Translating Rabindranath

Translating Rabindranath

Martin Kämpchen

The Sunday Statesman (Calcutta) 27 March 2016

In early May, Rabindranath’s birth anniversary will be celebrated with just routine fanfare. The big anniversaries are over: 150th birth anniversary (2011); the centenary of the English Gitanjali (2012); and the centenary of Tagore’s Nobel Prize (2013). Seminars have been conducted all over the world, many funded by the Indian government, at least two dozen anthologies collecting the speeches and essays of Tagore experts have been published, Tagore’s works have been reprinted to an extent which amazes everyone. His works also have seen a good number of new translations from Bengali. My own book, Rabindranath Tagore: One Hundred Years of Global Reception, co-edited with Imre Bangha, attempted an overview of the poet’s standing in the world today.

Now that the Tagore Season has been completed with a good measure of success, it may be the time to take stock. What have I achieved as a translator of Rabindranath’s poetry from Bengali to German which I see as my main contribution?

German translation of Rabindranath began almost as early as English translation. While the English Gitanjali appeared in 1912 in London, the German Gitanjali followed in 1914. Yet, these two translation ventures had a totally different cultural significance. In Great Britain, Rabindranath was a poet from the colonies using the language of the colonizers who succeeded in expressing himself on the level of literature. In Germany, the German translation carried no such ideological and political baggage. In the German perception, Rabindranath was not the poet of a colonized nation speaking to the colonizers; rather, he was a voice from the mystic east speaking to the mysticism- and mysteries-seeking West.

He was seen in the context of German Indology which began in the early 19th century simultaneously with and inspired by German Romanticism. German Romanticism had discovered India as a land of philosophy and wisdom. Hence, the German public of the early 20th century saw in Rabindranath an exponent of the philosophy and wisdom of India, not primarily a poet. More importantly, the sympathetic German public saw in Rabindranath a fellow-Romantic and considered his Romanticism as the entry point through which to understand and appreciate him.

Thus, translating Rabindranath from Bengali to English and translating him to German are two very different exercises. In Anglo-Saxon countries, Rabindranath Tagore is a poet of renown because he did write in English and did receive the Nobel Prize for a book written in English. He is part of the colonial and post-colonial discourse, and his literary work can be viewed in the context of Commonwealth literature.

Such contexts do not exist in Germany. Moreover, in present-day Germany, the romantic mould has become somewhat suspect after an excess of misguided emotions during Hitler’s Third Reich. Tagore, the mystic poet, is still alive in the memory of elderly people who were told to read him by their parents. These parents had witnessed the enthusiasm surrounding the Indian poet in Germany in the 1920s. This lack of a contemporary cultural context makes it an arduous task to create a new —  truer, more genuine — image of the Indian poet through translations from the Bengali original. The one valid claim for his rediscovery is that he is a figure of world literature. So far, the translations done from the English to German did not substantiate such a claim. Hence, in German such a claim had to be established and proven anew through philologically correct and literary satisfying translations from the Bengali original. This has been my task during the last twenty-five years in which six volumes of my poetry translations from Bengali to German have appeared in Germany.

I have done all my translations, without exception, while living at Santiniketan which I call my Indian home since 1980. It was clear to me that I could do them only in Bengal, not outside, certainly not in Germany. Here at Santiniketan, I have the atmosphere and the social environment with its emotions and habits, its nature and its sounds which provide the backdrop of many of the poems and songs that I have translated. This helped me to first understand and then re-create the deeper intuitions and the emotionality of these poems. Further, Santiniketan provides me with the expert help I need in order to know every shade of meaning and get the interpretation of the poems and songs just right.

On the one hand, I am here enjoying good Tagorean fellowship. But on the other hand, I am alone and lonely as a translator into German. No one in Santiniketan can understand and appreciate my translations. West Bengal, therefore, has neither expert praise nor expert criticism for me. The academic community here hardly knows that I have been translating one poem after another. The community neither joins in my ecstasy that my work gives me, nor comforts me when I am faced with what I call the ‘tragedy of translation’.

Let me, very briefly, give you some details of my translation predicament. In contrast to German, the Bengali language can dispense with the definite and indefinite articles as well as with certain pronouns which instead can be expressed through endings. Auxiliary verbs, too, are incorporated in the verb endings. This makes Bengali curt, compressed, often wonderfully sententious encapsulating one dictum within a few syllables. Try to translate gele hata in just two words! In English as well as in German it needs a full sentence with a subordinate clause. German does not have the same gift of brevity. Translating a Bengali line of verse often needs two lines in German. Hence, if you want to fashion a Tagore poem into a German poem, certain judicious compromises regarding the wealth and exactitude of meaning must be admitted.

The claim to create a new poem demands from the translator to deconstruct all the components of the Bengali poem into a “mass” of meaning, rhythm and moods and then to rebuild the German poem from that same material. Each line and each sentence needs to undergo the same slow transformation in the mind of the translator. If this progresses happily and that means, if my mind becomes fully attuned to the mind of the creator, Rabindranath, then there is nothing more fulfilling, more intoxicating, than translating poetry. This is what I referred to as the ecstasy which a translator enjoys.

The tragedy is that a translation is never finished. A poem may be complete and perfect, but never the translation of a poem. The translation has to be truthful to itself, as a German poem, and truthful to the original, a Bengali poem. This is walking a tightrope from which I may fall off on the right or the left any moment, sometimes without noticing it.

A special challenge is the translation of rhymed verse-endings. In Bengali, rhyme comes easy as only few endings exist, while rhyming in German language is more demanding as the endings are more in number and more varied. Rhyming had once been the norm in German poetry; modern poetry uses it, too, but less frequently. However, when translating Rabindranath, I cannot abandon rhyme altogether. For example, translating a poem of Sisu without rhyme would mean missing the point — the fun, the banter, the childlikeness — of the poem altogether. Even many Gitanjali poems will be only half as enjoyable and effective without rhyme, as with rhyme. This means that rhyme has to be made a part of the translation effort. This is a tremendous challenge. Rhyme must come naturally and easily, without twists in the sentence structure. But rhyme should not be too easy either, otherwise a verse might degenerate into a mere pun on words, a Kalauer. The need for rhyme drastically reduces the freedom of choice of words and increases the need for compromises regarding the wealth and exactitude of meaning.

I see the work of a translator of poems as a special call. You must be something of a poet yourself to be excellent. At least, you should rise to become a poet in the process of translation, assembling the elements of the Bengali poem into a new resplendent and self-confident structure. Often I felt an extraordinary union with the poem and with its creator, Rabindranath. In these moments, I was aware that translating Rabindranath’s poems means communicating with the poet’s imagination and spiritual persona in a more intense, more intimate way than just reading his poems. In such moments I feel an almost aching happiness that I am not a mere reader but a translator of Rabindranath’s poetry.

My translations are done. I now devote my time to my own writing which is clearly suffused by the philosophy and poetic vision of Santiniketan’s Gurudev. In a certain manner, my writing is a continuation of my translation work. It is a contemporary interpretation of Rabindranath’s universe of ideas and emotions for modern German society.

The writer is a German scholar based in Santiniketan. His last book is Anubhave anudhyane Rabindranath; Karigar 2016.





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