I have been reading Stray birds by Tagore. This link says that some poems in there are translations of the poems in Kanika. Do any records exist which maps the English verses to the original bengali poems?

I found one:

"WHAT language is thine, O sea?"
    "The language of eternal question."
"What language is thy answer, O sky?
    "The language of eternal silence."

is a line for line translation of প্রশ্নের অতীত (prashner atiit, "The Eternal Question"):

'হে সমুদ্র, চিরকাল কী তোমার ভাষা ।'
সমুদ্র কহিল, 'মোর অনন্ত জিজ্ঞাসা ।'
'কিসের স্তব্ধতা তব ওগো গিরিবর ।'
হিমাদ্রি কহিল, 'মোর চির-নিরুত্তর ।'

"he samudra, chirakaal kii tomaar bhaaShaa"
samudra kahila, "mor ananta ji~Naasaa"
"kiser stabhdataa taba ogo girivar"
himaadri kahila, "mor chira-niruttar"

Source: Kanika by Rabindranath Tagore. 1899. Calcutta: Vishwabharati, 1948. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, 11 September 2023.


1 Answer 1


Whether the pieces in Stray Birds (1916) can rightly be called poems is debatable. There are indeed a couple of (very) brief poems, such as the one cited in the question. But four lines is as long as they get. Most of Stray Birds consists of aphorisms a single line long. Some are indeed quite arresting:

What is this unseen flame of darkness whose sparks are the stars? (81)

"I have lost my dewdrop," cries the flower to the morning sky that has lost all its stars. (199)

But the vast majority, alas, are trite:

That love can ever lose is a fact that we cannot accept as truth. (312)

Men are cruel, but Man is kind. (219)

The false can never grow into truth by growing in power. (258)

Yes, some of the jottings in Stray Birds are paraphrases of poems from Tagore's 1899 collection of short verses, kaNikaa ("Particles"). But his inexplicable decision to reduce those already-brief poems to a single line or two robs the pieces of their power and wit. For example, here is kaNikaa 34, কুটুম্বিতা-বিচার (kuTumbitaa-bichaar, "Family Feeling"):

কেরোসিন-শিখা বলে মাটির প্রদীপে,
"ভাই ব'লে ডাক যদি দেব গলা টিপে ।"
হেনকালে গগনেতে উঠিলেন চাঁদা ;
কেরোসিন বলি উঠে, "এসো মোর দাদা ।"


kerosiin-shikha bale maaTir pradiipe,
"bhaaii ba'le Daaka yadi deba galaa Tipe."
henakaale gaganete uThilen chaa.Ndaa ;
kerosiin bali uThe, eso mor daadaa."

Translation (mine):

The kerosene lantern says to the earthen lamp,
"If you call me sibling, I'll throttle you."
Just then the moon rose in the sky—
The kerosene called out, "Welcome, my elder brother!"

Translation ("Kinship-consciousness", by William Radice):

The kerosene-lantern says to the taper,
"I'll wring your neck if you say we're kin."
Whereas to the moon he says, "Come in:
I welcome you warmly as my brother."

Tagore's rendition ("Stray Birds" 53):

While the glass lamp rebukes the earthen for calling it cousin, the moon rises, and the glass lamp, with a bland smile, calls her, "My dear, dear sister."

This is extremely weak sauce. A glass lamp could be quite pretty, after all, whereas a kerosene lantern is stained and smelly. Part of the force of the original is that a clay lamp is in fact more appealing, visually and aromatically, than a kerosene lantern. A rebuke is several degrees of temperature lower than a threat to wring the neck. And of course, translation cannot capture the cultural nuances of the kinship words "bhaaii" (which could mean brother, cousin, or simply friend) and "daadaa" (which specifically is an honorific for one's elder brother, or for any older personage accorded that status). The contrast between "bhaaii", a fairly innocuous address to someone seen as an equal, and "daadaa", a hierarchical if potentially affectionate term, underscores the difference between the kerosene lantern's gruff threat to the earthen lamp and the obsequiousness of its address to the moon. That they both literally mean "brother" make the poem laugh-out-loud funny, particularly as Tagore defers the word "daadaa" to the very end, making it the punchline.

Even a translator as skilled as Radice does not fully convey the wit and power of Tagore's original; but Tagore's own inept foray is lamentable indeed. It is an act of service, therefore, to redirect readers of Stray Birds to the corresponding poems in kaNikaa, so here is a table of the 30 such correspondences that I have found.

Stray Birds
kaNikaa title Transliteration Literal
6 77 ধ্রুবাণি তস্য নশ্যন্তি dhruvaaNi tasya nasyanti The imperishable too is destroyed (Sanskrit) Pointless Grief
12 81 প্রশ্নের অতীত prashner atiit The Original Question Beyond All Questioning
24 93 বিরাম viraam Rest Rest
30 73 নতিস্বীকার natiswiikaar Abnegation Submission
53 34 কুটুম্বিতা-বিচার kuTumbitaa-bichaar Family Feeling Kinship-consciousness
58 6 ভার bhaar The Burden Glory's Burden
66 84 মোহের আশঙ্কা moher aasankaa Captivation's Anxiety Rapture's Anxiety
71 13 রাষ্ট্রনীতি raaShtraniiti Politics Politics
86 79 ফুল ও ফল phuul o phal Flower and Fruit Flower and Fruit
119 106 চিরনবীনতা chiranavinataa Eternal Renewal Eternal Renewal
129 43 অসম্ভব ভালো asambhav bhaalo Impossibly Good Unbearably Good
130 58 একই পথ ekii path The Same Road The Same Path
134 29 মূল muul Roots Roots
139 66 উপলক্ষ upalakshya Synechdoche One-upmanship
153 76 কর্তব্যগ্রহণ kartavyagrahaN Taking Up One's Post Acceptance of Duty
156 64 মাঝারির সতর্কতা maajharir satarkataa The Cautiousness of the Middle Prudent Mediocrity
157 88 অদৃশ্য কারণ adR^ishya kaaraN The Unseen Cause Invisible Agency
163 9 অসম্পূর্ণ সংবাদ asampuurNa sa.nvaad The Unfinished Dialogue Incomplete Information
166 44 নদীর প্রতি খাল nadiir prati khaal The Canal versus the River Canal's Grievance
172 35 উদারচরিতানাম্‌ udaaracharitaanaam.h Greatness of Spirit Greatness of Spirit
173 98 চালক chaalak The Driver The Driver
176 80 অস্ফুট ও পরিস্ফুট asphuTa o parisphuTa The Obscure and the Clear Shallow and Deep
189 10 ঈর্ষার সন্দেহ iirShaar sandeha Jealousy's Suspicions Jealousy's Suspicions
191 82 স্বাধীনতা svaadhiinataa Liberty Freedom
201 30 হাতে-কলমে haate-kalame First-Hand True Achievement
234 63 নিজের ও সাধারণের nijer o saadhaaraNer Private and Public Public and Private
236 86 পর ও আত্মীয় par o aatmiya Alike and Akin Closer than Kinship
237 97 সুখদুঃখ sukhadu:kha Joy and Sorrow Pleasure and Pain
240 45 স্পর্ধা spardhaa The Competition Arrogance
296 85 স্তুতি নিন্দা stuti nindaa Praise and Censure Praise and Censure

This table is likely incomplete. I read kaNikaa alongside William Radice's translations, then read Stray Birds, and tried to connect the sentences in the latter with the poems in the former. I have probably missed some poems, and perhaps misidentified a few as well. Corrections welcomed.


Tagore, Rabindranath. kaNikaa. 1899. Calcutta: Vishwabharati, 1948. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, 11 September 2023.

———. Particles, Jottings, Sparks: The Collected Brief Poems. Trans. and Intro. William Radice. London: Angel Books, 2001. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, 11 September 2023.

———. Stray Birds. Translated from Bengali to English by the Author. New York: Macmillan, 1916. Retrieved from ibiblio.org, 11 September 2023.

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