There are perhaps innumerable examples of poets translating their own poems in the realm of literature, but what I am focused on in this brief writeup is sketching the trends in Jibanananda Das's translations of his own poems. We all know the first most successful poetry translator of this subcontinent happens to be none other than Rabindranath Tagore, for, his renderings of his own poems into English brought him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. But of course no such thing happened to Jibanananda Das.
The English translation of four poems, “If I Were” (Jodi aami hotem), “O Kite” (Hai chil), “Banalata Sen” (Banalata Sen), and “Meditations” (Manosharani) came out in the anthology titled Modern Bengali Poems in 1945. All four of them were translated by the poet himself. Abhijeet Roy comments on Jibannanda's translation in his lecture that he delivered at The Open University, UK, “Jibanananda as the translator of his own poem . . . was anxious to retain his lifetime obsession with the meaning of human history in the context of an unfathomable universe.” The poet himself held that, “Poetry and life are two different outpourings of the same thing; life as we usually conceive it contains what we normally accept as reality, but the spectacle of this incoherent and disorderly life can satisfy neither the poet's talent nor the reader's imagination . . . poetry does not contain a complete reconstruction of what we call reality; we have entered a new world.” This mysterious new world referred to by Jibanananda Das was perhaps the anxiety and obsession for retaining the meaning of human history in the context of an unfathomable universe, that Abhijeet has tried to imply.
But then there is a mystery in his translations too. I am not very sure about the total number of poems translated by the poet himself, but the above four can be used to analyse the enigma that I am hinting at. It is well-known that Jibanananda Das's modernism—for which he sounded so different from Tagore and was duly adored by his readers after his death—was in many ways actuated by Charles Pierre Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats, WB Yeats and the likes, especially because of his use of similes, metaphors, parallelism and alliterations. Abdul Mannan Syed years back traced similarities between Keats's “On first looking into Chapman's Homer” and his “Banalata Sen,” especially in the use of similes and images. We also have attestations to show that Poe's “To Helen” and “Annabel Lee” bear remarkable similarities to his “Banalata Sen,” especially in the depiction of the women's beauty:
চুলতার কবেকার অন্ধকার বিদিশার নিশা/ মুখ তার শ্রাবস্তীর কারুকার্য;
(Her hair was like an ancient darkling night in Vidisa/ Her face, the craftsmanship of Sravasti)
Helen, thy beauty is to me /Like those Nicean barks of yore/ . . .On desperate seas long wont to roam,/Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face, (To Helen)
Or, তেমনি দেখেছি তারে অন্ধকারে; . . . / পাখির নীড়ের মতো চোখ তুলে নাটোরের বনলতা সেন।
(Through darkness I saw her./ . . . And raised her bird’s-nest-like eyes – Banalata Sen from Natore)
It was many and many a year ago,/In a kingdom by the sea,/That a maiden there lived whom you may know/By the name of Annabel Lee; (Annabel Lee).
Many critics also hold that his “Hai Chil” (which, as I mentioned earlier, he rendered into English too) was originally a translation of WB Yeats's “He reproves the curlew.”
With those comes his use of foreign imagery, which has been rightly explained by Abhijeet, “ . . . all the foreign imagery in the poem is as real as the native honey bees and spray flies in the sun, and the heron, and the virgin vastness of the blue sky.” Thus the poet expertly blended his face of Bengal (Banglar mukh) with the imagery of Byzantium, Alexandria, Babylon, Neneveh, Egypt, China and Libya.
But a poet with so much of foreignness immersed within him was not that foreign when he translated his own poems into English. Such good examples are the following lines in Bangla that he deliberately excluded them in his translated version of "Andhakar" (Darkness), for the reason only known to him:
সূর্যের রৌদ্রে আক্রান্ত এই পৃথিবী যেন কোটি কোটি শুয়োরের আর্তনাদে / উৎসব শুরু করেছে।
(The translation of the images used in Bangla can read in English like this: The sun-struck world is in the festivity as if millions of pigs are grunting and squealing around)
Or, আবার ঘুমাতে চেয়েছি আমি, / অন্ধকার স্তনের ভিতর যোনির ভিতর অনন্ত মৃত্যুর মতো মিশে
(The possible translation is: I wished to fall asleep again hiding myself between the darkness of breasts or deep within the vagina and remain eternally dead)
Interestingly enough, the poet arbitrarily ignored the images like pigs grunting and squealing and darkness of breasts and vagina.
The mystery is, who was he translating these poems for? Were they for Western readers, especially the English readers or for the readers of this subcontinent who did not speak Bangla? The paradox is, the poet being open to western influences had no hesitation using challenging imagery in Bangla but was painfully shy translating them into English. This is the enigma of Jibanananda Das's translation that makes me brood over.
Tagore translated his own poems and took suggestions from his Irish friend WB Yeats, yet many critics thought and still think they were not good translations, for readers of the Western world misunderstood and underrated him as a poet, writer and philosopher. Hallam Tennyson, one of poet Lord Alfred Tennyson's descendants, once said Tagore's translations should have been done by a native speaker of English with the help of an Indian who had mastery of both Bangla and English languages. But that does not apply to Jibanananda Das as he himself had equal skill in both languages. The fact remains that poets are unpredictable, and it is more pertinent for a poet like Jibanananda Das who could, with enough ease, write lines like the following:
কালরাতে--ফাল্গুনের রাতের আঁধারে / যখন গিয়েছে ডুবে পঞ্চমীর চাঁদ / মরিবার হল তার সাধ।
(Last night—in the darkness of Falgun night/When the moon of the fifth day was no more to be seen/He decided to commit suicide)
Abdus Selim is a writer and translator. He is professor of English and Linguistics at North South University and Cental Women's University