Tribute to Rabindranath Tagore on his 159th birth anniversary from a Spanish writer-researcher-translator
Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry sparked interest outside of Bengal before he was awarded the Nobel Prize. As soon as the poet’s self-translation of Gitanjali appeared in English, versions of his work appeared in other European languages. In Spanish, it is commonly assumed that Juan Ramón Jiménez and Zenobia Camprubí were the first to render Tagore’s poetry into Spanish and publish his work in Spanish translation. Such an assumption is erroneous: the initial translation anteceded the Nobel by months and was published not in Spain but in Cuba. This article digs out for the first time the crucial role the first Spanish translator of Tagore, Blanche Zacharie, played in introducing Tagore to the Spanish readers.
Jane Blanche Zacharie Hutchings was born in 1865, in New York. Her father Elly Zacharie hailed from South Carolina and established a perfumery in Lower Manhattan, a prosperous business that remained open for decades. Elly belonged to an immigrant family—his father was Polish and his mother English. His wife Anna Hutchings was a native of New Jersey.
In December 1886, Blanche married a Cuban émigré, Luis Alejandro Baralt y Peoli, a man of many talents. A physician by profession, he was also a renowned journalist, diplomat and a linguist—he authored a popular Spanish primer for English-speakers.
Blanche was sent to France for her elementary education. She later studied in the United States and, in 1902, became the first woman awarded a PhD degree by the University of Havana. As these milestones of her life suggest, she spoke a number of languages. Her mother tongue was English and it is highly probable she was also conversant in Polish. She learned French during her time in Paris, and, after her marriage to Baralt, she became fluent in Spanish. Describing her abilities as a public speaker, John Fitz-Gerald states how
“Mrs. Blanche Zacharie de Baralt, wife of Dr Luis A Baralt of Cuba, is perhaps one of the most versatile women alive today. She lectures in France and the United States on Spanish or Spanish-American literary and cultural topics and can address her audiences with equal fervor and eloquence in Spanish, French or English.”
Blanche’s mastery as a polyglot was such that none of her many publications in Latin America betrays a turn of phrase that would mark her as a foreigner. This, coupled with the slightly ambiguous nature of her name, was enough to create the impression of her being either “half Cuban and half North American”, as the entry on her EcuRed details, or even fully Cuban, as historian Lilian Guerra hints at, by describing her as the "highly intelligent emigré Blanche Zacharie”.
The Baralt-Zacharie family lived in New York till 1900; later they moved to Havana. After the move, Blanche appears to have become naturalized Cuban, as her entry records to the United States show. Beyond any formal immigration procedure, however, she became Cuban in the deepest sense of the term, because of her natural affinity with the island and its ethos.
The prime example of that affinity is her friendship and unwavering support for José Martí. Blanche’s husband was a first cousin to Carmen Mirayes y Peoli, Martí´s confidante. They were all members of the exile community that provided moral and material support for the cause of Cuban independence. To the history of that movement, Blanche added an exceptional testimony, in 1945, with her book El Martí que yo conocí, which also gives invaluable insights into her life in New York.
The first review of Gitanjali, published in a Latin American periodical, appeared in June 1913, in El Universal, of Caracas. The article had not been originally written in Spanish. It was translated from a French text prepared by Jan Henryk de Rosen for La Revue, of Paris. The Spanish version of Rosen´s review was published again in August, this time in El Diario, of El Salvador. This type of translation and reproduction was a common phenomenon at the time due to the strong influence of French periodicals in Latin America. Blanche Zacharie was an anomaly in such a context. Her references were French, of course, but also Anglo-Saxon. Her multilingualism allowed her to tap into original sources not available to other translators.
Zacharie’s interest for Tagore’s work derived from serendipitous roots. In 1913, one of her friends returned to Havana from Europe, bearing as a thoughtful gift a copy of Gitanjali. From her testimony, it is not clear whether the book was the first edition, published in 1912 by Chiswick Press for the India Society, or the far more common Macmillan edition, published in April 1913 and reprinted a number of times the same year. Zacharie read the volume and was overwhelmed by its power. She would later describe the experience thus:
“It was not necessary to read too much to understand that it was the work of an extraordinary artist: the ideas, the images, the feelings, even the language, despite being a prose translation of what in the Bengali original was a winged verse – everything had an irresistible allure.”
At the time, Zacharie was already a well-known writer and critic in Latin American circles, and had collaborated for many years with the leading newspaper in Cuba, El Diario de la Marina, as a writer and editor. Her first instinct was to write a review of Gitanjali. She titled her article “A Poet in India – Rabindranath Tagore”. Her appreciation was complemented by her translation of five song lyrics from Gitanjali, numbered XVII, XIX, XXXV, XXXVI and LII.
Zacharie’s review and her translations appeared in August 6, 1913, in El Diario de la Marina, almost three months before the announcement of the Nobel Prize award for Tagore. Zacharie´s translations also preceded the first Spanish versions, published in Spain by Ramón Pérez de Ayala for La Tribuna, of Madrid, on August 23 and 29, 1913.
There is no evidence of further translations of Tagore that Zacharie took up. Despite this, it is possible to assume that she never truly lost interest in the Bengali poet. Her daughter Adelaida married Mariano Brull Caballero, a Cuban intellectual and diplomat. In 1927, Brull coined the word “jitanjáfora” in a poem titled “Leyenda”, a brief lyrical divertimento without apparent sense, dedicated to his children. Alfonso Reyes eventually used the term as the name of “creations that are not directed to reason, but to sensation and fantasy”. Writing later in Sur, Borges would remark how the new word possessed “a flair of Gitanjali”. The fact that Blanche Zacharie, Brull’s mother-in-law, was the first Spanish translator of Tagore’s poetry is an interesting clue about the roots of such a wonderful neologism.
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 different aspects of Bangla literature. She can be reached at [email protected]