I grew up reading Rabindranath Tagore’s works translated into Spanish. In my library, I had copies of the translations by Zenobia Camprubí and Juan Ramón Jiménez, edited in Argentina by the house of Losada. The name of Tagore was always a familiar one in my home. My maternal grandfather, a poet himself, admired him greatly. My mother, who knew by memory many a poem, used to recite his verses. Out in the world, Tagore was included, with particular emphasis, in high school and college curricula. Everybody knew how his work had influenced the most famous poets of Latin America, including the Nobel triad – Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral and Octavio Paz.
When I travelled to Europe and to the United States, I discovered that people in these regions seemed to be unaware of the riches of Tagore’s works. My evocation of his poetry was often met with blank stares. I was surprised, for I had assumed that he was as well known there as he was in Latin America. In those days, I still believed that it was the Nobel which had given rise to the first translations of Tagore into Spanish, and thus such a contrast was bewildering. Around the same time, I had the opportunity to meet people from the subcontinent for the first time, and to confirm his unyielding fame in his own land.
After I learned English, I was eager to read Tagore in his own translations into that language. This opened yet another set of questions. The translations into Spanish differed, sometimes greatly, from the English text. How had such a disparity arisen? I set out to try and understand it, and, in the process met with the issues of the Camprubí-Jiménez collaboration. Neither of them knew Bengali. Jiménez did not know English, a language that was Camprubí´s mother language. The result of their joint collaboration was, as Howard Young has said, an Andaluz Tagore – a Tagore heavily influenced by Jimenez´s cultural roots.
Around that time, I visited the subcontinent for the first time, after getting married to Kanishka, my husband, who hails from India. A new cultural and literary world opened for me. In 2004, I published a short article about the Camprubí-Jiménez translations in a Mexican magazine. A few years later, that opened unexpected doors: The publication of the digital version of the article made possible my friendship with Bangladeshi poet and journalist Razu Alauddin, and thus my interest in Bengali literature was rejuvenated.
While my main interest continued to be Rabindranath Tagore, there was a wealth of material to be explored. I was overwhelmed by the works of Saratchandra Chatterjee and could not believe his novels had not been translated into Spanish. This was also true of Satyajit Ray – well-known as a director, unknown and untranslated as a novelist – and of so many other authors. The gap, however, was wider than I'd thought. Then one day in New York I discovered Kazi Nazrul Islam quite unexpectedly. During a taxi ride with my husband, I happened to listen to Nazrul Geeti for the first time, without knowing what was being sung. Our driver was a Bangladeshi expatriate, proud of his language and country, who told me about Kazi Nazrul Islam.
My intention was to avoid the pitfalls of creating a personal Nazrul, in the image of Jimenez’s Tagore. This required that the local allusions in his verses had to be conveyed, even if that required a body of notes and explanations.
When I started to research Nazrul, half a century after his death, he was yet to be translated into Spanish. Three factors are at play to explain such an incredible fact. First, a writer such as Nazrul was the very antithesis of what colonial powers would want to have disseminated inside or outside the subcontinent. Subversive poetry was not the Crown’s preferred material. As was the case with Tagore, the works allowed and encouraged to transcend the frontiers of the subcontinent were only those with a marked spiritual and abstract tone. Second, the lack of an English translation hindered the transmission. Just as in the case of Mirza Ghalib, the absence of an English version made it unlikely that a subsequent translation into another major European language such as Spanish would happen. Third, even after independence, Nazrul was not given a neo-colonial stamp of approval, by way of an endorsement issued from Europe or from the United States. Even today, supranational dissemination and recognition for an author continues to be determined by decisions taken in Eurocentric power centres, viewed as essential marks of prestige and validation.
Once I was sure there were no versions of Nazrul in Spanish, I considered the possibility of translating his work – a daunting and alluring idea. In addition to his poetic genius, the rebel poet’s works are pervaded by a multitude of factors and by a body of knowledge well beyond the experience of any foreign translator. I sought to read as much as possible about Nazrul’s life. It was indispensable to become familiar with Bengal, and with the major influences detectable in his writings. History, religion and literature were brought into play.
Also read: http://www.dhakatribune.com/magazine/arts-letters/2017/05/05/kazi-nazrul-islam-rebel-poet/
My intention was to avoid the pitfalls of creating a personal Nazrul, in the image of Jimenez’s Tagore. This required that the local allusions in his verses had to be conveyed, even if that required a body of notes and explanations. His religious poetry had to be included and presented in a clear way – no abstractions, transformations or generalisations that would dull his original intention. And, more importantly, his energy, anger and sense of justice had to shine through. “Bidrohi” had to be “Bidrohi.” A diluted version of his impetus would have been a betrayal. I had also to revisit classic poetry in Spanish, not for content but for sound: It was not enough to create a readable translation – I sought to have a cadence that would not deny the musical fluidity of the original verses.
As for the prose, Nazrul’s speeches and writings were quite a delight. I am a lawyer by profession, and thus translating his speech “Rajbandir Jabanbandi” came with a new sense of admiration for him. I have read many a brief, yet rarely have I found similar eloquence and exactitude. In other pieces, his lyrical qualities cannot be kept in check. The prose becomes poetic and transcends the occasion for which it was pronounced, confronting the translator with the choice between reformatting the content into a more formal statement, or letting it flow in all its expressive sway. I opted for the latter, considering that this better suited the intention of the poet. As for his letters, the conversational tone was respected.
The translation process proper took approximately two years. In 2014, thanks to the generosity of the Nazrul Institute in Dhaka, the translation was published under the title Nazrul, prosa y poemasselectos. The ultimate question faced by every translator is simple: All poetry is ultimately untranslatable, as no final version can be said to be totally true to the original. Yet, translation is indispensable, for any version is preferable to silence between cultures and peoples. In the case of Kazi Nazrul Islam, to maintain the gap would have been tragic. He is a poet for the world. To have attempted to bring his legacy to the Spanish-speaking public remains one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Maria Helena Barrera-Agarwal is an Ecuadorian writer based in New York. She is the first writer to translate Nazrul Islam‘s poetry into Spanish. She also researches on different aspects of Bangla literature. She can be reached at [email protected]