Poetry Wednesday: Translating Rabindranath Tagore

Child, how happy you are sitting in the dust, playing with a broken twig all the morning.
I smile at your play with that little bit of a broken twig.
I am busy with my accounts, adding up figures by the hour.
Perhaps you glance at me and think, “What a stupid game to spoil your morning with!”
Child, I have forgotten the art of being absorbed in sticks and mud-pies.
I seek out costly playthings, and gather lumps of gold and silver.
With whatever you find you create your glad games, I spend both my time and my strength over things I never can obtain.
In my frail canoe I struggle to cross the sea of desire, and forget that I too am playing a game.

— “Playthings,” Rabindranath Tagore


TagoreRabindranath Tagore was the first non-European poet to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.*

All true.

It is also true that this man did not need the approval of the Academy to be a big deal, at least not inside Bengal. He revolutionized the traditional forms and moved poetry out of formal Sanskrit and into colloquial Bengali (as so many of my favorite poets have). He’s considered The modern Bengali poet.

But I didn’t know this when I first read his work. I just knew I loved this poem:

O you mad, you superbly drunk!
(Rabindranath Tagore)

O you mad, you superbly drunk!
If you kick open your doors and play the fool in public;
If you empty your bag in a night, and snap your fingers at prudence;
If you walk in curious paths and play with useless things;
Reck not rhyme or reason;
If you break the rudder in two unfurling your sails before the storm:
Then I will follow you, comrade, and be drunken and go to the dogs.

I have wasted my days and nights in the company of steady wise neighbors.
Much knowing has turned my hair grey, and much watching has made my sight dim.
For years I have gathered and heaped all scraps and fragments of things;
Crush them and dance upon them, and scatter them all to the winds!
For I know ’tis the height of wisdom to be drunken and go to the dogs.

Let all crooked scruples vanish, let me hopelessly lose my way.
Let a gust of wild giddiness come and sweep me away from my anchors.
The world is peopled with worthies, and workers useful and clever;
There are men who are easily the first, and men who come decently next:
Let them be happy and prosperous, and let me be foolishly futile.
For I know ’tis the end of all works to be drunken and go to the dogs.

I swear to surrender this moment all claim to the ranks of the sensible.
I let go my pride of learning and judgment of right and of wrong.
I’ll shatter the vessel of memory, scattering the last drop of tears;
With the foam of the ruby red wine, I’ll bathe and brighten my laughter.
The badge of the proper and prim I’ll tear into shreds for the nonce.
I’ll take the holy vow of being worthless, and be drunken and go to the dogs.

Heady stuff for a woman trying to finish a degree, arrange and perform a Senior concert , and plan a wedding all in the same month.**

Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry always seemed remarkably straightforward to me.

I mean, it’s a given that the metaphors and symbols of Bengali poetry—all Asian poetry, really—won’t be entirely anchored in my own cultural strata, even if it’s contemporary; there must be subtle differences in how they’re meant to be interpreted. Even the cadences and repetitions are exotic to me, the emphasis of the words never quite where I’m expecting.

All of this forces me slow down and pay attention, which is all to the good—and I should really try that with Western poetry sometime.

But the OCD in me can’t forget that when poems are originally written in a language I don’t know—even a European language— I’m actually reading them through the translator’s idea of what the poet meant.

And this bugs me, because if I’m going to misinterpret a poem, I want to do it myself.

But then I found out that Rabindranath Tagore, that brilliant man, did his own translations into English.

And I relaxed.

And I simply enjoyed.

Which is, after all, the point.

Sing the Song of the Moment
(Rabindranath Tagore)

Sing the song of the moment in careless carols, in the transient light of the day;
Sing of the fleeting smiles that vanish and never look back;
Sing of the flowers that bloom and fade without regret.
Weave not in memory’s thread the days that would glide into nights.
To the guests that must go bid God-speed, and wipe away all traces of their steps.
Let the moments end in moments with their cargo of fugitive songs.

With both hands snap the fetters you made with your own heart chords;
Take to your breast with a smile what is easy and simple and near.
Today is the festival of phantoms that know not when they die.
Let your laughter flush in meaningless mirth like twinkles of light on the ripples;
Let your life lightly dance on the verge of Time like a dew on the tip of a leaf.
Strike in the chords of your harp the fitful murmurs of moments.

* “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1913”. Nobelprize.org. 24 Apr 2013

**At one point, I thought I had correction fluid in my hair from my Educational Resources project —some had gone white from the stress. Even parenthood hasn’t managed that one. Yet.