Rabindanath Tagore was his own worst enemy.
He wrote for two audiences. In his Bengali poetry, he talks to the everyman – the rural peasant is moved by his poetry as much as the Calcutta-wallah, and both are moved beyond humanity to the sublime. In his English translations, though, he does not write for us – he writes in stilted verse with thous and thees for the Oriental gentleman who is more English than the English, or perhaps for the Indophile Westerner – but not for us.
This is a tragedy, because when English speakers want to read Tagore, they are forced to read his own translations – it would seem blasphemous, almost, for another translator, a better poet in English, to attempt to retranslate them, given that he had already made the attempt. The loss is ours.
The only hope is for those of us who know another language, one that Tagore did not know, and in which a competent poet produced good translations. Then, perhaps, we can appreciate the Indian National Anthem for the luminous work of inspiration that it really is.
Or, a lucky few, as in my case, have the honor of seeing it in that one language that speaks the most eloquently to speakers of all languages – sign language.
I had the great fortune of partaking of this experience a couple of years ago, in the presence of no less than H.E. the President of India, where a pretty young lady translated everything into Indian Sign Language, including the Anthem. That was the first time, I think, that I realized how absolutely lovely it was, and I felt incredible proud of it, this Anthem that is not a peaen of self-declared greatness or an insincere oath of allegiance to a martial country, but a prayer to the God who minds the country’s destiny.
Here is another translation, and even this, rough-hewn as it were by my own self, only moderately faithful, and capable of infinite improvement by better poets, is still better (I think) than Tagore’s own English version. Compare for yourselves.
O Ruler of the hearts and the minds of our billions,
Master of our country’s fate.
The Punjab, the Sind, Gujarat, the Maratha, lands of the South, Orissa and Bengal,
The Vindhyas, the Himalayas, Yamuna and Ganga, the illimitable river waters
wake every day with the sound of your name,
seeking your blessings,
and singing your victory song –
your victory song, O giver of peace and happiness to our billions,
Master of our Destiny!
Victory to you! Victory! Victory!
Victory to you!