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Spanish translation of Kazi Nazrul Islam's poems and essays

  • Published at 08:09 pm May 13th, 2018
  • Last updated at 03:40 pm May 14th, 2018
Spanish translation of Kazi Nazrul Islam's poems and essays

A review of 'Nazrul: Prosa y Poemas Selectos'

(Translated by Mir Arif)

Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry collection was first translated into Spanish in 1915 by Zenobia Camprubí de Aymar, an accomplished woman and poet; she was assisted by Juan Ramón Jiménez, the 1956 Nobel Laureate in Literature. One hundred years later, the most powerful post-Tagorean poet Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poetry has also been translated into Spanish for the first time by another accomplished Spanish writer and litterateur, María Helena Barrera-Agarwal. In the span of a century, both Tagore and Nazrul were translated into Spanish by women. 

But why this gap of a hundred years? There is no doubt that winning the Nobel Prize in Literature made Rabindranath a world renowned writer. Furthermore, his works were easily available in English translation. But Nazrul was not so fortunate with regard to translation. No reputed publisher from the west has yet published an English translation of Nazrul's work. This is true of María's Spanish translation as well. María's translation nonetheless is particularly significant for two reasons. First, it marks the beginning of Nazrul's entry into the Spanish world. Secondly, it has been translated by one of the leading young Spanish-language poets, who's also a researcher, essayist, translator and scholar of Indian literature, and who's taken great care in translating Nazrul. 

María Helena Barrera-Agarwal is an Ecuadorian writer. Her research books include Jornadas y Talentos (2010), Merton y Ecuador (2010), Leon Americano (2013) Mejia Secreto (2013) Anatomia de una Traicion—La Vento de la Bandera (2015), and the most recent Dolores Veintemilla: Mas Alla de los Mitos (2016). These books are scholarly researches on the history of Ecuador and some of its very famous writers and poets. She has also published an anthology of essays, La Flama y el Eco, which covers Mirza Ghalib, Mahadevi Varma, Amir Khusrow, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, Qurratulain Hyder and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. María is the first Spanish-language writer to write essays in Spanish about Indian writers writing in their native languages. Looking at María's work, anyone can tell that she has chosen an untrodden path in the Spanish world. This new path has inspired her to translate Nazrul, finally producing the book: Nazrul: Prosa y Poemas Selectos, which was published in 2014. The book comprises 14 of Nazrul’s seminal poems including “Bidrohi,” “Ishwar,” “Dhumketu,” “Kheya Parer Toroni,” “Biday Bela,” “Proloyollash,” “Chader Moto Nirobe Asho,” “Shyma,” and “Daridro.” It also contains his prose pieces and essays: “Rajbondir Jobanbondi,” “Bortoman Bishwa Shahitya” and “Jodi Ar Bashi Na Baje.” Moreover, it includes a short biography of the rebel poet and a list of selected bibliographies. 

The book has a brilliant introductory essay on Nazrul that will help Spanish readers understand the importance of reading Nazrul’s works and his immense contribution to literature. Comparing María's translation with Nazrul's original, it can be argued that her genuineness and distinct approach to translation deserves wider recognition. Despite differences between the two languages, María has successfully transported Nazrul’s voice—especially in translating the poem “Bidrohi”—in Spanish and kept all other translations as close as possible to their original versions. The way she retains Nazrul’s diction, his vociferous tone and rhetoric in Spanish shows her great scholarship and poetic sensitivity. In her introduction, she reflects on this: “How to respond to the rich symbolism incorporated by the poet in his poems? One option was simplifying the meaning and descriptions used by the poet, so that readers could understand them easily. Another required keeping those descriptions and names, providing the text with a paratext in the form of footnotes. The second option has been applied in the translation of this book” (p9).

Every language has its distinct idiom and feature. When it is really difficult to retain the original nuances of a prose piece in translation, translating a poem—which is often called a linguistic microcosm within a particular language—is a far more difficult task. Translating Nazrul’s poems is indeed difficult. Sometimes such difficulties cannot be overcome. Looking back at history, we see that when Camprubí and Jiménez translated Rabindranath’s poems, it was identified as “translation of Jiménezian Tagore.” 

But María is careful. In a recent article, “Translating Nazrul into Spanish,” published in Dhaka Tribune's Arts & Letters May 2017 issue, she writes, “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 generalizations 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.”

Anyone can tell how much time and thought she put into translating Nazrul. In addition, her introduction is a reflection on her scholarship on Nazrul; it is rich with fresh evaluation and examinations, and in fact, brings our attention to new aspects in Nazrul criticism. 

Nazrul is still a lesser known poet to the outside world. Even in his own language, it has not been long since critics overcame their dilemma about Nazrul's art and finally celebrated his genius. It is noteworthy, however, that the secular segment of our society has never failed to recognize Nazrul’s genius. It was noticed as early as 1922, when Nazrul had just leapt onto the literary scene and rose to prominence. Benoy Sarkar, a multilingual scholar and researcher, writes in his 1922 book Futurism of Young Asia, “Nazrul is a pioneer of modern Bengali poetry.” Benoy, undoubtedly, was referring to Nazrul’s “Bidrohi.” Many critics of his time disparaged Nazrul saying his poem was an imitation of Walt Whitman. But Sarkar and other scholars denied this. Sarkar says on another occasion: “Nazrul in 'Bidrohi' has fared far better than Walt Whitman. Whitman is a master of prose-rhythm. Nazrul excelled in rhymed prosody in 'Bidrohi'” (Benoy Sarkar, Binoy Sarkarer Boithoke, Dej, August 2011. p 311).

The reason why I refer to Benoy Sarkar’s comments is, María also recognizes Nazrul’s distinct style which differs from Whitman, and makes some detailed comments on this aspect. She says: “It is essential to remember the circumstances in which 'Bidrohi' was created, to better appreciate its originality. Whitman produced his verses as a citizen of a free country, in which he had led a life enjoying basic civil rights. Things were totally different in Nazrul's case. Nazrul wrote in a time of unspeakable colonial oppression. His rebellion, therefore, is absent in Whitman, and is imbued with indignation and a craving for freedom … ” (p 24-25).

According to María, the entire range of Nazrul's work ensures him a distinct place in literature. In one of her interviews, she attests to this quite fairly: “Kazi Nazrul Islam is such an exceptional poet to whom theories of post-colonialism do not really apply. Because he is probably one of the few authors in the world’s history who had a completely decolonized mind, way before the term came to exist.”

In her introductory essay, María also makes some unique comments on Nazrul’s essay “Rajbondir Jobanbondi,” which I have not come across in any article by contemporary critics. Elucidating those points in another article on Nazrul, she says: “The ‘Testimony of a Political Prisoner’ is one of the most courageous essays ever written, not only in reason of its flawless structure and reasoning, but also because of its central premise: Nazrul places himself in the position of the universal citizen, totally unencumbered by prejudices and above all intolerance. In an exercise, he proposes to consider the fight against injustice from a point of view perfectly unbiased: If India was the colonial power and Britain the colonized country, the British would be justified to revolt as the Indians are justified to revolt against the British colonial power.” (“Poet for the World: The Universality of Kazi Nazrul Islam.” http://arts.bdnews24.com/?p=6431#more-6431)

Surely, María has seen Nazrul in a new light. Those who say Nazrul’s talent lies in his creative outburst and artistic emotion will discover aesthetics of logic and universality of justice in his creations. 

A good work of translation evokes a discoverer among its readers. This discoverer self is truly present in María’s translation. I congratulate her on having accomplished such a wonderful feat that presents Nazrul’s work to the outside world. 


Razu Alauddin is a poet, essayist and translator. He specializes in Jorge Luis Borges and has translated into Bengali the great Argentine writer's stories and essays from the original Spanish.