Even a few months before Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) recognized Tagore’s importance which he expressed in a letter to Lou Andreas-Salomé. Rilke had heard another famous writer, the Frenchman André Gide, read out his French translation of Gitanjali which had impressed Rilke considerably.
Further, Rilke mentioned his praise of Tagore in a letter to the German publisher Kurt Wolff. At the time, Wolff had just secured the English manuscript of Gitanjali for his publishing firm and it was already being translated.
Quick to see his advantage, Wolff offered to Rilke that he translate Gitanjali into German, as Gide did into French. Rilke considered the offer deeply for some time and then rejected it. This is the explanation he gave in his letter to Kurt
“I do not find within myself that irrefutable call for the proposed assignment, from which alone could emerge a definitive and responsible work. Although much in these stanzas has a familiar ring, it seems, so to speak, to be borne towards me on a tide of unfamiliarity… This may be partly due to my meagre acquaintance with the English language.”
Rilke is not known to have commented on Rabindranath Tagore thereafter, not even in 1921 when the latter was in the zenith of his fame.
See Rainer Maria Rilke – Lou Andreas Salomé: Briefwechsel. Edited by Ernst Pfeiffer. Insel Verlag, Frankfurt 1975, p.300 (dated 20th September 1913).
See Kurt Wolff: Briefwechsel eines Verlegers 1911-1963. Edited by Bernhard Zeller and Ellen Otten. Verlag Heinrich Scheffler, Frankfurt 1966, p.136f.
Dr Martin Kämpchen is a writer on India and a translator of Tagore from Bengali to German. He lives at Santiniketan, India. For more information visit his website www.martin-kaempchen.com.
[Note: This is an excerpt of an article that has previously been published in Parabaas, July 25, 2003.]