Re-writing Tagore: Translation as Performance - Radha Chakravarty

          In a dramatic sequence towards the end of Rabindranath Tagore’s play “Natir Puja” (1926; translated into English as “The Dancing Girl’s Worship”), the court dancer Srimati is publicly humiliated, forced to perform before the altar where the Buddha was once worshipped, in violation of her faith in Buddhism. But she subverts the situation, casting off her costume and ornaments as she dances, to reveal beneath them, the garb of a bhikkuni, a female Buddhist ascetic.

  The sacrilegious becomes an expression of the sacred, as the poignant refrain of her song affirms that dance and music are the form of her worship: “Bandana mor bhangite ar sangite biraje” (“my prayer resides in gesture and song”). Here, the body in performance becomes a metaphor for worship. The language of devotion, in other words, is translated into body language, the language of dance.  Instead of treating this translation as transparent, the lines of the song draw attention to the fact that the medium, in fact, is the message – a foregrounding of the performative as that which constitutes meaning, instead of merely transmitting something already “there”. It is through dance that the Nati’s worship comes into being.

This scene provides a useful analogue for the idea of translation as performance, which I explore in this essay, with reference to Tagore’s writings. The idea itself is not new. The theories of Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, for instance, suggest a metaphoric link between performance as translation and translation as performance.  The link between text, performance and gesture is approached by Brecht in terms of “theatrical thought”. Benjamin in “The Task of the Translator” (1921) questions some of the commonest assumptions about translation, which tend to be based on ideas of fidelity to the original, resemblance, or accuracy.Drawing upon these ideas, Patrick Prmavesi says: “The various features and qualities of a performance go far beyond the rendering of a writer's intention. . . This may lead us to the theatrical nature of translation in general, to a scene of gestures that maintain and justify the exchange of signs and meanings in the "afterlife" of texts”.[i] Just as the enactment of a dramatic text involves adaptation and interpretation, so also in literary translation, the “re-presentation” of the original text in another language has a performative aspect that does not confine itself to a recovery of authorial intention.  Since all interpretation involves a displacement of the original, each performance moves away from the source text, and creates something new.  Translating Tagore can therefore be seen as a creative act, an act of interpretation, and in these senses, it can be understood as performative.

This creative dimension of translation was apparent to Tagore. In the EnglishGitanjali, he consciously transcreated the original Bengali poems, instead of attempting literal translations in verse. In a letter to Rothenstein dated 4 April 1915, he wrote: “My translations are frankly prose, -- my aim is to make them simple with just a suggestion of rhythm to give them a touch of the lyric, avoiding all archaisms and poetical conventions”.[ii]For instance, in a poem from the manuscript of Gitanjali, omitted from the published edition (probably as a result of Yeats’ “editing”), Tagore’s use of prose bears testimony to his conviction that the spirit of the original Bengali cannot be captured in English verse:

“On the day thou breakst through this my name, my master, I shallbe free and leave this phantasy of my own creation and take myplace in thee.

By scribbling my name over thy writing I cover thy works.I know not how further such a horror could be carried.This pride of name plucks feathers from others to decorateits own self and to drown all other music it beats its own drum.Oh, let it be utterly defeated in me and let the day come whenonly thy name will play in my tongue and I shall be accepted byall by my nameless recognition.”[iii]

But William Radice, in his re-translation of the same poem, offers a “re-enactment” in verse, as an affirmation of the musical quality of Tagore’s poetry in Bengali:

          The day you wipe out

                   my name, lord,

                             that day I’ll be free.

          I’ll be reborn in you

                   instead of in a dream

                             made by me.

          Your writing’s crossed out

                   by the line

                             of my name.

          How much longer

                   must I carry the evil

                             of that kind of fame? . . .[iv]

In the performance, the poem changes. Radice’s reworking of the poem is, of course, based on his confidence in his own bilinguality, his command of the rhythms of both Bengali and English. For at the simplest level, translation involves the rewriting of a text from one language into another. Although Tagore was revered by his admirers in India as “Gurudev”, it was for his writings in English that he received world recognition and the Nobel Prize.  Tagore, though, was diffident about his command of English. In the years following his short-lived, meteoric rise to international fame, he was to realize that faulty translations of his work, often published with his approval, had much to do with the eventual decline in his reputation in the world.In a letter to Sturge Moore, dated 24 May 1921, he says: “I am convinced that I myself in my translations have done grave injustice to my own work.  My English is like a frail boat—and to save it from an utter disaster I had to jettison the most part of itscargo”.[v] During Tagore’s lifetime, and since his death, translations from Bengali into other Indian and world languages played a major role in sustaining Tagore’s image in the public imagination; but they also, in the process of “re-presenting” or “performing” Tagore, modified the originals and presented altered versions to the world. This is why translation needs to be understood as integral to the “after-life” of Tagore’s texts.

The process of translation, though, involves much more than a simple linguistic transfer. Translation as performance suggests the possibility of expanding our idea of translation beyond the linguistic dimension, to consider, not only cultural translation, but also translation across genres of literature, and translation from one creative medium into another. Tagore’s oeuvre, and its reception over the years and across cultures, provides extensive instances of all these ways of rethinking translation.

          A common fetish in the domain of translation is the concern over faithfulness to the original.  Yet Tagore himself did not believe in the reification of texts.  He constantly revised, rewrote and refashioned his own work, often translating a text from one genre into another.  To take a few examples, the poem “Pujarini” becomes the play “Natir Puja”, the story “Ekta Ashare Galpa” evolves into the play Tasher Desh, andsome poems from Gitanjalihave a musical version, recast as songs, undergoing a transformation of the lyrics, in the process.Contexts and readerships determine the shape of a translation.  So does genre. For instance, Poem 39 in the English Gitanjali begins:

“When the heart is hard and parched up come upon me with a shower of mercy. When grace is lost from life come with a burst of song.”[vi]

In Fakrul Alam’s translation, the poem is rendered in verse, intended to evoke for today’s readers the cadences of Tagore’s poetry in modern, idiomatic English:

          When life dries up

Come in a stream of mercy.

When everything graceful is covered,

Come in a shower of songs.[vii]

The same poem, rendered as a song, acquires a musical aura that Alam tries to capture in his translation:

          When the sap of life shrinks, seek the showers of mercy.

When all that’s lovely is hidden, come sweetly as a song.

When work overpowers and imprisons me

Within the frontiers of the heart, O Giver of life, tread softly![viii]

Both versions by Alam, collected in the same volume The Essential Tagore (2011), offer the possibility of tracking the changes that occur when a text is “translated” from one genre into another.

          Translation in this sense emphasizes, not the abstract reification of a sacred “original”, but a recognition of the contingent and the provisional. The mutability of texts remained, for Tagore, a source of endless creative possibility. The same consciousness, if it inhabits the activity of translation, can help us to release ourselves from the restrictive conventions demanding strict adherence to the original, in order to achieve “fidelity”, “accuracy” and “resemblance”.

          Beyond language and genre, translation also involves a cultural transfer.  When Tagore and his contemporaries translated literary texts into English for a “foreign” audience, they often smoothened the texture of their translations by omitting cultural terms, in order to make their translations more accessible to readers abroad. Today, though, English has been appropriated by many once-colonized cultures to produce a range of variants, different “Englishes”, that are used with confidence by writers who refuse to acknowledge the dominance of so-called “standard English”. This is also true of contemporary translations. In my own translations, for instance, I retain numerous cultural terms for which there are no English equivalents, such as kinship terms, names of seasons, items of food and clothing, and forms of address.  While using modern idiomatic English, I also try to retain the flavour of the original Bengali, through careful nuancing of phrasing and vocabulary.  There are no fixed rules or formulae; often, the translator must invent strategies of negotiation between cultures where no direct equivalences exist. Sukanta Chaudhuri says: “Literary translation proceeds by a series of particular, contingent judgments, virtually a species of inspired ad hocism”.[ix] Such is the creative dimension of translation; and like performance, it has much to do with the connections between context, “performer” and audience.

          Translation can also deploy the performative in ways that are political. Citing Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Judith Butler says: “the practice of translation (which is something other than an assimilation to mono-lingualism) is a way of producing – performatively -  another kind of “we” – a set of connections through language that can never produce a linguistic unity.[x] She adds: “sometimes it is not a question of first having power and then being able to act; sometimes it is a question of acting, and in the acting, laying claim to the power one requires. What did it mean in this sense, for Tagore to translate the Gitanjali poems into English? He was unsure of his command of English, but the instinct that prompted him to undertake this effort, was the desire to claim a place in the international literary domain, instead of remaining confined to the local and the regional. His act of assertion proved effective beyond expectation: Tagore’s English Gitanjali drew the attention of noted personalities such as Pound, Yeats and Rothenstein, brought him the Nobel Prize, and placed him on the world literary map. According to Krishna Kripalani, news of the award “was received everywhere with a shock of surprise and turned Rabindranath from an individual into a symbol – a symbol  of the West’s grudging recognition of Asia’s submerged potential and its imminent resurgence”[xi]The play of cultural difference here is significant, for Tagore’s triumph is read by Kripalani as a victory for Asia.  Such was also Yeats’ perception of Gitanjali. In his Introduction, he says: “A whole people, a whole civilization, immeasurably strange to us, seems to have been taken up into this imagination; and yet we are not moved because of its strangeness, but because we have met our own image”.[xii] As Radice points out, Yeats treats Tagore’s text as a symbol for the whole of Asian civilization, taking it to stand for the differences between cultures of East and West, but more importantly, for the universal human values underlying such differences. He says: “Yeats found in the Gitanjali poems and in Tagore himself a symbol, a type, an icon. This set the tone for the way in which Tagore was regarded internationally throughout his post-Gitanjali career.” [xiii] In actual fact, though, Gitanjali does not represent the whole of Tagore’s genius, let alone the whole of Asian culture. Michael Collins argues: “Yeats assumed that the devotional Vedantic poetry of Gitanjali was all there was to Tagore. But it was not the only Tagore. As we know, he also published numerous essays, philosophical works and novels, most of which were largely ignored by the likes of Yeats.”[xiv] Yeats’ re-presentation of Tagore’s text, is therefore imbued with cultural politics that displace the intention and significance of the original.

          Yeats’ subsequent change of stance towards Tagore’s work is well-known.  In a letter to Sir Frederick Macmillan on 28 Jan. 1917, for instance, he says: “You probably do not know how great my revisions have been in the past.  William Rothenstein will tell you how much I did for Gitanjali and even his MS. of The Gardener. Of course all one wanted to do ‘was to bring out the author’s meaning’, but that meant a continual revision of vocabulary and even more of cadence.  Tagore’s English was a foreigner’s English”.[xv] Yeats’ claim over the translated versions of Gitanjali and The Gardener, and his changing attitudes towards them, demonstrate the ways in which translation displaces the authority of the original, and also the mutability and contingency of translated texts as performances. In the pre-War years when the West was hungering for a spiritual “message” that Tagore the sage-like prophet from the East seemed to offer, Yeats found in his works something miraculous and universal. Later, as disenchantment and alienation coloured the Western mindset after the experience of the first World War, Tagore’s writings seemed to lose their magic for many of his readers in those parts of the world, and Yeats’ cynicism about his work reflects that transition. Changing contexts thus account in a large measure for the fluctuating international reception of Tagore’s writings. If the authority of the original text is not a given, the significance of a translation is also provisional, subject to contingency.

In this sense, the idea of a single definitive translation of a literary text becomes untenable, for what seems authorized, and authoritative, today, can strike readers as stale and dated tomorrow. Translation, like performance, remains premised upon the idea of repetition with difference.




[i]Patrick Primavesi, “The Performance of Translation: Benjamin and Brecht on the Loss of Small Details”, TDR: The Drama Review, 43:4 (T164, Winter 1999), 53-59, p.54.

[ii] Cited in Imperfect Encounter: Letters of William Rothenstein and Rabindranath Tagore, ed. Mary M. Lago (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1972),195.

[iii]The Essential Tagore, ed. Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011),  257.

[iv]Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, trans. William Radice (New Delhi, Penguin, 2011), 45.

[v] See Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, ed. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 272-3.

[vi]Gitanjali, trans. Radice, op. cit., 27.

[vii]Essential Tagore, op. cit., 260.

[viii]Essential Tagore, 322.

[ix]Sukanta Chaudhuri, “General Editor’s Preface”, Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems, ed. Sukanta Chaudhuri ( Oxford University Press, New Delhi: 2004), v-xi, p.v.

[x]Judith Butler, “Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics”, Revista de Antropologia Iberoamericana  4, 3 (2009), i- xiii.

[xi] Krishna Kripalani, Tagore: A Life(New Delhi: NBT, 3rd edn, 1986; rept. 1997), p.131.

[xii]Gitanjali, trans. Radice, op. cit. 169.

[xiii]Radice,“Introduction” to Gitanjali, trans. Radice, op. cit., xv-lxxxiv, p.lviii.

[xiv]Michael Collins, Empire, Nationalism and Inter-Cultural Dialogue: Rabindranath Tagore, Writings on History, Politics and Society (London: Routledge, 2011).

[xv] Cited in William Radice, “Introduction”, op. cit., xxvii.