Chinese Tagore translation pulled for sexual embellishment

Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao observing the statue of Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore.
Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao observing the statue of Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - The Chinese translator of Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's poetry collection "Stray Birds" defended himself on Tuesday (Dec 29) after his publisher pulled the work from bookstores following controversy over its unusually sexual content.

The poems and epithets, originally in Bengali, were first published in 1916, three years after Tagore won the Nobel literature prize for "his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse", the first non-European to do so.

The new translation by Chinese novelist Feng Tang, known for his racy depictions of Beijing youth in the 90s, was released earlier this year but its content raised eyebrows in recent weeks.

In Feng's version the original line "The world puts off its mask of vastness to its lover" became "The vast world opened the crotch of its trousers before its lover."

Online commentators have been scornfully comparing Feng's translation to the English and previous Chinese versions.

"He can write however he likes in his own books, but when he's dealing with other people's work, he must have basic respect!!!" said one user on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform.

He rendered "hospitable" as "horny", the China Daily said, citing "translation buffs" and Tagore fans as saying that Feng's version "infused the original poems with hormonal flavour" and "mixed words of disparate styles".

But Feng, who studied medicine at university, defended his choice of words.

"With my medical background and my linguistic system, I don't think 'crotch' is a vulgar term; I find it a neutral term," he said.

"In Tang Dynasty poetry and our poetic tradition, there were also women being asked to take off their skirts," he added.

The online maelstorm was mainly in response to only five Chinese characters in the book, he said.

"If there's only one instance where 'crotch' occurs within a collection of more than 320 poems, why do you insist on fixating on this single 'crotch'? Does the book have a problem, or do you have a problem?" he said.

"If 'crotch' makes you uncomfortable, then god bless you - you've now entered an era without crotches."

After online accusations that the book was inappropriate for young readers, Feng's publisher announced Monday that it would pull his book from bookshops and scrub it from the Internet.

"Due to the great controversy surrounding Feng Tang's translation of Stray Birds, we have decided to recall this volume from all bookstores and online platforms," the Zhejiang Literature and Arts Press said in a statement on its verified microblog.

"It was a very natural decision for us," its director Zheng Zhong told AFP.

Initially translated into English by Tagore himself, the first Chinese version of "Stray Birds" came out in 1922, with dozens revisiting it since.

But despite the critical response to Feng's version, the recall was condemned online.

"Are you crazy?! If the translation's bad readers can just choose not to buy it - why recall it, what law has been broken?!" wrote one expletive-prone Weibo user.

"This is no longer a discussion of the translation's merits - this is now about freedom of speech and freedom of the press."