Who Won Tagore's Nobel Prize?
History and the Postcolonial: Rabindranath Tagore’s Reception in London, 1912-1913, by Michael Collins (published in The International Journal of the Humanities, Vol. 4, No. 9 (2007)).
William Butler Yeats is rumored to have won two Nobel Prizes -- one in his own name and one for rewriting the most famous work of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore.
“Balderdash and poppycock,” says University College London lecturer Michael Collins, although he uses more refined language in arguing his case.
Little-known to Americans, Tagore (pictured) is renowned in India and Bangladesh, more so since his death in 1941 than during his life. In 1913, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first person from the Indian subcontinent so honored. (Rudyard Kipling, who won in 1907, was born in Bombay, but you know what I mean.)
Tagore, who lived near Calcutta, visited Great Britain in 1912 and socialized with the day’s men of letters. He met H.G. Wells, Ezra Pound and George Bernard Shaw, among others, but his interactions with Yeats are the cause of literary controversy.
Yeats, the rumor alleges, substantially rewrote Tagore’s poetry collection Gitanjali in the guise of translating it, and the Nobel prize committee based its award entirely on that English translation. When the prize was announced, the misattribution accusation was made by British newspaper commentators -- whose disparagement can be dismissed (accurately or not) as the product of an imperial mindset appalled to see a colonial treated as an equal of Kipling and other Europeans.
More problematically, one of the accusers was Yeats himself. “No Indian can write or speak in animated English,” Yeats wrote in another context, repeating the contemporary stereotype that Indians were a languid race. For the rest of his life, Yeats would insist that he was the light behind the English version of Gitanjali.
While Collins’ article “History and the Postcolonial” does not contain a detailed comparison of the Bengali and English texts of Gitanjali – perhaps that will be in his forthcoming book about Tagore – Collins’ detective work at the Nobel Academy’s library has uncovered a hole in the story.
Contrary to the popular belief, the Nobel Academy’s literary committee based its recommendation on more than the Yeats-assisted translation of Gitanjali, Collins argues. One member of the five-person committee, a novelist named Esais Tegnér, possessed some ability to read Bengali, and he borrowed three native-language texts of Tagore’s works from the Nobel Library, according to the institution’s accessions register. Library documents also state that committee members borrowed other works by Tagore, namely Glimpses of Bengal Life and The Gardner. A third work, Lyrics of Love and Life, is referenced in the Academy’s presentation speech.
Consequently, the argument that Tagore’s Nobel Prize was premised upon the English translation of a single work is seriously challenged by Prof. Collins’ research. While questions remain – e.g., Was Yeats a credit hog? – we can probably lay to rest the accusation that the Nobel committee cut corners in making its decision.
Perhaps Yeats’ proponents will have to accept that only Linus Pauling won two Nobel Prizes by himself.