Beijing: Six years, 33 volumes, 18 translators working round the clock, and 16 million words: one of the biggest translation projects of its kind came to fruition on Thursday when China unveiled what has been a six-year-long project to bring Rabindranath Tagore’s collected works to China.
To coincide with the 155th birth anniversary of the poet which falls on May 7, the Chinese government in 2009 commissioned a massive translation from Bengali to Chinese of all of Tagore’s poems, novels, dramas and essays. The project was given such importance by the government that it was officially listed as a key initiative of the government’s 12th Five Year Plan (2011-15).
The result, 33 volumes that run into 16 million words, was unveiled in Beijing on Thursday by the People’s Publishing House, which brought out the work.
Chinese Bengali scholar Dong You Chen, who led a team of 18 expert translators drawn from universities, China Radio International station’s Bengali department, the Foreign Ministry, the Communist Party’s elite Party School, and from even the People’s Liberation Army, said the hope was to provide for Chinese a first ever authentic direct translation of Tagore’s work in Chinese.
Tagore has been widely read in China and much loved since he visited the country in the 1920s. Although his first visit, at a time of national upheaval in China, was controversial and divided opinion, in subsequent decades his message of pan-Asianism resonated, as did his poetry, said Dong.
He said he had first come across Tagore while in school. “I was moved by his poetry, and went to Leningrad in 1960 to study him,” he told INDIA TODAY in an interview. “His philosophy of humanism was relevant not only to India, but also to China,” he said, adding that Tagore’s writings on internationalism and a pan-Asian sentiment still resonated today.
Tagore is still widely read in Chinese schools – perhaps the most famous foreign poet along with Shakespeare and some Russian writers, said Cao Yan Hua, a graduate of the Communications University of China who is one of the younger members of the translation team and works with China Radio International’s Bengali station.
“He was an inspiring figure for us in school,” said Cao. “Not only because we found him to be romantic, but also for his ideas,” she adds, pointing to Tagore’s support for China in the early 20th century and criticism of foreign powers and the opium trade.
Cao said the project had its challenges. The 18 translators worked individually, but also worked with the senior members of the group and constantly revised their work.
One of the challenges was the absence of a Bengali-Mandarin directory, which posed hurdles. The use of Sanskrit words in some of his writings was another challenge to be overcome.
Yet in the end, Cao says, it was for her one of her most rewarding experiences – the benefits of which, she hopes, will reach Tagore’s newest generation of admirers in the Middle Kingdom.