Saturday, 1 August 2015

BCLT Summer School:
Translating Poetry 2: Tagore / Alam

Rabindranath Tagore

BCLT Summer School ended yesterday with readings and dinner and, for me, a great wave of tiredness. I am sure this will have been the case for everyone involved, especially the workshop leaders, not to mention the organisers. There is always a developing sense of excitement and a naturally intensifying inward pressure that draws in deep reserves of energy. 'Stay alert! stay alert!' says the mind. To be alert is to remain in a state of tension.

I had, however, a lovely group of poets, Aya (from Japan, translating Japanese into English) ​, Lesley (English but translating from French into English), Carmen (American-Spanish-Polish translating from Spanish into English) , Chiara (Italian, living in England, writing poetry in English but translating from Italian to English) and Pushpita (from Bangladesh, translating from Bengali into English), with visitor Orsolya (working on Dutch into Hungarian)​ from Hungary dropping in for three of the sessions, Ceci  (from Argentina, translating from Spanish into English but also writing in English) for a couple, and others for one.

Having worked through Psalm 23, Catullus and Celan, in our first two sessions, we launched into the individual poems chosen by the individual translators in the third. (There were eight two hour sessions in all.)

I can't possibly go through every poem and translation discussed so I am picking a couple of fascinating instances as case studies and will write separate posts on them. This is the first.

Pusphita Alam translating Rabindranath Tagore's Proshno

Rabindranath Tagore


ভগবান , তুমি যুগে যুগে দূত , পাঠায়েছ বারে বারে
দয়াহীন সংসারে ,
তারা বলে গেলক্ষমা করো সবে ', বলে গেলভালোবাসো
অন্তর হতে বিদ্বেষবিষ নাশো '
বরণীয় তারা , স্মরণীয় তারা , তবুও বাহির-দ্বারে
আজি দুর্দিনে ফিরানু তাদের ব্যর্থ নমস্কারে

আমি-যে দেখেছি গোপন হিংসা কপট রাত্রিছায়ে
হেনেছে নিঃসহায়ে ,
আমি-যে দেখেছি প্রতিকারহীন শক্তের অপরাধে
বিচারের বাণী নীরবে নিভৃতে কাঁদে
আমি-যে দেখিনু তরুণ বালক উন্মাদ হয়ে ছুটে
কী যন্ত্রণায় মরেছে পাথরে নিষ্ফল মাথা কুটে

কণ্ঠ আমার রুদ্ধ আজিকে , বাঁশি সংগীতহারা ,
অমাবস্যার কারা
লুপ্ত করেছে আমার ভুবন দুঃস্বপনের তলে ,
তাই তো তোমায় শুধাই অশ্রুজলে
যাহারা তোমার বিষাইছে বায়ু , নিভাইছে তব আলো ,

তুমি কি তাদের ক্ষমা করিয়াছ , তুমি কি বেসেছ ভালো

Pushpita, whose home is Dhaka in Bangladesh chose one poem by Tagore and another by a more recent poet but we got stuck on the very first word of the Tagore for some twenty minutes and did not proceed much faster from there. She had brought along a literal translation of Proshno which was translated by her as Question. The poem was in three stanzas of six lines each in Bengali script which, when she read it, had both rhyme and a serious pulsing rhythm.  The poem was addressed to a God but not one associated with a specific religion. She read it in Bengali first (all original poems were read several times in the original language) then in her literal version. The poem was essentially a lament for the poisons and hatreds and treachery of the time. It ended by asking whether God could love and forgive even workers of evil.

After all the initial questions about the script, the language, the poetic tradition, and the status and nature of Tagore as poet and public figure we had got to line three at the end of the first session. The initial mapping of ground is bound to be slow especially in a group where intuition has to be made articulate in order to be evaluated. We asked Pushpita to produce a verse version for the next time, which she did.    It did not attempt to reproduce all the rhyme but it did suggest analogies with the biblical psalms, in which David (as it is traditionally believed) talks and sings his troubles, fears, hopes and joys, directly to God. Both form and voice followed the psalmist model. As the translation evolved it grew ever more sophisticated and convincing in its rhythm, diction and rhetorical articulation. When Pushpita read it to the group on the last morning everyone was impressed by its beauty and authority.

Authority is key to both work and translation. What authority says is that the work is fully achieved in itself. We can't know whether the authority of the translation matches the authority of the original but  we are aware of the beauty and authority of that which we understand in our own language. Is that a good thing? Is that a betrayal of the original?

I doubt it. The translation works on us as poetry. It is a beautiful new object throwing light back on the unknown original. It is itself a creation of which we are glad.

Rabindranath Tagore
Translated by Pushpita Alam

O God, age after age, you sent your messengers
to this pitiless world
“Forgive all,” they preached, 
“Purge your hearts of wickedness.”
“Love,” they said.
They were revered and remembered, still, 
On this dark day, I am forced to turn them away
At the gate with no homage to offer

I have seen masked greed strike the powerless
In the dark guile of night
I have seen offences of the strong go unpunished 
While the word of justice wept in silence
I have seen the youth mad, dying
beating his head vainly against stone

Today, I find my voice strangled, my flute without tune,
I’m imprisoned by the moonless night
They have shrouded my world in a nightmare
So through my tears, I ask you
Have you forgiven those who poisoned your air,
extinguished your light? Do they have your love? 

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