against translation

“The life-stream of literature flows in the veins of language; if it is impeded then the heart-beat of the original composition is stopped. The subject-matter of literature becomes inert, if there is no life in it. I feel this all the time when I turn up my old translations. You perhaps know that when a calf dies and its mother doesn’t want to give milk because of its loss, then an artificial simulacrum of a calf is made by skinning it and filling the skin with straw. The similarity of its smell and appearance to the real thing makes the udders of the cow ooze milk again. Translation is like that stuffed cow: it has no genuine appeal – it’s a deception. I feel shame and regret when I think of it. If the work I have done in literature is not ephemeral or provincial, then whatever merit it has will have to be discovered in my own language. There is no other way to discover it. If anyone is deprived by the time this will take, then that’s his loss – it’s no fault of the author’s.”

(Rabindranath Tagore, letter to Amiya Chakravarty, 6 January 1935. Quoted – and translated – in William Radice’s introduction to Tagore’s Gitanjali (Penguin 2011), p. liii.)

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