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On 26th March, 1909 in the Alipore Sessions Court an unprecedented incident took place during the hearing of the famous Alipore Bomb Case. Next day its report was published in The Bengalee, an English daily of Calcutta of those times, as follows:
‘Before the court sat, in fact before the chattering of the hand-cuffs and creaking of boots were stopped, a voice, at once melodious and powerful, issued forth from the prisoner’s dock.…. All the ‘golmal’ in the room – even on the verandah, was at once hushed into perfect silence. Even the European sergeants – to whose ears an Indian tune would not naturally sound very sweet – adopted the posture of attention and began to listen with undivided attention.’ Below this was quoted in Bengali script the complete song which the prisoner sang – ‘Sarthak janam amar jonmechhi ei deshe’ followed by its English translation –
‘Blessed is my birth – for I was born in this land,
Blessed is my birth – for I have loved thee.
I don’t know in what garden
Flowers enrapture so much with perfume;
In what sky rises the moon, smiling such a smile.
Oh mother, opening my eyes, seeing thy light
My eyes are regaled;
Keeping my eyes on that light
I shall close my eyes in the end.’
It is a famous and popular patriotic song composed by Rabindranath. And this is the first published English translation of a song of the poet. Unfortunately the name of the reporter to whom goes the unique credit of being the first published translator of the poet - was not given. In passing we would like to mention that in course of hearing of the same case on a previous date – 19th March, 1909 – the poet’s name had already been mentioned. While arguing on behalf of the prosecution Mr. Norton told the court that the copy of a poem was found at 15, Gopimohon Dutta Lane. ‘This poem – as the counsel was told – was in praise of Aurobindo Ghosh, composed by Babu Robindra Nath Tagore’. This is the poem entitled Namaskar which begins with the line - Aurobinda, Rabindrer laho namaskar –Aurobinda, accept the salutation of Rabindra – written in the autumn of 1907 at Santiniketan. None has so far translated this wonderfully inspiring poem. This shows how deeply the poet’s writings inspired our freedom fighters. [Incidentally, for publishing two articles on this case in his Kesari Balgangadhar Tilak was sentenced to six years’ rigorous imprisonment and jailed at Mandalay in Burma.] We shall have occasion to deal with this aspect of the poet’s writings and the role he played in our freedom movement. For the present let us continue with the story of translation of his poems and songs which ultimately won him the Nobel Prize.
Almost immediately after this anonymous translator, Roby Datta, a Cambridge scholar and one of the teachers of Calcutta University, brought out a collection of English translation of some Bengali poems and songs entitled Echoes from East and West. It was published in 1909 by Galloway and Porter, Cambridge, and included as many as 11 poems and songs of Tagore. It is noteworthy not so much for the quality of translation as for the pioneering zeal of the translator. He presented a copy to the poet. It is available in the Rabindrabhavan at Santiniketan and may be consulted by curious readers.
From now on the translation of the poet’s works began to be published almost regularly, primarily in the monthly English journal The Modern Review. For the first time in its December issue of 1909 it published ‘The Riddle Solved’, the translation of the short story Samasyapuran from Galpaguchha. The translator was the prolific novelist and short story writer Prabhat Kumar Mukherji. During 1910, by the time of Rothenstein’s visit in November that year, The Modern Review published more translations – in its February issue The Hungry Stones (the famous short story ‘Kshudita Pashan’ from Galpaguchha) by Pannalal Basu of Bangabasi College; in the March issue The Skeleton (the short story ‘Kankal’ from Galpaguchha) by Prabhat Kumar Mukherji (the same story was however already published earlier in the translation of Jatindramohan Bagchi in the 19th May, 1902 issue of New India); in the July issue ‘Baisakh’, a poem of the same name by Jitendralal Bandopadhyay and the short story ‘The Elder Sister’ (‘Didi’ from Galpaguchha) by Rasbehari Mukhopadhyay; in the August issue ‘Renunciation’ (the short story ‘Tyag’ from Galpaguchha) by Probhat Kumar Mukherji along with an English essay The Problem of India which was the verbatim reproduction of Tagore’s letter to an Indophile New York lawyer Myron H. Phelps; in the September issue the short story ‘Subha’ from Galpaguchha by Anathnath Mitra, professor of Bangabasi College. Two among these translators– Prabhat Kumar Mukherji and Jatindramohan Bagchi - were closely associated with Tagore who does not appear to have anything to do with their translations– like others they must have done their jobs independently. According to Tagore’s biographer, Prasanta Kumar Pal, in addition to periodicals some dailies also sporadically published such translations.
The publication of translations of the poet’s works continued in this fashion but none of them was by the poet himself. In time many famous people like Sir Jadunath Sarkar, Sister Nivedita and Anand K. Coomerswamy joined this band of translators. And most of them were stories. Yet the Nobel Prize was awarded to Tagore not for his stories but for his poems and songs and not in others’ renderings by but in his own renderings. When and how did he come to do that? Now we are ready to tell that story in our next blog.
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