A quality of goodness is what shines forth most strongly.  It sets him apart from most other twentieth-century poets; it may be what in years to come readers will most value in him.
—William Radice, commenting on Rabindranath Tagore

We've been occupied in the Lounge lately with the bitty parts of language, its nuts and bolts and analysis thereof. In the midst of all that it's easy to lose sight of another side of language — the sheer beauty of it — and for that we return, after an absence of some months, to the Poetry Corner.

Our visits with poets in the Lounge over the last couple of years have been with poets whose first language was English, for fairly simple reasons: that's our first language as well, and it's the first language of the Visual Thesaurus. This month we welcome a poet whose first language was very far from English, but whose mastery of English and instinct for the music of language was such that he could translate his own poetry.

Can a poem really be translated? That's a question that's been debated for centuries, and many conclude that, strictly speaking, the answer is "no": a poem consists of so much more than words and the meanings behind them. At its best, poetry is born at the very core of a language, drawing together patterns and connections that penetrate the mind of the reader or listener on multiple levels, and in ways that may even escape the conscious awareness of the poet himself. The notion that such complexity could be rendered, without loss of integrity, in a language other than the original, is about as convincing as the notion that an opera could be made into an animated cartoon and still be just as good.

Our poet-guest, Rabindranath Tagore, first came to the attention of the Anglophone world with his own translations into English of his Gitanjali  ("Song Offerings"). About this work, the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats said: "I know of no man in my time who has done anything in the English language to equal these lyrics." Tagore did not in fact translate all of Gitanjali into English in literal fashion: he offered a work in English which was based on the Bengali original but with considerable liberties taken: poems were reordered, parts of two poems were combined to make one, and some parts of poems were left out in the English version. Perhaps Tagore himself realized he would be doing no service to English by attempting to translate the untranslatable, so he chose instead to find a new outlet for his creative talent by composing a derivative work in another language.

Following the appearance of Gitanjali, Tagore was taken up by the English literary elite and quickly became a darling of the English chattering classes. He lived in London for a time, and today you can even find a blue plaque marking one of the houses where he resided in Hampstead. He became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (95 years ago, in 1913).

Soon afterwards, in 1923, Yeats became a Nobel Laureate himself. Some years later (in 1935) Yeats wrote to a colleague "DAMN Tagore. We got out three good books . . . and then, because he thought it more important to know English than to be a great poet, he brought out sentimental rubbish and wrecked his reputation. Tagore does not know English, no Indian knows English."

Did something happen in the interval between Yeats' praise and condemnation that we should know about? Those are strong words from a man regarded as one of the leading lights of modern English poetry. We sense that there was a bit of ax-grinding going on — as if Tagore's real transgression was that he declined to place his career path in the hands of Yeats and others, and went his own way instead. Now, many years after both poets are dead, their works follow after them. Both were great poets. Tagore achieved the feat in two languages.

We've chosen a small poem from one of Tagore's many collections. Sentimental? Yes! Unashamedly so. Rubbish? We don't think so. It is a poem of nostalgia in its primary sense — the yearning for something that is past — and perhaps looks back to the time when Tagore was a young father. The poem was written relatively late in his life, at a time after his wife, and two of his young children, had died. We don't know what relation it bears to the original Bengali, but it does for us what many great poems do: take us down a carefully constructed pathway of words that we would never have discovered on our own, but having once discovered, are happy to return to again and again.  Here it is, with a couple of links to wordmaps in the VT.

The Source

The sleep that flits on baby's eyes — does anybody know from where it comes? Yes, there is a rumor that it has its dwelling where, in the fairy village among shadows of the forest dimly lit with glow-worms, there hang two shy buds of enchantment. From there it comes to kiss baby's eyes.

The smile that flickers on baby's lips when he sleeps — does anybody know where it was born? Yes, there is a rumor that a young pale beam of a crescent moon touched the edge of a vanishing autumn cloud, and there the smile was first born in the dream of a dew-washed morning — the smile that flickers on baby's lips when he sleeps.

The sweet, soft freshness that blooms on baby's limbs — does anybody know where it was hidden so long? Yes, when the mother was a young girl it lay pervading her heart in tender and silent mystery of love — the sweet, soft freshness that has bloomed on baby's limbs.


The great film director Satyajit Ray made a documentary about Tagore which has been conveniently divided into five parts on YouTube; you can watch the first part here, and easily find the others:

Also on YouTube, dozens of performances of Tagore's many songs, including this one by singer Rizwana Choudhry:

You can read other poems in the Crescent Moon, the collection from which "The Source" was taken, at

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday July 1st 2008, 8:02 AM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
Excellent thoughts on the intriguing topic of poetry translation.
Tuesday July 1st 2008, 12:23 PM
Comment by: JOHN G. B.
I was willing to be swayed by Orin's argument but felt quite shocked to have a poem written by Tagore in beautiful language but from a surface consciousness. Øn this example I agree with Keats.
Tuesday July 1st 2008, 4:24 PM
Comment by: Ikars S.
It is unfortunate to use "translation" a most inappropriate term to denote the re-creation of a poem in a tongue other than its original. Even worse is the notion of translating "poetry" unless that is applied to at least a major part of the complete works of some poet writing in another language. The closest English--and many other languages I know-- come to denoting what happens is to say a poem (and not poetry) is transposed. Few languages use a specific verb (not related to the Greek "poin") to denote the act of making a poem: "dichten", in German and "dzejot", in Latvian, and there may be others. Coprrespondingly, a poem is "ein Gedicht" and a poet, "ein Dichter". The closest one can replicate that in English is to use "bard" as the etymological base, thus avoiding the impossibility of analogous use of Greek reference. Of course, to say a poem is re-barded borders on the ridiculous.
Saturday July 5th 2008, 8:37 AM
Comment by: Pamela B.
There is a lilt, a rhythm ( or lack of it?) in Tagore's poem which would be difficult to create in English. The "foreign" element is preserved practically undiluted which, for me, is a lagre portion of its charm. At the same time the intention of the poet and his ability to communicate this to English-speakers is undeniable.
Sunday July 6th 2008, 6:47 PM
Comment by: Ikars S.
I am mystified by what John G. B. says because Yeats first praised Tagore's excellence in English. Yeats' later reaction sounds as if delivered in a jealous pique. Fact is there are people of exceptional ability to absorb and use other languages and to condemn them by trying to make them like the average is cavalier.
Tuesday July 8th 2008, 11:47 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
A very popular YouTube video, "Dancing," features a musical version of Tagore's poem "Stream of Life," sung in Bengali by Palbasha Siddique, a 17-year-old Bangladeshi living in Minneapolis.

YouTube video:

Articles about the video:
Sunday July 20th 2008, 8:16 AM
Comment by: Margaret B.
I once read that reading a poem in translation is like 'kissing a woman through a veil'. Yes, a poem may lose some of its former glory,lexical connections and deeper meanings through translation and a certain barrier this can create. But imagine a world without poetry that has been made accessible to us through translation. I leave you to consider what we would have missed.
Sunday January 4th 2009, 9:49 PM
Comment by: Erling H. (Sag Harbor, NY)
Re: Margaret B.'s comment: "Kissing a woman through a veil." Still, that's kind of hawt!

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