A Few Sentences on Translating Tagore’s “Shasti”
(A Translator’s Punishment)

Carolyn Brown

Why have I translated the title of Rabindranath Tagore’s “শাস্তি” (Shasti) as “Sentence,” when everyone else translates it as “Punishment”? Well, to begin with, it is not an altogether perverse choice—at least Bengali-English dictionaries give it some legitimacy. In the Sahitya Samsad dictionary definitions, “sentence” follows “punishment” and comes third in the Bangla Academy dictionary. Beyond that, there is story itself. The central character, Chandara, is placed on trial and sentenced to death by hanging, which is, of course, her punishment. But this is not the only punishment in the story. Chandara, by choosing not to defend herself, effectively punishes her husband for letting her stand trial for a murder she did not commit. Her own verdict is expressed in the last sentence of the story, when she is asked whether she would like to see her husband: “চন্দরা কহিল, ‘মরণ’” (Chandara said, “Maran!”). This is her last word, broken off because it is her final judgment—the sentence she gives her husband. I will return to this moment shortly.

In an essay that collates translations of several Tagore stories, Swati Datta has commented on another challenge that translators of “Shasti” must face, the word অভিমান (abhiman): “This commonly used and extremely evocative Bengali word has perplexed translators over the years.” As she also notes, the word—and more particularly, the complex of feelings that it carries—is central to the story. And, it’s true, translating the word tends to defy if not defeat most translators. Rather than recounting various attempts, I recommend her essay to interested readers. As Datta suggests, and as I have also discovered, “Shasti” serves as something of a touchstone in translations of Tagore’s short stories. Among those who have tried their hands at it, Rajani Ranjan Sen may be the earliest, in 1913; Mary Lago has translated the story twice, with different collaborators, in 1965 and 1991. Kalpana Bardhan and William Radice also published noteworthy translations of the story during the 1990s. And then, with the expiration of Visva-Bharati’s copyright in 2002, Bengali translators—such as Supriya Chaudhuri, Jadu Saha, Joyasree Mukerji, and Sinjita Gupta—have included “Punishment” in their collections of Tagore stories. Beyond those I have listed, there may have been others and, most likely, there will be more.

My particular interest is in the relation between those two recalcitrant words, abhiman and maran. At a seminar devoted to translation at the Sahitya Akademi in Kolkata, I was prepared to talk about abhiman; indeed, I had spent a paragraph discussing the word in a preface to a collection of translations I was working on at the time. But the unexpected question during the question-and-answer period was about something else. What had I done with the last sentence of “Shasti”? The questioner, as far as I could tell, was not much impressed by what I had come up with. In my version, Chandara’s last words were “I’d rather die! . . .” I felt somewhat better, if not completely exonerated, when I later discovered how close this was to the versions published by Mary Lago. First, in 1965, in collaboration with Tarun Gupta and Amiya Chakarvarty, Chandara says, “I’d rather be dead”; and then, in a 1991 collaboration with Krishna Dutta, Chandara says the same thing, but followed by an exclamation point. Oddly, to my mind at least, at the time of the seminar (2006), collaborative translations were treated dismissively, as a thing of the past. Indeed, there was a hint in the air that non-Bengali translators were less welcome than they once had been. Even so, once bitten by Bengali, there is no going back, even in exile. And so I keep pondering, “Maran!”—what is one to do with it? Here’s a sampling of answers from translations by Supriya Chaudhuri, Jadu Saha, Joyasree Mukerji, Sinjita Gupta, William Radice, and Kalpana Bardhan, respectively:

Chandara said, “Death.”

“Why not death!”

“Incorrigible! . . .” said Chandara.

Chandara only replied, “What a shame!”

“Not him,” said Chandara.

“He can go to hell!”

The last one reminds me of a similar version, “Hell with him—,” that Sarat Kumar Mukhopadhyay ventured when we were working over the story together some years ago. Along with their renderings within the story, two translators have provided helpful explanatory notes. William Radice (whose “not him” is relatively mild and rather oblique) offers the following gloss:

maraṇ!” Lit. “death!”—a common ironic expression particularly among village-women. The complex implications here include Chandara’s rejection of the husband she still loves, the abhiman that prevents her from backing down, and a shy reluctance to display her true marital feelings in public.

Supriya Chauhuri explains her choice—“Death!”—as “a literal rendering of the Bengali interjection ‘Maran!’, of complex and untranslatable implications: anger, exasperation, hatred, but also (from its common use in ordinary amorous contexts) a suppressed eroticism.”

The “untranslatable” word was performed for me, unforgettably, during a conversation in Kolkata with Keshab Chandra Sarkar, an inspired and inspiring teacher of Bengali language and lore, who had grown up hearing the expression in what was then rural East Bengal. With a toss of the head and a curled lip, his demonstration suggested how “Maran!” served among women as an expletive, usually expressing disgust or contempt, and often muttered or spoken in a low voice as an aside—not to the swaggering (male) object of the epithet but rather to sympathetic (female) companions. With this in mind, I have since toyed with other renderings, from “Tell him,” she answered, “drop dead” to “He can go hang himself,” in terms that turn her own impending death against him. I have resisted (I admit, with some reluctance) the temptation to simply transliterate, so that Chandara would respond: “Moron!” The reader will see where I have landed, if only for the time being, in the translation of “Shasti” that accompanies this essay. It is always my preference to find a way to translate without footnotes or glossaries. In this particular case, a literal rendering is not up to the task. Chandara’s choices, from the moment she discovers that her husband is letting her stand accused, serve to enact and explicate abhiman. As the culmination of the entire story, a translation of Chandara’s last word—or, by necessity, words—needs to carry the thrust of that abhiman, that bitter feeling of having been betrayed by the man she loves, with something of the terse dignity of the original Bengali, but also it also needs to be appropriate to the immediate context, as a response to the final question posed to her. My own rendering may be “free” and thus open to objections, and yet I’d like to think that it is in the spirit of Tagore’s own freeing of literary Bengali from the strictures of “high” style into a living language. One can only try, and try again! And so, dear reader, what would you do—and why?


Works Cited


Datta. Swati. “Locating and Collating Translated Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore.” Translation Today 2, no. 1 (March, 2005): 196–213.

Translations of Rabindranath Tagore’s “Shasti”

Bardhan, Kalpana, trans. In Women, Outcastes, Peasants, and Rebels: A Selection of Bengali Short Stories. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Brown, Carolyn B., with Sarat Kumar Mukhopadhyay, trans. In Tagore Tales. Kolkata: Projapoti, 2006.

Chaudhuri, Supriya, trans. In Selected Short Stories, ed. Sukanta Chaudhuri. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Dutta, Krishna, and Mary Lago, trans. In Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Short Stories. Calcutta: Rupa, 1991.

Gupta, Sinjita, trans. In Mystic Moods: Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore. New Delhi: UBSPD, 2005.

Lago, Mary, and Tarun Gupta, trans. In Housewarming and Other Stories, ed. and trans. Amiya Chakarvarty. New York: Signet, 1965.

Mukerji, Joyasree, trans. In She: A Collection of Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore (New Delhi: UBSPD, 2004.

Radice, William, trans. In Selected Short Stories. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Saha, Jadu, trans. In Portraits of Women: Selected Short Stories. Delhi: Shipra Publications, 2004.

Sen, Rajani Ranjan, trans. In Glimpses of Bengal Life, Being Short Stories from the Bengali of Rabindranath Tagore. Madras: Natesan, 1913.

Click here for Sentence, Carolyn Brown's translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s “শাস্তি” (Shasti).

Illustrated by Carolyn Brown.

Published in Parabaas May 8 2016.

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