Rabindranath Tagore in Translation

Remembering the Bard of Bengal

“Where the mind is without fear
and the head is held high,
where knowledge is free.
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.
In to that heaven of freedom, my father,
Let my country awake!”

― Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali: Song Offerings

Rabindranath Tagore, author of the ‘profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse’ of Gitanjali became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1913). The prolific artist enticed the Bengali audience with his wide-ranging poetry, stories, paintings which overturned the conventional ideas and practices in the society. Tagore’s assertive viewpoints on nationalism and his understanding of the feelings and emotions of the Indian woman and the attitude towards them in his works were remarkable. The tendency to question and contest ways of the world lead to the discontent with the formal education system. Thus, In 1901 he founded an experimental school in rural West Bengal at Shantiniketan, where he sought to blend the best in the Indian and Western traditions, which became Visva-Bharati University in 1921.

Tagore is also referred to as ‘The Bard of Bengal’. He modernised Bengali art by rejecting rigid classical forms and resisting linguistic limits. It was not just the structural alterations that Tagore initiated but also the thematic concerns. His works moved towards a stronger sense of realism by liberating the Bengali novel from its bondage of historical romance. His novels, stories, songs, dance-dramas, and essays spoke of topics, political and personal, and were popularly known for their lyricism, naturalism, and unnatural contemplation. Tagore’s novels are a radical statement of his unusual viewpoint which were ahead of the conservative times of 19th and 20th century India. Gora (1909), Ghare-Baire (1916), Choker Bali (1903) are some of his best-known novels. There have been several attempts to translate Tagore’s body of work into English, making it accessible to non-Bengali readers. In fact, Tagore himself translated many of his works into English.

Here’s a quick glance into some of Gurudev’s most popular novels:

CHOKHER BALI (1903)

Chokher Bali was truly a norm-defying novel with a narrative shaped through passion, desires and an intricate network of relationships. Tagore’s novels condemned many taboos and unjust customs which deprived widows of their rightful existence; confined to live a mournful colourless life. Chokher Bali presents the woeful conditions of Hindu widows and the emergence of a new type of woman in quest of self-fulfillment through Binodini, the protagonist of the novel. An extra-marital affair with a widow and the closer depiction of female friendship in the novel created a ripple in the society by shattering the conventional identity of a widow as well as unsettling the idea of a successful married life.

GORA (1909)

Tagore’s longest novel, Gora, is a complex narrative with a rich philosophical debate on religion and politics. The concerns raised in the novel about the imagination of a nation seem very contemporary and compels one to question their concrete beliefs about a nation. The protagonists in the novel portray through their personal principles, a struggle for values in one’s own tradition. The novel accommodates questioning of various binaries like tradition and modernity, elite and the poor and presents an intersection of caste, religion, gender with nationalism.

GHARE BAIRE (1916)

The novel standing true to its title literally captures the concerns of the home, the outer world and the inter-relationship of both these spaces. The power dynamics within a household and the conflict between true and false patriotism within the nation form the prominent thematic thread of the novel. Influence of Western culture, as well as the revolution against it particularly in Bengal owing to the Swadeshi movement and the Partition of Bengal, comes across through personal narratives of the characters in the novel. The position of women in the Indian freedom struggle is examined through the woman protagonist who through the development of the novel undergoes a transformation. Tagore negotiates the various ideas of a ‘modern woman’ within a nationalistic scenario.

SHESHER KABITA (1929)

Shesher Kabita is considered a landmark in Bengali literature. The novel primarily is about man-woman relationships and the institution of marriage. Tagore yet again shows a masterly command of the trysts of human relationships. The themes of love, trust, passion, lust, and companionship keep the narrative intact. Tagore has brilliantly weaved poetry with prose in this novel. The fusion of the two forms adds to the creative beauty in exploring the ideas of platonic love. Tagore’s choice of ending the novel in an unconventional manner suggested a new way of looking at relationships.

As we celebrate the birth of this multifaceted and revolutionary artist today, let us revisit and cherish the timeless contributions which altered the way our society and world thinks. Remembering the literary genius who weaved beauty and purpose in the most beautiful way.

Hindi Literature

The story behind the translation of Phanishwar Nath Renu’s first novel Maila Anchal

Known as the first ‘regional’ novelMaila Anchal  narrates the life of an Indian village with a kind of sensitivity that was missing from the rigid, stereotypical portrayals in earlier novels of the period. Indian Novels Collective came across this rare document (below) carrying the preface and introduction to The Soiled Border – a translation of Renu’s first novel Maila Anchal – by translator Indira Junghare.

Indira Jhungare shares the story of translating the novel and enlightens us with the various themes the novel carries. She also highlights the struggles faced while translating the regional dialects and idiolects while simultaneously maintaining the integrity of the meaning and style of the novel.

Here are some interesting facts that you can find in the extract below:

  • Phanishwar Nath Renu was nicknamed ‘Rinua’ by his grandmother. The name was later changed to Renu (dust), which also became his pen name.
  • The village Maryganj around which the novel is centred, was named after an English woman Mary, the wife of an Indigo-planter Martin, who had lived there for past 35 years.
  • Maila Anchal consists of languages ranging from standard and colloquial Hindi to regional dialects such as Maithili, Bhojpuri, Magahi, Nepali, Bengali and the tribal language of Santhali, making it a difficult book to translate.

As of 2015, Indira Jhungare was the Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Linguistics, University of Minnesota

Translation Lists

Six must-read translations of Bengali novels

The Bengal renaissance that began with Raja Ram Mohan Roy in the nineteenth century had a profound impact on modern Bengali literature. During this period of social reform and intellectual awakening, there was a push towards modernity through critical analysis of orthodox aspects of society and religion. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the Bengali novel, which drew upon both Western and local literary traditions. The Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, a key literary figure in the renaissance movement, remains the most well-known Bengali writer in India. His most popular novels include The Home and the World and Chokher Bali.  

Here is a list of Bengali novels that are easily available in English translation.

Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
Translated by T.W. Clark and Tarapada Mukherji

Published in 1929, the novel first appeared serialised in a Calcutta periodical a year earlier. It tells the story of the Roys who live in rural Bengal and later move to Varanasi in search of a better life. Bandyopadhyay’s evocative narrative paints a vivid picture of rural life and the scenic beauty of the Bengali countryside and captures the loses the family faces on their journey to the city.

Shesh Prashna by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay
Translated as The Final Question by the Department of English, Jadavpur University

Set in the expatriate Bengali community in Agra, the novel follows the life of Kamal, a young Anglo-Indian woman who challenges the traditional position of women in society. She is independent, lives and travels alone, and enters into relationships with different men. With its focus on female sexuality and its anti-patriarchal stance, The Final Question remains as relevant today as when it was published in 1931.

Hajar Churashir Maa by Mahasweta Devi
Translated as Mother of 1084 by Samik Bandyopadhyay

Written as a response to the Naxalite movement in West Bengal, the novel deals with the pain and frustrations of Sujata whose Naxalite revolutionary son has been killed by the police. With her son’s identity reduced to that of corpse no. 1084, Sujata struggles to make sense of her son’s choices and her position in society. Set across the course of a single day, the narrative interweaves the past and the present to explore Sujata’s complex relationship with her son and society and her journey towards acceptance.

Tithidore by Buddhadeva Bose
Translated as When the Time is Right by Arunava Sinha

Situated in Calcutta during the first half of the twentieth century against the backdrop of the Indian independence movement and the threat of war, the novel revolves around Swati, the youngest daughter in the Mitra family. Swati rejects her brother’s colleague offer to marry her and instead finds herself attracted to Satyen, a professor at her college. They share a love for literature and communicate mainly through letters. The lyrical, slow-paced narrative, with its focus on domestic life during a period of political upheaval, provides for an immersive reading experience.

Pratham Pratisruti by Ashnapurna Debi
Translated as The First Promise by Indira Chowdhury

Set across the late eighteenth and early twentieth century in Bengal, the novel follows the dreams and struggles of four generations of women. Through The First Promise, Debi explores the impact of colonialism on caste practices, the move from the village to the city and the subsequent change in family structure, women’s rights issues, and social and educational reforms.

Sei Samay by Sunil Gangopadhyay
Translated as Those Days by Aruna Chakravorty

The novel blends history and fiction to create a vivid picture of the elite in nineteenth-century Bengal. Set against the backdrop of the Bengal renaissance and the Revolt of 1857, it tells the story of the wealthy Mukherjee and Singha families in a rapidly changing society in Calcutta. Several historical figures, from Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the reformer and writer to Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the poet populate the narrative, which adds to the social realist elements of the novel.

About the blogger
Priyanka Lindgren has a background in linguistics and refugee studies. She is passionate about world literature, in particular, 20th-century South Asian literature in translation. She is the Culture Editor at The Lead, part of the International Women’s Initiative. She blogs about books and South Asian identity at thesouthasianreader.wordpress.com.

World Hindi Day

Six translations of Hindi works that are a must read!

To mark the first Hindi Conference held in Nagpur between January 10-12 1975, World Hindi Day is celebrated every year on January 10. Hindi is one of the most widely spoken languages in India. The rich and diverse culture the country represents is extensively reflected in classics of our regional literature. Hindi novels, with its immortal themes, are often neglected by monolingual Indian because of their inability to read Hindi as fluently as English. Translation of regional Indian languages thus holds a paramount position in the accessibility of Hindi literature too.

On this World Hindi Day, we celebrate our loved language by bringing to you six Hindi Novels which have been made accessible to an English reader in translation.

Godan By Munshi Premchand
Translated as The Gift of a Cow by Jai Ratan and P Lal

Godan, written by Munshi Premchand in 1956, is one of the greatest novels of modern Indian literature. The novel is an important social documentary dealing with the poor economic conditions of the Indian peasants. It revolves around the social deprivation of a poor couple and the importance of a cow in the village context. The characters – Hori and Dhania – have since become immortal icons of social and class struggle. The realism, artistry and tenderness with which he has created the characters here, particularly that of Hori, are unparalleled and unsurpassed in Indian fiction.

Raag Darbari by Shri Lal Shukla
Translated by Gillian Wright

Raag Darbari, published in 1970, is a commentary on the disconnect between what we practice and what we preach. Rangnath, a history student visits his village and stays there to notice the stark differences between the ideals he learnt at university and the practices of his uncle, the village head. One of the most hard-hitting satires of modern India against the myriad instances of manipulation, abuse, and machinations of power struggle, Raag Darbari remains one of the most telling narratives of the chasm between libertarian ideals and social dogmas.

Gunahon ka Devta by Dharamvir Bharati
Translated as Chander and Sudha by Poonam Saxena

This passionate love story revolves around the intertwined and inseparable viciousness of marriage and caste hierarchy. Chander is from a lower caste than Sudha and that is why he doesn’t dare ask for Sudha’s hand in marriage from her father. While Sudha seems to be ‘modern’, she cannot stand up to the social pressure to get married to the man of her father’s choice; Chander also forces her to abide by the wishes of her father. This, then, is the turning point in the novel but it is also through this tragedy that the story becomes appealing to the readers; making it a bestseller till this day.

Tamas by Bhisham Sahni
Translated by the author

Tamas is the ‘reflective response’ to the partition of India and Pakistan. Partially based on true events that Sahni witnessed himself in the communal riots during India’s Partition in 1947, the novel follows the life of people from both communities – Hindu and Muslim, and from various classes and backgrounds, as tensions in cities build up. It presents a snapshot of a violent and fractured period in Indian history and through fictionalization allows the reader to inhabit the minds of those who perpetrated and suffered through its worst crimes.

Mitro Marajani by Krishna Sobti
Translated as To hell with you Mitro by Gita Rajan and Raji Narasimhan

Mitro’s mystique is well summed up by her mother-in-law Dhanvanti: “No one can fathom this girl. When she’s good, she’s better than the best. When she’s bad, she’s worse than the worst.”

The vampish bahus of soap operas are nothing but inferior versions of this hell-raiser, who is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating characters in Indian literature. Its an unapologetic portrayal of a married woman who brooks no limits to her sexuality is as compelling, pertinent provocative today as when it shook the Hindi literary world in 1966.

Adha Gaon by Rahi Masoom Raza
Translated as A Village Divided by Gillian Wright

Rahi Masoom Raza’s honest and controversial novel unfolds during the latter years of the Raj and the first decade of Independence and portrays the rival halves of a zamindar family, their loves, fights and litigations. It attacks the creation of Pakistan and explores the abolition of the zamindari system and its impact at the village level. This is a semi-autobiographical work set in the author’s village of Gangauli, in Ghazipur district on the fringes of Avadh.

Dr Raza becomes the voice of millions of Indian Muslims, who had nothing to do with the making of Pakistan and who refuse to leave the place they call home.