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Tagore and the art of translation

Rabindranath Tagore was a prolific writer and thinker who left behind a large repertoire of plays, stories, songs, essays and novels. While much of his work was in Bengali, it has been extensively translated into English and other languages. And the fact that his works are still read and admired attests to the timelessness of his oeuvre.


Rabindranath Tagore. Pic/AFP

Focusing on the English and regional translations of Tagore’s works is a lecture at the NGMA by Mitra Mukherjee-Parikh, who heads the Department of English at SNDT University. Beginning from the poet’s own adaptation of Gitanjali in 1913, the talk will also compare English translations vis-à-vis Gujarati and Marathi translations of Tagore to highlight how each language adds a unique dimension to his literature. The event is part of the ongoing exhibition The Last Harvest, a show of paintings by Tagore. Excerpts from an interview with Parikh:

What are the themes that you will discuss in the talk?
New English translations of Tagore’s works have made available a variety of the poet’s creative and critical writings, allowing an independent assessment of his achievements in literature, music, visual art, philosophical reflections, socio-political critique, education and experiments in rural development. The talk will present aspects of the creative universe of Tagore’s poetry in translation and show how they express some of the poet’s deep concerns as an individual, wrestling with private demons. Simultaneously, they also reflect the public self challenging familiar clichés, rituals and prejudices based on race, caste, gender, class and religion of the educated middle-class, their blind aping of the West, their aggressive nationalism and consumerism.Several poems also articulate Tagore’s growing disillusionment with Western civilisation, his condemnation of their greed for power and wealth. The attempt will be to show how ideas exist creatively in poems and when viewed in a comparative frame of different translations, their interpretative horizons widen.

What are your opinions on the English and the regional translations of Tagore?
It’s best not to make judgments about translations. Translations are always different whether in English or any other language and all translations allow play of meanings and widen the field of interpretations. The presentation will discuss advantages and choices that regional translation have over English in negotiating with Tagore’s Bangla originals.

Will the talk carry a particular message?
The focus will be on Tagore as a modern poetic voice whose self-reflections and public utterances are mindful expressions of the complex ways he negotiated in his own time, questions of identity, history and the future direction of the individual, community and the nation which are of utmost importance and relevance today.

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