An Open Letter to the Next Generation of Poets: Translations of Tagore

Dear Reader,

When honored guests visit your home, you love to share with them the things you treasure most. This same thought set me on my mission to translate Tagore’s poems/songs – to share with the world what treasures we have in our home. Indeed, I know of no better gems in my possession!

Tagore’s songs are celebrations of human emotions – embracing universal feelings that transcend cultural and language barriers. A song without melody is like a bird without wings. However, the exquisite thoughts expressed through the immaculate words of the poet himself can still be faithfully conveyed in a translation – with sensitivity, understanding, and cultural literacy on the part of the translator. I have also strived to maintain the original rhymes.

I feel truly blessed to be born and brought up in the Bengali culture – to savor and enjoy Tagore’s writing in the original. Using this legacy, I am wholeheartedly dedicated to achieving my goal of sharing them with the rest of the world. Since starting this endeavor over four decades ago, it has truly been a labor of love. I feel that these creations, timeless as they are, deserve to be savored and appreciated by everyone who shall read them, for all time to come.

The poems I set about to translate are chosen consciously for their universal appeal – where feelings overcome mere expressions, and each heart speaks on its own. I have given careful consideration to choose emotions over imageries, values over vignettes – such that language does not hinder readers’ enjoyment. In conventional thinking, some of these poems may seem spiritual, and some purely romantic. In Tagore’s poetry, the feelings are freely intermingled and very often cannot be separated. A sense of spiritual romanticism pervades his works – where divinity, nature, and human souls interact in perfect harmony. That quality gives these poems their universal appeal.

To fully appreciate their beauty, I feel the poems should be read in a quiet environment – when your heart is tranquil, and you are at peace with yourself and the world. Then again, I can imagine that when your mind is very disturbed, and your inner peace is threatened, reading them provides solace and soothes the agony of distress. Thus, I leave it to you, the reader, to decide when or where to read these poems, to enjoy them to the fullest. Let your feelings guide your heart, let your soul be imbued with their richness and simplicity.

The reason I chose to translate these two poems that I present here for publication is that they have a common and universal appeal – namely, expressing a child’s love for their mother. In this context, let me mention here that Tagore not only expressed all human feelings through his exquisite language, but also used words to express the feelings of nature, as if nature is talking with us! The poem, Palm Tree, is a beautiful example of that.

Also, those of you who were in my Bengali class may even recognize these two poems (incognito, in the garb of a different language!) – let that be a quiz for my dear readers: to identify which Bengali poems these are!

As a first-generation immigrant, and with increasing experience and exposure to the western world, I am coming to realize that people here respect Rabindranath Tagore as a savant and philosopher; however, they are not very familiar with his works, especially his poetry and songs, primarily due to the lack of good translations.

Further, as I turn my attention to our children, the second-generation of immigrant Bengalis in this new home of ours, I painfully realize that they will not be able to enjoy Tagore’s works in the original and be moved to the extent we are. Some of them even sing Tagore songs in our social functions, but without proper understanding of the meaning behind the wonderful lyrics. Thus, it seems so ironic that they have this valuable legacy as their inheritance, the value of which they can not fully appreciate. Somehow I feel responsible and resolve to try my best to solve this.

These feelings urged me to set about and continue translating Tagore’s works – to acquaint this world with Tagore – an acquaintance that would make it a richer and better place to live. It would be a worthwhile endeavor in the true sense of cultural exchange, as I feel this way I can humbly share my good fortune with the rest of the world.

Sincerely Yours,
An Older Poet

The Palm Tree

The palm tree, on its one-legged stand,
Towering above all trees,     Oh! so grand –
Peers longingly into the skies.
Thinking wistfully to pierce through the dark clouds, so it could
Fly away, for good – 
Alas, where can it find a pair of wings  –  it sighs!
And that is why, right on top of its head –
On its many round leaves, instead –
It spreads its Oh! so fervent wish.
In its mind, it thinks, these are the wings – 
Nothing now can stop it from flying,
Away from the home it does not cherish.
The whole day, flutter and quiver,
Its load of leaves would simmer and shiver –
It enjoys its flight, as it were, for the day;
In its mind, roaming all over the sky,
Evading the stars up there, Oh! So high,
As if it would be going far far away!
Then, when the breeze comes to a halt,
The shimmering of leaves dies down,  in default –
Its mind would tend to recall –
As it thinks, The Earth is its dear mother – 
Lovingly, it settles back, to reclaim her
At this corner of the world, after all.

The Forest-Dweller
Over there, O’ Mom, on the banks of the pond,
Near the fence around the Jeol tree, and beyond –
We shall be just forest-dwellers, with no one else nearby;
Under the shade of the Tamarisk tree,
I shall build your tiny hut – you will see,
Spreading dry leaves in the room we shall live – you and I.

There will be tigers and bears, quite a few –
But none will dare to come too near you;
Day and night, I shall be on guard, and keep my vigil.
Monsters will show up, peeping through the bush –
They will find me with bow and arrow in hand, standing still!
With puffed rice in your stole, as soon as you stand at the doors –
Deer from the forest will queue up,  and come on all fours.
With twisted horns,  one and all –
Round marks on their backs, big and small,
Lying on the ground, prostate at your feet they will be.
They all know me and understand –
I will pet them, with my bare hand,
They will not be scared at all – to snuggle up to me.
In the Falsa-grove, the trees with fruits abound,
Look like the skies overcast with cloud –
There the peacocks will come to show their dance, with feathers fanned.
The sparrows –  no one knows why –        
Will raise a big hue and cry,                       
The squirrels will come raising their tails,
And nibble at grains off our hand.              
Rabindranath Tagore (1862-1941)

Tagore was a Bengali poet, writer, painter, philosopher and composer who became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. He has been writing poetry ever since he was eight years old, releasing his first collection of poems at age sixteen under the pseudonym Bhanusimha (“Sun Lion”). Tagore has written over 2,222 works and his songs, the Rabindra Sangeet, are immortalized in the Bengali literary and musical tradition, well known outside of Bengal and the Indian subcontinent. Tagore was a universalist, internationalist, humanist and anti-nationalist, who declined his knighthood from the British Empire in 1919 and advocated for independence from Britain.

Amithaba Basu is a retired Lawrence Livermore Lab engineer and former lecturer of Bengali studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His journey to translate the works of Tagore began in 1971, out of a dream to “one day see the world sing them as wonderful lyrics, setting them to their own tunes, and transcending cultural boundaries; to be appreciated by all generations”. To witness the culmination of this endeavor, look no further than his book:  Lyrics to Love: From the Poet of the World.

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