Different Strokes

Samar Sen as Translator of Rabindranath’s Poems

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

Some people know of Samar Sen's Bangla translation of the early poems by Karl Marx and of some others by the Telugu poet, Cherabanda Raju (both from the intermediate language, English). However, it may not be known to all that Samar Sen had translated into English no fewer than 73 poems by Rabindranath Tagore. Although most of the translations were undertaken during his sojourn in Moscow, four were done when Humayun Kabir, his former teacher in the post-graduate English Department, University of Calcutta, commissioned the translation of four poems that were to be included in an anthology of translated poems edited by him (see Poems of Rabindranath Tagore, Kolkata: Visva-Bharati and UBS Publishers' Distributers, 2005, pp. 63, 111, 157, 239. The anthology was originally published in 1966). Thanks to Pulak Chanda, seventy-three pieces of Samar Sen's prose renderings are now available in Aprakashita Agranthita Samar Sen, part 2 (Kolkata : Dey's Publishing, 2015, pp.193-264)

Sen is known to have translated about ten thousand lines of Rabindranath including his poetic drama, Raja O Rani (The King and the Queen), but they are all lost, it seems, irretrievably. However, it is no use crying over it, gatasya shochanaaa nasti, as it is entirely futile now to take umbrage (as Chanda does) at the fact that no acknowledgement was made to Sen in the Russian edition of Rabindranath's works printed in 1961 during the poet's birth centenary. To quote Rabindranath in Sen's translation of 'Udbodhan' (Inauguration) (Kshanika): 'Do not carry a burden of memories,/Let come what comes, let happen what may,/let pass what must pass, do not lament.' (p. 199).

The history of the translation itself is of no little interest. It was conducted on the same principle that the Russians used to follow when there was little or no opportunity for translating from the source language (Bangla) directly into the target language (Russian). A translator was required to provide a literal rendering into English, line by line, as faithfully as possible. A Russian translator would then render the text into Russian. At last, this Russian translation from an intermediate language (in this case, English) would be sent to a Russian poet, who would brush it up and provide some touches here and there. Samar Sen's collaborator (who rendered the English lines into Russian) keenly watched that the number of lines in English corresponded to that of the original Bangla. Three lines could not be condensed into one, for, Sen dryly remarks, 'payment being by lineage' (p.369). Sen also tells us that Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), one of the major poets and a well-known translator of Shakespeare's plays, was a member of the team in charge of verification. Chanda states that no details about Pasternak's involvement are known (p.369). However, Arun Som specially mentions 'Prashna' (The Question) and 'Ora kaj kare' (They toil) among the translations made by Pasternak in 1957 (Rabindra Chetanay Rashiya O Rabindracharchay Rashiya, Kolkata : Shreya Publications, November 2014, p.124). We are also told (pp.123-124) that Anna Akhmatova, another well-known Russian poet, translated no fewer than twenty eight poems by Rabindranath that include 'Shishutirtha' (from the self-transcreation of Rabindranth's English poem, 'The Child' and 'Aphrika' (Africa). She also translated eight poems from the books of poems entitled Rogsayyay (on the sickbed) and Arogya (Cure).

Samar Sen too had translated four of these from these very two books of poems (Nos. 70-73, pp.262-264). Whether Akhmatova ard Pasternak had worked on any of Sen's English renderings is unfortunately not specified by Som.

Whatever the motive of the translation might have been—imposition or labour of love—the outcome nevertheless is thoroughly satisfactory. Even if Sen had no choice and had to translate whatever poem was handed over to him, he performed his task sincerely, never taking any liberty with the original, always intent on conveying the sense without missing or skipping words—except when there was an insurmountable barrier in the idea or phrasing. What surprises the reader is the elegance of his diction, the everyday expressions he opts for, whether in the case of rather high-sounding words of Sanskrit origin or for the unadorned words of Tagore songs. Two examples would suffice, one from 'Ebar phirao more' (Make me return now) and 'Jhara jhara barishe baridhara' (Ceaseless is the welter of rain). In the first one Sen selects easy, well-known words;
These pale, ignorant, dumb people
Must be given the power of speech, we have to rouse
Ringing hope in their tired, dry, broken hearts. We have to tell them:
'Lift your heads and stand together;
The unjust people you are afraid of are weaker than you are,
The moment you rise will flee.
The moment you face up to them,
They will cringe in terror like street-dogs.
God is against them, they have no one to help them;
They just brag, but they know
Their own degradation.'

The second runs as follows:
Ceaseless is the welter of rain.
Alas, for the wanderer! Alas for the faltering, homeless wanderer!
The wind shrieks and sighs,
Whom does it call in the pathless wild?
The night is dark, blind, (p.215)

The translated pieces cover wide area, right from Rabindranath's early poems to his last ones, spanning forty seven years (1893 to 1940). They include delicate love poems, patriotic (swadesi) songs, philosophical meditations, celebration of nature, etc. Everywhere Sen is at his simplest best. He can match Rabindranath's easy flow of monosyllabic or disyllabic words, as in
'Blessed am I that I am born to this land,
Blessed I am, mother, that I love you.
I do not know whether you have queenly treasure
in your store,
but I know your shades cool my body.' (p.216).

Or, to take another telling example :
The flood, at last, has come [to] your dry
River bed. Time to sail.
The boatman, where is the boatman?
Cry for the boatman—
Take, 0 comrades, your oars, cut the
cordage and sail. (p.217)

The original had 'joi ma bole' (sayng "victory to mother") in the second line. Sen judiciously omitted this phrase, for it is too culture specific and would not mean anything to an alien reader.

Sen is in his elements when he renders Rabindranath's prose poems. Take, for example, 'Banshi' (Flute). The first line, 'Kinu the milkman's bye-lane,' rouses the readers' expectations and it is not belied :
The wall plaster has come off in patches,
There are moist dark stains here and there.
A picture of all-powerful Ganesh,
Cut from the trade mark of a piece of cloth,
Is pasted on the door. (p.245)

There are certain words in the original that seem to defy translation. Sen, however, sails over all difficulties, undaunted and with ease:
The lane is littered with
Heaps of rotten mango shells, with the decaying flesh
Of the jack-fruit,
And fish bones,
Dead kitten lie there,
And all sorts of rubbish. (p. 246)

Sen's mastery of words is evident in his rendering of the majestic song, 'nrityer tale tale Nataraj, ghuchao sakal bandha he' (Let my shackles snap at every step of thy dance, 'O Prince of Dance’). I do not know why Sen omitted the word nataraj (Prince of dance, that is, god Shiva) from the first line of the song). The challenge is enormous; the effect sought can only be conveyed in rhyme and melody. Sen renders the song in prose. And yet the dance steps seem to echo in his lines :
Rebellious atoms break into beauteous form at thy dance-time,
the suns and planets—anklets of light—
twirl around thy moving feet,
and, age after age, things struggle
to wake from dark slumber, through
pain of life into consciousness,
and the ocean of thy bliss
breaks out in tumults of suffering and joy.
I salute thee,
Let thy mighty dance feel my heart.
(p. 220)

Even if Sen had no option, he performed his duty with a rare spirit of dedication. Any translation is meant for those who do not know the source language. For one who knows both the source language and the target language (however inadequately) it is not always easy to evaluate the merit of the translation. Admitting this basic fact, it can nevertheless be said that some translations, even if rarely, throw light on the original and thereby enrich the understanding and appreciation of the reader. Take, for example, the poem 'Anabachchhinna ami', 'The nor-alienated I' [from Kalpana, written on 1306 Bangla sal=1899]. A philosophical poem in all senses, of the term, it reveals the unity of past and present, the individual and the universe and finally a strong sense of the ego, asmitaa. Samar Sen grasps the spirit of the original most effortlessly:
I lifted the hem of the Earth's skirt,
The dust quivered with the bit of my pulse.
I ascended the boundless heavens and saw
It was I who was recking in the cradle of life. (p. 198)

He is no less successful in his rendering of love lyrics, Rabindranath's forte. Words follow words and a grand image is built up that not only resembles the original but seems to vie with it. Here is one :
Thou shalt dwell in silence in my heart
like the full moon in the solitary summer night.
My life and youth, rny universe
Thou shalt feel like glorious moon.
Thy sad eyes shall keep a lonely vigil,
The shadow of thy veil shall cover my heart.
Thy breath like the full moon in the
summer night. Shall hover about my pain and my
blissful dreams, making them fragrant. (pp. 214-215)

Sen is not averse to resorting to poetic diction (thou shall, thy, etc.) when the original demands it. Rabindranath also often employed such words as mama (mine) in his poems and songs.

Sometimes a poem read in the source language may not evoke the same sensation as it does when read in translation. This is what I discovered by reading anew "Bhaabi kaal', Posterity (Purabi), written on November 6, 1924. It reminded me—though in reverse—of W B Yeats's 'When you are old', which has an intertextual relationship to Pierre de Ronsard's haunting lyric, 'Quand vous serez bien vieille'. The setting is different but the spirit is the same.

We may close this discussion by pointing out some of the happy turns of phrases that, in the absence of a better expression, may be called inspired : yaubananadir [not yaubane nadir, as printed in this volure on pp. 194, 372] srote teebra begbhare/ ekdin chhutechhinu becomes 'Once into the flood stream of youth/Swept me along' (p.194); aakul Ashwine, restless Aswine (p. 196); diner sheshe ghumer deshe ghotnta pora ai chhaya. Those veiled shadows in the land of sleep at sunset (p.212); he birat nadi, 'O mighty River' (p.220); sandhyarage jhilimili jhilamet srotkhani banka/andhare malin haloyena khape dhaka/banka talowar. 'The curved spring of the Jhelum glimmering in the evening glow,/Pales in the darkness, like a sheathed,/Curved scimitar'. (pp.224-25)

To conclude then, reading Rabindranath's poems in Samar Sen's able and felicitous rendering is a treat. By paraphrasing F R Leavis's comment on G Singh's translation of Eugenio Montale, one might say: His style recommends him—the translation recommends itself.

[Acknowledgements : Tarun Basu, Urbi Basu and Sunish Kumar Deb]

Vol. 49, No.13-16, Oct 2 - 29, 2016