Academic journal article International Journal on Humanistic Ideology

Rabindranath Tagore in Germany

Academic journal article International Journal on Humanistic Ideology

Rabindranath Tagore in Germany

Article excerpt


If I were asked who was the greatest poet India has produced, including the greatest of ancient India, Kalidasa, my firm answer would be: 'Tagore" ... It is tragic, however, that his greatness as a poet will never be generally acknowledged, like the greatness of Goethe, Hugo or Tolstoy.1

These two sentences by the well-known Indian writer Nirad Chaudhuri sum up the fate of Rabindranath Tagore as a literary figure. On the one hand, they emphasise the immense importance his work receives in West Bengal and Bangladesh; on the other hand, they demonstrate the clear limits of his importance. Tagore's influence does not transcend the confines of the Bengali language. Bengali is spoken by approximately 180 million people in West Bengal and Bangladesh. This is a larger figure than, for example, the entire German-speaking population. Yet, Bengali is considered a regional language of the Indian subcontinent (with a limited significance even within the context of the subcontinent), whereas German is accepted as a world language, as indeed most European languages are. We are all aware of the political and economic history which created such an imbalance between the languages and the cultures in the world.

Congenial translations are needed

Hence it entirely depends on the availability of congenial translations whether Rabindranath Tagore's true worth will be appreciated beyond Bengal. Making Shakespeare, Dante or Tolstoy one's own with the assistance of excellent translations is comparatively easy. Shakespeare has been translated into German for the last two hundred years with immense success, and is still being translated. But translating Tagore into German does not merely entail two European languages, but two languages which are divided by separate cultures, social contexts, geographical areas and religions. Whoever wants to translate a poem by Tagore from Bengali to German needs to bridge the gulf which separates India and Germany.

It is not easy for an Indian to admit that their national poet, Rabindranath Tagore, is hardly known in Europe. Although the Indian subcontinent entered the sphere of modern World Literature through Tagore, this has become a fact of history now. Today Tagore is no longer a vibrant, dynamic element of World Literature, he no longer influences the intellectual horizon of a large readership and inspires writers outside Bengal for just this one reason: we do not have enough genuine, congenial translations.

For Bengalis, Rabindranath Tagore continues to have a powerful, sometimes overbearing cultural presence. It is virtually impossible to ignore him, even though one may reject him. For Europeans, Tagore has for many decades represented the distant memory of a Wise Old Man from the East, of an Eastern mystic who arrived in Germany after the First World War to dispense consolation and courage to a people immersed in a deep spiritual and cultural crisis. For less than a decade, Tagore inspired German audiences and readers, after which he sank into oblivion, a process which was aided by the advent of Nazi Germany for which the Indian poet was anathema.

The mystical vagueness of Tagore's poems and his lyrical prose may have enthralled European readers for some years, but they could not pass the test of time. These poems were rendered into English by the poet himself and then translated into German by German translators. Tagore's own English rendering does not merit the term "translation". These texts were at best paraphrases. He transformed his finely chiselled Bengali verses into rhythmical English prose. In the process he often simplified or even trivialised the content by leaving out some of the more complex ideas and evocations and by adding new material. It is generally agreed that, whatever be the inherent worth of these English texts, they do not echo the intricacy and vigour and musicality of Tagore's original poetry. Hence I call the German version of Tagore's poetry "doubly watered-down": first watered-down by Tagore himself through his English prose texts and then again by adopting them for the German. …

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