& occasionally about other things, too...

Friday, April 22, 2011

Of Tagore, Tolstoy & translations - I

A week ago, I attended a play reading organised by Sally Jones (Rasik Arts) of Rabindranath Tagore’s The Post Office

We read from the translation published by St. Martin's Press, New York in 1996. The play is translated by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson with woodcut illustrations by Michael McCurdy).

In her introduction of the play in this edition, Anita Desai, says, “In appearance the play is as modest as a dewdrop, in effect it is as profound as the ocean.”

Tagore’s Nobel laureate status notwithstanding (or perhaps because of the intimidating effect that status has on most lovers of literature), his work remains largely unknown to non-Bengali audiences.

Lyricist Gulzar explained the reason for this succinctly in an interview recently to Calcutta’s The Telegraph, “Tagore was and is still looked upon as a Bengali poet. He is our national poet but is identified as a regional poet. There should be a feeling in every Indian, whether he is Marathi or Punjabi or Tamilian, that Tagore is our poet. But what happened was... yeh Bangalion ka jo Tagore hai, woh bahut bada shayyar hai. We as a nation have always had a bad habit of living in fragments...It’s true. Bengalis have been very, very proud of Tagore but also very possessive about him. That’s because he is part of the culture of every home. Every child starts with Tagore and then moves on to other Bengali poets. The possessiveness about him in Bengalis, I mean in a positive way. But it’s also true that there were too many restrictions on translating Tagore. You had to get permission from Visva-Bharati and then you had to get the translation approved. Not just translation, even film adaptations.”

On the other hand, The Post Office has a universal and enduring appeal, having been translated in several languages. 

In the Translators’ Preface to The Post Office Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson observe, “Each artist coming to it has made it speak afresh to his own place and time in his own idiom. Its Spanish translator, the celebrated poet Juan Ramon Jimenez wrote of ‘my hand that helped to give our Spanish form to the rhythm of Tagore’s immense heart.’ In 1940, the evening before Paris fell to the Nazis, Andre Gide’s French translation was read over the radio. 

"And in 1942, in Warsaw ghetto, a Polish version was the last play performed in the orphanage of Janusz Korczak. When, after the performance, Korczak was asked why he chose the play, he answered that ‘eventually one had to learn to accept serenely the angel of death. Within a month, he and his children were taken away and gassed.”

Perhaps one of the reasons why Tagore’s creative genius remains largely unexplored even as the world celebrates his sesquicentennial is the indifferent quality of translations of his work, especially his poetry.

continued in the entry below...

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