Everyone — or nearly everyone — knows Gitanjali, the celebrated work that won Rabindranath Tagore the Nobel Prize in 1913 and, as a natural corollary, worldwide fame. This was the first time that a non-European work of literature had been so awarded, and the first time that something coming out of the cultural matrix of a subject people in a colonial world had been so acknowledged. That the passionate support of the man who was virtually the voice of poetry in those times, W. B. Yeats, had paved the way for the award to Tagore is also a fact widely known. Yeats had been blown away by the work — an English translation from the original Bengali — which had been brought to his notice by a common friend.
"I have carried the manuscript of these translations about with me for days", Yeats wrote in his classic introduction to the work when it was published, "reading it in railway trains, or on the top of omnibuses, and in restaurants, and I have often had to close it lest some stranger would see how much it moved me. These lyrics, which are in the original, my Indians tell me, full of subtlety of rhythm, of untranslatable delicacies of colour, of metrical invention - display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long. The work of a supreme culture, they yet appear as much the growth of the common soil as the grass and the rushes." It is in this breathless strain that Yeats went on, speaking of these verses that "will not lie in little well-printed books upon ladies’ tables, who turn the pages with indolent hands that they may sigh over a life without meaning, which is yet all they can know of life, or be carried by students at the university to be laid aside when the work of life begins, but, as the generations pass, travellers will hum them on the highway and men rowing upon the rivers."
There is passion in these words and deep understanding. While we write long books, he said, "As we fight and make money and fill our heads with politics`85. Mr Tagore, like the Indian civilisation itself, has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity."
And then, he cited this lyric of Tagore’s towards the end of his stirring introduction, "Men going home glance at me and smile and fill me with shame. I sit like a beggar maid, drawing my skirt over my face, and when they ask me, what it is I want, I drop my eyes and answer them not."
Rabindranath was, at that time, in England, having arrived in London in 1912, and what Yeats had been reading was a prose translation in English that the poet had done himself. Deeply moved as he was by the work — like Ezra Pound, Stopford Brooke and A.C.Bradley — he decided to offer help with the English, knowing that this was not the first language of the poet. Rabindranath accepted, and for some time, Yeats and he set to work together. The task completed, Gitanjali was published in 1913, first by the India Society in England, with Yeats’ introduction, and then taken up by Macmillan. Within nine months of its first appearance, the work — Gitanjali: Song Offering — had to be reprinted 10 times.
In November of the same year, hailed as he was as "the creator of a new age in literature", Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize. Graciously, he remarked, "I am sure the magic of his pen helped my English to attain some quality of permanence", referring to Yeats’contribution to the English Gitanjali.
A hundred years have passed since then. And yet a question keeps coming up and rankling: what was Yeats’ real contribution to the translation, or what was its extent? Rankling, because Yeats was later to express some disillusionment with Tagore’s work, perhaps even with his passionate involvement with it in 1912-13. Out of envy of Tagore’s success, perhaps, in private conversation or correspondence, he would make remarks about having "exhaustively" revised the work, or suggesting that Tagore had no sense of the nuances of English words. In India, Tagore’s rivals or critics would pick these remarks up and insinuate that "the success of Gitanjali was largely due to Yeats’ re-writing of Tagore’s English".
In almost hostile fashion, Valentine Chirol, diplomat and imperialist, even told an audience that "the English Gitanjali was practically a product of Yeats".
There is a touch of the scurrilous in all this. And William Radice, who has recently rendered a fine translation into English of Gitanjali — the complete work, not the segment that was published in 1913 — addresses himself at length to the unseemly controversy that has grown around the subject. He examines the ‘evidence’ with great care, citing a number of persons, most of them contemporaries, and their views in this matter. There are those who firmly believe that Yeats’ assertion that he had toiled over Tagore’s original English translation, omitting "sentence after sentence" is grossly exaggerated, being based on ‘mis-recollection’; others who state that Yeats’ changes were "smaller but numerous nevertheless", and mostly addressed issues of inaccuracy, or of ‘punctuation and phrasing’. And what did Tagore himself think of extravagant claims and insinuations? Never very confident, at that stage of his writing, one might add, of his command over English, he spoke frequently of the difficulties of handling a foreign tongue, but he would not easily accept charges. Subtle as always, he never entered the fray of debate. All that interested him, as he said in a letter to Bridges, was that the "faintest speck of lie should be wiped out from the fame I enjoy now."
Sturge Moore, the poet, who had been a great supporter of Tagore from the beginning, was also interested in the same thing. "No lie about you", he wrote to Tagore, "has a chance of being so well-published as the truth and everyone will, sooner or later, meet its absolute contradiction. It is part of the price men pay for fame, to be lied about".
A hundred years have passed since those days, and nothing is quite settled. Meanwhile, there is this poem in Gitanjali: "Where the mind is without fear`85", among Tagore’s most famous. The first version of the last line once read: "`85there waken up my country into that heaven of freedom, my Father"; the revised line, now cited as a classic, reads: "Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake."