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.

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.

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: “
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]
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]

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

          The day you wipe out

                   my name, lord,

                             that day I’ll be

          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”,
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.

process of translation, though, involves much more than a simple linguistic
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
, 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
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

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:

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
She adds: “
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.

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.

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

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

Tagore, Gitanjali, trans. William Radice
(New Delhi, Penguin, 2011), 45.

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

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.

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

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

trans. Radice, op. cit. 169.

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

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

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