On the Wings of Hummingbirds, Rabindranath Tagore’s Little Poems: An Invitation to a Review-cum-Workshop

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



William Radice’s translations of Rabindranath Tagore’s brief poems in a collected edition is a welcome addition to the new wave of translations from Tagore into English that we have been witnessing in recent years. The volume contains complete translations of Kanika (1899), Lekhan (1927), and the posthumous Sphulinga (1945).


Literary translation, moving between the need to achieve as much fluency as possible in the new texts, and the need to retain as close a relationship as possible to the originals, resisting the temptation to yield to wholesale ‘domestication’, is always a juggling act. The translation of poetry into poetry, where the translator hopes that the new texts will impact into the reader’s consciousness as poetry rather than as prose paraphrases, involves an extra degree of complication, requiring further delicate balancing, as the translator attempts to create equivalent poetical forms in the target language. Readers who cannot access the original texts, or can do so only haltingly, will necessarily receive the translated poems as independent texts, except as and when alerted by the critical apparatus provided. When to draw attention to a point and when to move along without comment are to some extent subjective decisions of the translator, but will also be dictated by an overall editorial policy. A new book may be seen as meant for the general reader, with a general introduction, and not burdened by too many scholarly notes. It may have a clear academic bias, with a commitment to provide detailed contextual information. Or it may be a dual-purpose book, hoping to attract the scholar as well as the lay reader. The present volume falls into this last category.


Radice, himself a practising poet, believes in the creative translation of poetry and strives to give a poetical form of some sort to each piece he translates. His editorial policy is a mixture, as I think is inevitable when the translator is both a poet and a scholar and is himself or herself in charge of the total process, without an outside editor standing, rule-book in hand, telling the translating poet-scholar what to do and what not to do at every step.


In the occasional footnotes provided, Radice’s decisions when to annotate or not are guided by the needs of the new text he has generated rather than by a need for alignment with the original. This is understandable. Thus, in Particles 24 he feels obliged to inform his readers who ‘Narad the Sage’ is, but in Particles 1 he translates ‘pushpak biman’ as ‘a flying flower-chariot’, and leaves it at that without further comment, presumably because the phrase is comprehensible without any other reference. The phrase is quite a lucky find, as it refers to the pumpkin’s bamboo trellis, which may well be covered with pumpkin flowers. However, some of us would have been tempted to add a note on the mythological Pushpak, because it was not any old flying chariot: it was the god Kubera’s airship that could fly at will. That’s how high the pumpkin’s ambition is: he wants to fly at will. In Particles 17 Radice keeps the original word Bápu intact and glosses it, while in no. 27 he does not translate this word at all, omits it, and moves on without comment. (Radice uses the horizontal sign for the long vowel over the ‘a’ of ‘Bapu’, the kind that is used in romanized Sanskrit. As this is not available in my font, I have used, as a substitute, the accent commonly used in Spanish to denote an emphatic vowel, and I shall have to do this again in this article.) In no. 83 of the same series, ‘Silk-cotton flower’, however, could have done with a brief note to help those who are not familiar with the appearance of this tropical flower. The point the poem is trying to make is directly connected to this appearance: the flower is criticized by people for its lack of fragrance, but it more than makes up for that lack by its dazzling colour.


Radice provides a learned Introduction to the volume, containing much textual history, and further relevant material is provided in the Appendices. I am not altogether sure of the rationale for Appendix B in the present volume. This is a translation of Tagore’s essay ‘Adhunik Kabya’, first published in 1932 and included in Sahityer Pathe (1936). In this essay Tagore discusses a specific ‘twist’ of modernity in English-language poetry, the equivalent of which in his own poetic development may be traced in Palataka (1918), Lipika (1922), Punashcha (1932) and subsequent collections published in the last decade of the poet’s life. This ‘twist’ is not usually associated with Kanika, Lekhan, or Sphulinga. Not that these three collections represent writing that is particularly ‘old-fashioned’, but we tend to regard them as the poet’s experiments in  the special genre of little poems rather than as part of his leap to ‘modernity’. Kanika is affiliated to a native Indian tradition of aphoristic, didactic verses, while the two other volumes also owe a debt to the spirit of Japanese haiku poetry. Having said that, I admit that nobody who cannot read Tagore in the original is going to complain when an important essay gets thrown in as an extra in a volume like the present one. The more material becomes available in translation, under whatever pretext, the better.


There is a statement of Radice’s in the Introduction which I would say requires qualification. He says, ‘By and large, Bengali Shaktism (worship of the mother-goddess) is absent from Tagore’ (footnote 43, p. 28). There is some truth in this, but only at levels close to the surface. At deeper levels Tagore’s psyche pays homage to a cosmic feminine principle, manifest in many forms from a vulnerable earth-mother to an over-arching enchantress whose ultimate authority we cannot escape. This principle is certainly related to Bengali Shaktism. Interested readers may look up discussions of this issue in two of my books (Rabindranath O Victoria Ocampor Sandhane, pp. 310-13, and I Won’t Let You Go, Selected Poems of Rabindranath Tagore, Introduction, pp. 48-53).


In the transliteration of Bengali titles and key words Radice adopts a slightly modified version of romanized Sanskrit with diacritical marks. I have doubts about the usefulness of this system for the majority of English-speaking readers of this book. If readers have to be formally informed that ‘Sanskrit is India’s classical literary language’, as they have been on p. 6 of this book (footnote 8 to the Introduction), how equipped are they likely to be to decode such a system in the first place, and to relate it to the fluctuating specificities of Bengali pronunciation? Will most of them know that c is meant to be pronounced ch, for example? Radice writes bhába – really with a horizontal mark on the first vowel, as explained before – which does not quite correspond to the Sanskrit (which would require bháva); nor does it correspond to the Bengali word(which calls for bháb). The end-vowel is particularly inappropriate when the word’s special Bengali meaning of ‘friendship’ is being discussed (p. 25).


A reader who follows the source language as well as the target language responds to a translated text slightly differently from a reader who follows the target language alone. Bilingual readers find it difficult to relax and accept the texts in front of them as independent texts; they keep going back to the originals to find out how this or that piece has been handled. It is for the reader who cannot access the original text that a translator translates, but alas, it is the other kind of reader who is often asked to review the book. Bilingual reviewers are expected to compare the two texts and assess how ‘accurate’ the renderings are. ‘Accuracy’ is, however, only one of the qualities of a good translation. It has to be balanced against many other qualities.


Theoreticians of translation are often polarized between those who support ‘fluency’ and those who are in favour of offering ‘resistance’ to this tendency and following the originals more closely. Practitioners know that such polarization is futile. ‘Resisting’ to the hilt will deliver a wooden text from which little literary pleasure can be obtained. A total focus on fluency, on the other hand, may rob the text of that flickering gleam of alterity or ‘otherness’ which we prize in a text translated from another language and culture. Good translation is a craft skill that strikes a balance.


Readers who are obsessed about ‘accuracy’ and are not themselves practising translators often fail to grasp why a translator has taken this or that decision, especially in the translation of poetry. Having myself been at the receiving end of comments from such readers, I would not like to inflict such comments on another’s work. For a reviewer in my position, who is both bilingual and a practising translator, reading a translated text triggers a special set of reactions. We are in a position to fully appreciate the translator’s skill when a job has been done really and truly well; when less than fully satisfied, we begin to visualize alternative ways in which the job could have been handled. Without much effort – spontaneously, involuntarily – ghost images of alternative lines and phrases begin to form inside our heads. They refuse to be pushed away, hovering like optical ‘floaters’ in the field of vision. The best way to deal with these re-creative energies that are released in us may be to offer them in the spirit of a workshop. As the need to mediate between different cultures increases, the need to train literary translators increases. Workshops are good training grounds for raising awareness of issues and polishing craft skills. I know this from having attended poetry and theatre workshops. In respect of translation too, individuals have sometimes asked me to offer comments on their work in the spirit of a workshop. Others have mentioned how they have learnt things from my essays on translation issues published in Desh. These experiences encourage me to think that there is scope for infusing ‘the spirit of a workshop’ into a Parabaas review. Currently there are Bengalis both at home and abroad, from literary as well as non-literary backgrounds, who are trying to translate. They have the advantage of an advanced bilingualism, but may not always be sharply aware of the desiderata of literary translation, the why’s and how’s of the discipline. I hope such people may learn something from a review-cum-workshop. For my own convenience, I shall deal with the three collections translated by Radice one by one. Being brief, these poems lend themselves especially well to the focus of a workshop.