Anandamayee Majumdar has been translating Rabindranath Tagore’s songs for a while now. Her translations are available on Gitabitan in English, where she and her friend, Rumela Sengupta, have transcreated more than 700 songs of Tagore so far. Here Anandamayee shares the challenges and rewards of translating Tagore.
I am deeply honoured and humbled by the fact that Bhaswati asked me to write something about translating Tagore songs, a topic she wanted to post in her own blog. Here I will describe the motivation and experiences that have been relevant to me in my work. I understand that this is nothing more than a personal experience.
Translation of Rabindranath’s songs is an arduous job, and often times a frustrating one. For one, those who are conversant in Bangla, know how difficult it is to educe similar resonance and melody (surely to be missing in a translation) of the song. It is hard enough to create the same aura of just the poem itself, let alone the rhythm or the melody. Therefore to the Tagore fan of Bengal, any transcreation can easily seem like a travesty.
I need to clarify that so far as records go, there have been two kinds of translations, serving two different purposes. Both are worthy of effort, in my opinion. One, in which the transcreator tries to weld the lyrical threads of the song into her work, creating a poetic essence of the song. The other kind of translation, is that which matches the beats and measures of the original poem. The aim of the latter, is to be able to read it, as well as sing to it.
I personally think, simply to be able to educe similar emotions as the original song can be tremendously difficult, with translated work. One can only try one’s best, and not be too complacent about it. Yet, the translator at some point finds her own wings. Nobody else can tell her what to do. Since similar to creation, transcreation too can become a work of art and ingenuity. Therefore, no two paths could be the same. And so, there could be different ways to transcreate the same song by two different people.
When I first came outside Bengal to the US, I was posed with a problem of sharing Rabindranath’s songs with my friends, who were not conversant in Bengali. I had to translate a few songs to my friends at University of Connecticut in 2001, so we could share them and sing them together. I found that these translations when shared, resonated with the English speaking community — specifically, with those that had spiritual awareness in their lives. Later I was also asked to translate some of Rabindranath’s famous operas, Chitrangada and Shaapmochon by a dance academy for their own performance. These were aimed at the participants and the audience, who were mostly non-conversant in Bangla. Later, I was quelling out my own stress of traveling long distances every week, by translating Tagore songs; also, I was determined not to let my long hours of travel turn out to be entirely futile.
The desire to organize and stockpile these translations, or transcreations as we call them, came from my friend Rumela Sengupta, my soul-mate and dear friend from college, who was also transcreating Tagore songs as a way to connect to her spiritual core. We shared a similar passion for Rabindranath and his songs, and had often hummed them together back in our youth. Rumela created a blog in 2009, that she named ‘Gitabitan in English’, at http://gitabitan-en.blogspot.com. An artist among other things, she brought into it a flair of her own. True to her spirit, she gave it the space and beauty it needed for making this a home cum pleasurable workplace for us, to funnel our emotions and creative passions, to heal our inner selves, to connect to others who loved Rabindranath, and to somehow reach out to those who needed him through our transcreations.
After this blog was born, the contributions became more motivated, and more regular. We began to choose songs to transcreate on a certain day, based on our needs and emotions of that day. Then again we also tried to be context sensitive, to be able to produce some work that would be seasonable and synchronous to the time of year or any concurrent collective occasion. This makes the work more relevant in some sense. We also tried to respond to the specific requests that were sometimes made of us, of transcreating certain lyrics.
We realized that others who had a chance to view the blog often left important comments, and that it would need a separate space of discussion. Rumela set up a discussion forum in Facebook, called Thoughts of Tagore where the transcreations were immediately posted. Friends Suman Dasgupta, Soumya Sankar Basu and Arindam Sengupta and others, often gave us razor-sharp and profound critique that we needed to craft these transcreations into the molds they would eventually become. Their feedback often times, honed the meaning, freshened the imagery, or bore out the essence with crispness. These individuals are our much coveted co-creators.
Since Rumela set up the blog, we have transcreated more than 700 songs. Since Rabindranath’s Gitabitan — his entire collection of songs, encompasses more than 2200 songs, we have a long way to go, to make the entire garden of songs available in English.
Whenever an urge to express arises, I seek one of his songs that seem to guide my emotions, my results of immediate soul-searching. This is all a very personal story to some extent. The good thing is, Tagore-songs import messages that are so universal, I need not bother that they have lost their aura in the present day. So the real challenge is to reach out through a contemporary, universally agreed upon diction, one that spans continents and cultures.
To put this into context of the work that is ‘out there’, we have read the works of many other translators to date, most noteworthy, maybe are Arnolde Bake, Khitish Roy, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William Radice, Ketaki Kushari Dyson, Amiya Chakravarty, and others. We have often been referred to their work, by the pundits we have asked for feedback along our way. We have read most of the existing work of these trendsetters with great passion.
I recently came across a US citizen named John Thorpe visiting Bangladesh, his work brings him to a culturally thriving milieu in the neighborhoods of Rajshahi University. In his fifties now, he has been translating Rabindrasangeet for fifteen years, his aim is to be able to sing them. He sings in both the original Bengali version and in his version of English, with a deep, majestic voice. I noticed his choice of words was quite fresh and contemporary. The fact that he tried to preserve the original cadence, did not cause havoc to the poetic essence. Fascinated by his efforts, I tried following this route on my own. I had previously been urged by quite a few individuals to try this out, but had refrained. I had not found the correct motivation at that point. But now, listening to John sing, it felt right. The path was frustrating, rewarding and effort-some at the same time. One may work on one or many more transcreations a day if this challenge of rhyming or singing to the transcreation, is not present. But with the challenge of allowing the rhythm to flow naturally just as the original, and to let the poetic essence exude just as well, the choice of expressions need such a lot of experimentation, that it often takes a while to finish the process. It is a frontier that is still fresh for me, and I feel both the butterflies and the exhilaration of an explorer.
I am aware of my own lacking conditions, and therefore, my passion for attaining a hold on English literature has grown over time. I confess that I am no English writer, or even a student of literature for that matter. Literary limitations do bother me a lot. I hold, therefore a great value for those specific constructive critique and comments that seem sincere and heartfelt, from the readers of this blog — they have molded my work. I also have been privileged to come across some enlightened writers (in English), who have a lovely command over the English language, and who I take to deeply, mainly because they write from the heart and have an effeminate style.
I believe that if we can let an inspiration wash over us, we can heal ourselves, and that could light up any creation. Without inspiration, without the flame that kindles our desire into action, anything that we do becomes dull. This has happened to many of my own transcreations. On the other hand, sometimes I just happen to sit down and start. This often results into a primary draft which does not appeal at all. But over time, that draft serves as the stepping stone, a skeleton of the work. By and by, I try to chisel out the extraneous, the unimportant, and preserve only the substance that feels right. Language itself is so fluid and magnetic. If one is not intrigued by its beauty, if it is not delectable, as well as spiritual, one can not create a worthy translation, because Rabindranath is both about profound spiritual beauty and consummate expression. As a transcreator, one has the obligation as well as the freedom to take the song (the poem and the melody together), and make it one’s own. It should not be a feeble attempt at making it available in another language, it should be borne out of one’s own heart.
I try to borrow idioms and ideas from everyday life sometimes. I do try and keep a mental note of new phrases, and idioms, and striking nuances of speech, that may come handy and could be used later for some future work.
Editing plays a major role in crafting out these transcreations. I usually edit a lot of times even after a post has appeared on the blog… until I feel that I have given it my best. Even then, it is good to come back to that post after a while, when you can read it as a third person, without attachment.
My interest is also an inherited one. I have had the exposure to Tagore’s songs since I was a child. The learning and practice of Tagore’s songs, poems and opera have been made natural for me by my family. My grandfather Subodh Majumdar was one of the first people in Bengal to self-teach Tagore songs, and to distribute them to his family and country. Renowned singers have taken their music lessons and inspirations from this unusually gifted man. In his thirties, he was making critical discussions on the notations of Rabindrasangeet with the venerable notation-maker and musician (grandson of Tagore’s brother) Dinendranath Tagore in Santiniketan. Subodh Majumdar was also taking sitar lessons with maestro Ustaad Vilayat Khan at Sangeet Academy in Kolkata. At his own home in Khulna, he was teaching the sitar, Khol, Pakhwaj, violin, harmonium, tabla, flute and Esraj to his seven children.
Rabindrasangeet (among other songs) filled the breath of the house. My father Subrata Majumdar who was also extremely multifaceted, had transcreated Tagore songs and poems in his twenties. Some of these got published in the family magazine. When I first came across these translated songs and poems, they read so well, I can still recall my elation at reading those soulful, crisp passages. My parents, my aunts also happen to be musicians and teachers in Tagore songs in their own rights. I am much indebted to my family, who have made Rabindranath my companion and friend, since I was a child. Therefore, transcreating Tagore was just one of the things that I can trace back to my family, like many other things.
For me, this is the story of how these transcreations came about, what I think about them, and what works for me. I think that pathway also describes the motivations and frustrations met along the way, for this work.