Tagore on Translations

The following is a taste of Rabindranath Tagore’s thoughts on language and translations, taken from a speech he gave when traveling in China in 1925:

“Languages are jealous. They do not give up their best treasures to those who try to deal with them through an intermediary belonging to an alien rival. You have to court them in person and dance attendance on them. Poems are not like gold or other substantial things that are transferable. You cannot receive the smiles and glances of your sweetheart through an attorney, however diligent and dutiful he may be.”

Tagore describes his experiences studying translated works of European authors, and his efforts at learning German. He says that he was cursed in that he understood meaning too quickly: once he was able to understand enough to infer the author’s intent, he was able to skip over the nuances and details of the language. In this way he read Heine “like a man walking in sleep crossing unknown paths with ease.”

His limited understanding of German was insufficient for other works like Faust.

“I believe I found my entrance to the palace, not like one who has keys for all the doors, but as a casual visitor who is tolerated in some general guest room, comfortable but not intimate.”

In the end, Tagore says, Goethe and other remained unknown to him.

“This is as it should be. Man cannot reach the shrine, if he does not make the pilgrimage.”

Read prose and appreciate it in its original language, insists Tagore. Read my poetry in the original Bangali and only then can you judge it truly.

“So you must not hope to find anything true from my own language in translation… I am gratified to hear from you that you are convinced that I am a poet because I have beautiful grey beard. But my vanity will remain unsatisfied until you know me from my voice that is in my poems.

“I hope that this may make you want to learn Bengali some day.”


Rabindranath Tagore, Talks in China. Rabindra Rachanavali Series, Rupa 2002. [Link]


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