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Rabindranath Tagore: Modern English Poetry Translations by Michael R. Burch

These are modern English translations of poems by the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who has been called the "Bard of Bengal" just as William Shakespeare was called the "Bard of Avon." He was also called "the Bengali Shelley." In 1913 Tagore became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tagore was awarded a knighthood in 1915, but he surrendered it protest of the Massacre at Amritsar, where British troops killed around 400 Indian demonstrators. Tagore was also a notable artist, musician and polymath.

Please note that I call my translations "loose translations" and "modernizations" or "interpretations" because they are not literal word-for-word translations. I begin with my personal interpretation of a poem and translate accordingly. To critics who object to variations from the original texts, my response is that there are often substantial disagreements among even the most accomplished translators. Variations begin with the readings because different people get different things from different poems. And a strict word-for-word translation will seldom, if ever, result in poetry. In my opinion translation is much closer to an art than a perfect science and I side with Rabindranath Tagore, who said he needed some leeway in order to produce poetry in another language when he translated his own poems into English.—MRB

The Seashore Gathering

by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch
 
On the seashores of endless worlds, earth's children converge.
The infinite sky is motionless, the restless waters boisterous.
On the seashores of endless worlds earth's children gather to dance with joyous cries and pirouettes.
They build sand castles and play with hollow shells.
They weave boats out of withered leaves and laughingly float them out over the vast deep.
Earth's children play gaily on the seashores of endless worlds.
They do not know, yet, how to cast nets or swim.
Divers fish for pearls and merchants sail their ships, while earth's children skip, gather pebbles and scatter them again.
They are unaware of hidden treasures, nor do they know how to cast nets, yet.
The sea surges with laughter, smiling palely on the seashore.
Death-dealing waves sing the children meaningless songs, like a mother lullabying her baby's cradle.
The sea plays with the children, smiling palely on the seashore.
On the seashores of endless worlds earth's children meet.
Tempests roam pathless skies, ships lie wrecked in uncharted waters, death wanders abroad, and still the children play.
On the seashores of endless worlds there is a great gathering of earth's children.

Come As You Are
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Come as you are, forget appearances!
Is your hair untamable, your part uneven, your bodice unfastened? Never mind.
Come as you are, forget appearances!

Skip with quicksilver steps across the grass.
If your feet glisten with dew, if your anklets slip, if your beaded necklace slides off? Never mind.
Skip with quicksilver steps across the grass.

Do you see the clouds enveloping the sky?
Flocks of cranes erupt from the riverbank, fitful gusts ruffle the fields, anxious cattle tremble in their stalls.
Do you see the clouds enveloping the sky?

You loiter in vain over your toilet lamp; it flickers and dies in the wind.
Who will care that your eyelids have not been painted with lamp-black, when your pupils are darker than thunderstorms?
You loiter in vain over your toilet lamp; it flickers and dies in the wind.

Come as you are, forget appearances!
If the wreath lies unwoven, who cares? If the bracelet is unfastened, let it fall. The sky grows dark; it is late.
Come as you are, forget appearances!

Unfit Gifts
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

At sunrise, I cast my nets into the sea,
dredging up the strangest and most beautiful objects from the depths ...
some radiant like smiles, some glittering like tears, others flushed like brides’ cheeks.
When I returned, staggering under their weight, my love was relaxing in her garden, idly tearing leaves from flowers.
Hesitant, I placed all I had produced at her feet, silently awaiting her verdict.
She glanced down disdainfully, then pouted: "What are these bizarre things? I have no use for them!"
I bowed my head, humiliated, and thought:
"Truly, I did not contend for them; I did not purchase them in the marketplace; they are unfit gifts for her!"
That night I flung them, one by one, into the street, like refuse.
The next morning travelers came, picked them up and carted them off to exotic countries.

This Dog
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Each morning this dog,
who has become quite attached to me,
sits silently at my feet
until, gently caressing his head,
I acknowledge his company.

This simple recognition gives my companion such joy
he shudders with sheer delight.

Among all languageless creatures
he alone has seen through man entire—
has seen beyond what is good or bad in him
to such a depth he can lay down his life
for the sake of love alone.

Now it is he who shows me the way
through this unfathomable world throbbing with life.

When I see his deep devotion,
his offer of his whole being,
I fail to comprehend ...

How, through sheer instinct,
has he discovered whatever it is that he knows?

With his anxious piteous looks
he cannot communicate his understanding
and yet somehow has succeeded in conveying to me
out of the entire creation
the true loveworthiness of man.

Patience
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

If you refuse to speak, I will fill my heart with your silence and endure it.
I will remain still and wait like the night through its starry vigil
with its head bent low in patience.

The morning will surely come, the darkness will vanish,
and your voice will pour down in golden streams breaking through the heavens.

Then your words will take wing in songs from every one of my birds' nests,
and your melodies will break forth in flowers in all my forest groves.

Gitanjali 35
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been divided by narrow domestic walls;
Where words emerge from the depths of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not been lost amid the dreary desert sands of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Gitanjali 11
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Leave this vain chanting and singing and counting of beads:
what Entity do you seek in this lonely dark temple corner with all the doors shut?
Open your eyes and see God is not here!
He is there where the tiller tills the hard ground and the paver breaks stones.
He is with them in sun and shower; his garments are filthy with dust.
Shed your immaculate mantle and like him embrace the dust!
Deliverance? Where is this "deliverance" to be found?
Our master himself has joyfully embraced the bonds of creation; he is bound with us all forever!
Cease your meditations, abandon your petals and incense!
What harm is there if your clothes become stained rags?
Meet him in the toil and the sweat of his brow!

Last Curtain
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

I know the day comes when my eyes close,
when my sight fails,
when life takes its leave in silence
and the last curtain veils my vision.
Yet the stars will still watch by night;
the sun will still rise like before;
the hours will still heave like sea waves
casting up pleasures and pains.
When I consider this end of my earth-life,
the barrier of the moments breaks
and I see by the illumination of death
this world with its careless treasures.
Rare is its lowliest seat,
rare its meanest of lives.
Things I longed for in vain and those I received, let them pass.
Let me but truly possess the things I rejected and overlooked.

Death
by Rabindranath Tagore
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

You who are the final fulfillment of life,
Death, my Death, come and whisper to me!
Day after day I have kept watch for you;
for you I have borne the joys and the pangs of life.
All that I am, all that I have and hope, and all my love
have always flowed toward you in the depths of secrecy.
One final glance from your eyes and my life will be yours forever, your own.
The flowers have been woven and the garland prepared for the bridegroom.
After the wedding the bride must leave her home and meet her lord alone in the solitude of night.

Related Pages in Chronological Order: Song of Amergin, Caedmon's Hymn, Bede's Death Song, Deor's Lament, Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife's Lament, Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings, How Long the Night, Ballads, Sumer is Icumen in, Fowles in the Frith, Ich am of Irlaunde, Tom O'Bedlam's Song, Now Goeth Sun Under Wood, Pity Mary, Sweet Rose of Virtue, Lament for the Makaris, Adam Lay Ybounden, This World's Joy, Michael R. Burch Free Verse, Charles Baudelaire Translations by Michael R. Burch

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