A rock’n’roll fan, I don’t care for Tagore’s songs or dance dramas, but I have come across no poet who has written more consistently well than the grand old man of Bengali literature. Wordsworth can bore, Keats has his juvenalia, Yeats and Dylan Thomas can be incomprehensible, Tennyson trite, Browning dense, Shakespeare — well, how many really read The Rape of Lucrece? I haven’t and don’t intend to. But Tagore’s virtuosity shines through every poem. He is as mellifluous as Tennyson but he can be stark and austere too in his later poems. However, it is impossible to appreciate his poetry without a knowledge of Bengali for it is so dependent on the music of words. It is entirely lost in translation, at least in the translations I have seen.
Our knowledge of world literature is so dependent on middlemen. We don’t really get to read the authors at all but their translators.
Some are lucky to get good translators, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who even said Gregory Rabassa’s English translation of his One Hundred Years of Solitude was superior to his Spanish original. I loved Constance Garnett’s translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The impression Gilbert Murray’s verse translation of Aeschylus made on me was unmatched by later Penguin prose translations. It only goes to show how different the same work can be translated by two different people.
In a play or a novel, it is possible at least to appreciate the story or the characters, but what is a poem without words? That is one reason why I seldom read translations. I would rather a second-rate English writer or a Bengali novel than a European classic. For it is words that make literature and words are lost in translation. Mostly lost, that is.
Still, one must be grateful to translators for at least introducing us to writers we would have never known. They deserve recognition. J Peder Zane writes about a translator’s complaint that a major American magazine quoted his translation of a famous foreign author without even mentioning his name. When the translator complained to the magazine, he was told the editors feared his name would "clutter" the piece.
"Few people would endorse the magazine’s oversight," writes Zane. Yet we seldom mention the translator when we talk about a foreign author, he adds. That’s so true. I can’t even remember who translated Camus, who really impressed me in my younger days. But it was the translator I read, not Albert Camus. I just discovered the novel I always knew as The Outsider is also called The Stranger. There is a subtle difference between the two words. Camus’ novel was called L’Etranger, Answers.com just reminded me. So why was it translated as The Outsider? The translator does make a difference. It’s time we gave him his due.