Homi Bhaba in his ‘The Location of Culture’ quotes Walter Benjamin and says that “Translation passes through continua of transformation, not abstract ideas of identity and similarity”. Thus according to Walter Benjamin there can never be anything like a perfect translation and in turn nothing called an ideal translator. Benjamin believes that translation is not about similarity but a transformation. This same theory can be applied to even in the field of self translation. Literary self translation like translation itself is a process in which a text is translated from the source language to the target language with the only exception that the author of the text becomes the translator of the text. Since the source text is created by the author himself, it is not wrong to believe that the author should have a command over the text and thus if he is expected to translate his work, he should be able to do so perfectly since he has the best knowledge of the text. This however does not happen. Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali is an example of the myth that self translation is the ideal translation.
Gitanjali is a collection of one hundred and three verses that the poet himself translated. Much has already been debated on the reasons behind these translations and on whether he deserved the Nobel Prize or not. However from the perspective of self translation it would not be out of place to try and locate Gitanjali as a piece of self translated work and try and understand through it, the politics of self translation. The first verse in the Bengali text reads:
Amare tumi ashesh korecho
Emni leela tobo
Furiye fele abare bhorecho
Jeebon nobo nobo
Tagore translated the same verse in English as:
Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure
This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again,
And fillest it ever with fresh life.
When we try and compare the two verses, we see that though he has been successful in maintaining the overall meaning, he has made certain compromises and changes. First and foremost the structure of the verse itself has changed drastically. While writing in Bengali, he has used a rhyme scheme of abab; however while translating he does away with this rhyme scheme. Also ‘pleasure’ is not an equivalent translation of the Bengali word ‘leela’. ‘Leela’ is a religious term and is used to commonly refer to god’s game play with the human race and not so much pleasure. Another observation is his use of metaphors while translating into English. ‘jeebon’ (life) is translated as ‘frail vessel’. Going back to talking about the structure in verse XXX he takes two lines to express what he writes in five lines in Bengali.
Saathe saathe ke chole mor
Chadate chai onek kore
Ghure feli, jaye je shore
Mone kori aapod geche
Aabar dekhi tare
The above lines he translates into English in just three lines:
But who is this that follows me in the silent dark?
I move aside to avoid his presence
But I escape him not.
This can be because of the fact that it is believed that Tagore gave more importance to ideas than to the structural framework. Thus he emphasized more on the lyrical qualities.
One of the main aims of translation (be it self- translated or not), is to convey the message as accurately as possible. When we read Gitanjali in English, it is very evident through words like ‘thou’, ‘thee’, ‘thy’ etc, that the verses are addressed to God. They can be seen as hymns or even prayers for God. However when we read the Bengali version of the same, we cannot dismiss the verses as just hymns sung to the almighty. They can also be seen as songs or poems written for a beloved. There is no archaism or loftiness in the way the verses have been written in Bengali. The tone is informal. Thus though the source text (Gitanjali written in Bengali in this case) can be interpreted in more than one way, Tagore consciously constructs the English translation in such a way that not many interpretations can be possible. One of the possible reasons behind this can be that Tagore was very concerned about his target audience (the west). He was aware that the west saw India as a land of mysticism. He wanted to build on it and thus we find Gitanjali (the English translation) to be full of mysticism and spiritual thoughts.
After reading his English translations, it would not be wrong to think that Tagore was keener on expressing his emotions rather than strictly translating his Bengali work. Thus he does not follow any particular pattern of translation. While translating some verses he follows a word to word translation, whereas on other occasions he follows the method of paraphrasing. Many critics believe that Tagore feared that the west would not be able to understand the cultural nuances of his country and thus he chose simple English word that though would not accurately match the Bengali one, would however succeed in putting across his emotions to the western readers.
Hence, Tagore as a self translator takes a lot of liberties while translating. His English version of the Gitanjali is less of a translation of the Bengali text and can be considered more of a trans- creation. Tagore’s Gitanjali contributes to the larger debate of whether self- translation is the ideal translation and it also questions the stance that the author/translator takes while translating his own work.