff’s permission — be translated and published.

Helene Meyer-Franck’s special achievement is that she, against great odds, succeeded in learning Bengali enough to read Rabindranath Tagore in the original and render some of his works directly into German. In this correspondence we witness the gradual progress of this effort. The first fruit of this labour was a slim book of barely eighty pages containing three novellas – Samāpti, āthiti and Durāśa – published probably in 1930. Thereafter, she continued to translate poetry, but the political situation, as shaped by Hitler’s Nazi regime, did not permit her to publish these translation immediately. Her book of Tagore poetry translation appeared immediately after the Second World War, in 1946. In December of the same year Helene Meyer-Franck died.

Did Tagore appreciate her single-minded and lonely perseverance? He did. We know of no comment he may have made on her translation of his stories. But he did pass on some of her German poetry translations to the German Buddhist monk Anagarika Brahmachari Govinda who resided in Santiniketan in the mid-1930s. We have three letters to Meyer-Franck, written in 1935/36, in which he politely and convincingly expressed his appreciation of her translations. Tagore himself, regretting on several occasions his inability to understand these translations, was nonetheless generous in his praise:

[...] I feel deeply touched by the tribute you have paid me by learning Bengali only in order to read me in the original.

Heinrich Meyer-Benfey emerges as the best informed as well as most sober and judicious interpreter of Rabindranath Tagore in Germany. Although others, in particular Hermann Keyserling, stole the show from him, looking back on his achievements as a Tagore scholar, it is not an exaggeration to say that he did more in terms of quantity as well as quality than anybody else. As early as 1921, he published the first full-length, academically balanced book on Tagore.

This he accompanied with a spate of essays and newspaper articles on Tagore which continued to flow from his pen when others had long forgotten the strange name of the Indian poet. The compiler of his essays, a former student, remarked thatMeyer-Benfey cherished Tagore with deeper love and reverence than any other writer.

Heinrich Meyer-Benfey was the only person in Germany with a certain amount of Indological training who chose to write on Tagore. True, Helmuth von Glasenapp and Heinrich Zimmer, two renowned Indologists, published a few essays on Tagore. However, their contribution is rather limited.

The appreciation the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig accords Meyer-Benfey in a private letter strikes exactly the right note :

I thank you for your beautiful informative book on Tagore. It is well timed, for the rather noisy activity of the publishing house and the exaggerated statements by some self-important people have created a certain reaction against Tagore. …I have learnt a great deal from your book and am especially grateful that you did not imitate the contemporary German trend to make a new religion out of every writer.

The correspondence continued from 1920 to 1938. Naturally, its climax was in 1921 when Rabindranath visited Germany. Already in 1920 Rabindranath had wanted to cross over to Germany from Holland. However, Rabindranath failed to apply for a German visa in time, so he abandoned his plan to visit Germany. Instead he invited Helene Meyer-Franck and her husband to Holland to meet him. Again in 1921, Helene Meyer-Franck met first in Hamburg and later in Berlin. The Hamburg meeting did not begin on a happy note. As was Rabindranath’s wont, he often changed his travel plans. He had first announced his visit to Hamburg and his intention to stay at Helene Meyer-Franck’s house. She launched into elaborate preparations. Then, Rabindranath sent a telegram saying that he changed his plans and that he would stay in a hotel where Helene was invited to meet him. She was deeply upset and conveyed this in her finest letter in no uncertain, but most tender, words.

Rabindranath asked her to see him in Berlin the same year 1921 where she officiated as a kind of private secretary for some very busy days. Soon thereafter, Helene Meyer-Franck and her husband, Heinrich Meyer-Benfey, accepted Rabindranath’s invitation to Santiniketan. Rabindranath extended such invitations to a number of European scholars. As we know, some did join the Santiniketan ashram and stayed on for a few months, a few even for some years. They, however, all returned to their countries and their former lives. The couple from Hamburg, instead, planned to shift permanently to Santiniketan and settle there for life and help Rabindranath in establishing Visva-Bharati. This entailed that Heinrich Meyer-Benfey would have to shift his entire voluminous library to India, that they give up their home – that they, in one word, burn their bridges, never to return. Tagore was delighted and wrote back:

I can not tell you how deeply I was moved by joy and thankfulness. (My dear Master. Letter 13)

Helene Meyer-Franck simply and purely trusted her “dear Master” Tagore that everything would be right and well near him and his associates in Santiniketan. Her husband, however, wrote several torturous, winding, agonised letters to Rabindranath and his son, Rathindranath, enquiring about her accommodation, the classes he was supposed to begin, the syllabus and many technical details – questions to which he never received replies which increased his anxiety. He began these letters like this:

The question haunts me if I could not find there a place and a work I am just meant for. It is a question of heavy weight for us, for if it gets an affirmative answer, then there is a meaning and a consequence in our whole life. (My dear Master. Letter 10)

The British colonial government did not issue visas to the German couple. So they had a bury their life-changing plans. Rabindranath felt upset and tried to reverse this decision, however to no avail.

Thereafter the letters became less and less from both sides. Helene Meyer-Franck faithfully wrote for Tagore’s birthdays. She began to translate his poems from Bengali in the mid-1930s and sent typescripts of these translations to Santiniketan. Deeply moved, Rabindranath responded in 1936:

I feel deeply touched by the tribute you have paid me by learning Bengali only in order to read me in the original (My dear Master. Letter 64)

The German Buddhist monk Brahmachari Govinda to whom Rabindranath gave these translations responded generously. He wrote to Helene Meyer-Franck: “The best one can probably say about [the poems)] that one totally forgets that they are translated.” (My dear Master, p. 140).

These letters spanning 28 years provide a soul history of two persons – of Helene Meyer-Franck and, to a lesser extend, of Heinroich Meyer-Benfey. Their appreciation, their love, their almost religious and unwavering devotion to Rabindranath and his ideals is documented in an extraordinary way. Tagore himself reveals himself much less and only in some special moments. It seems he was sometimes embarrassed by such love and tried to keep it at arm’s length. In the latter part of the correspondence, say, after 1922, his letters became a routine exercise. They were now being typed and only revealed a very busy man trying to do his duty to his admirers.

Helene Meyer-Franck’s letters are deposited at the Rabindra-Bhavan archive. Rabindranath’s letters were lost until I discovered them with Helene Meyer-Franck’s German publisher, Otto Melchert. The originals are now in the German Literature Archive (Deutsches Literaturarchiv) in Marbach/Germany and copies are at Rabindra-Bhavan. Visva-Bharati Granthan Vibhag published the original, English, version of this correspondence under the title My dear Master (Kolkata: Visva-Bharati Granthan Vibag, 2nd ed. 2010), edited by Martin Kämpchen and Prasanta Kumar Paul. In 2011, a German translation was published by Draupadi Verlag, Heidelberg.

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