Chinese novelist stands by racy translation of Tagore's works

Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore was the first non-Westerner to receive the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913.
Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore was the first non-Westerner to receive the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIJING • More than 80 years after his death, Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet and Nobel laureate, still has a huge following in Asia. Outside India and Bangladesh, perhaps nowhere is his legacy more alive than in China, where his works have been part of the middle-school curriculum for decades.

This month, to commemorate the 155th anniversary of his birth, the People's Publishing House will release The Complete Works Of Tagore, the first direct translation of his entire output from Bengali into Chinese. The project took a team of translators nearly six years.

But Tagore has also been at the centre of a controversy here, after a racy new translation of some of his poems by writer Feng Teng, called Stray Birds, set off a storm of criticism. The furore was so intense that the Zhejiang Wenyi Publishing House pulled the volume from stores.

"Most Chinese grew up thinking Tagore was mild and romantic, all stars, gardens and flowers," Feng said in a recent interview in his Beijing studio.

"So with my translation, many people felt like their Tagore, the Tagore from their childhood textbooks, had been challenged."

The world unzipped his pants in front of his lover. Long as a French kiss, slim as a line of a poem.

WRITER FENG TENG'S racy translation of one of Rabindranath Tagore's poems

People's Publishing House deputy chief editor Yu Qing said: "In terms of top foreign authors, Tagore may just be the most popular and most widely translated in China."

"Unlike other popular foreign authors here like Tolstoy or Mark Twain, Tagore visited China and spent time with the pioneers of contemporary Chinese literature."

As the first non-Westerner to receive the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, Tagore was also the "lone voice from Asia in an intellectual milieu that was almost entirely dominated by Western institutions and individuals", Pankaj Mishra wrote in his 2012 book, From The Ruins Of Empire. Translations of the poet's work by then rising young intellectuals such as Mao Dun, Zhang Zhenduo and Chen Duxiu, a co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, began to appear in Chinese magazines.

The 44-year-old Feng, a popular novelist, said he had been looking for a translation project and remembered reading the collection of short poems about man and nature in Stray Birds when he was young.

But not long after his translation was published last summer, critiques began to appear online and in the Chinese news media, including People's Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece. Readers and scholars excoriated Feng for blaspheming the beloved poet.

Cultural critic Raymond Zhou, writing in the state-owned China Daily, called Feng's translation "a vulgar selfie of hormone-saturated innuendo". Even the Indian news media chimed in, with one commentator writing that Feng had made a "mockery of Tagore".

The anger mostly focused on three of the 326 poems, all of which Feng, like most earlier translators, based on English versions. In one, which was translated into English by Tagore himself, the poet wrote: "The world puts off its mask of vastness to its lover. It becomes small as one song, as one kiss of the eternal."

By contrast, Feng's translation in Chinese reads: "The world unzipped his pants in front of his lover. Long as a French kiss, slim as a line of a poem."

Feng continues to stand by his translation.

"My only intention was to capture the aesthetics of Tagore's poems," he said. "When I translate, I'm a writer. I don't need to know the context. I just want to do things as freely and as creatively as possible."

Even with the uproar, many were perhaps even more surprised by the announcement last December from the Zhejiang Wenyi Publishing House that it would halt sales of the book and review the translation.

It is unclear whether the book will be returned to shelves. Reached by telephone, the company declined to comment.

"I think the fact that there was this controversy in the first place shows the special place that Tagore holds in the hearts of Chinese readers," said Dong Youchen, chief editor and translator of The Complete Works Of Tagore.

"He wrote with an Eastern sensibility that Chinese people, even today, can connect with."

Then again, some say conveying the essence of Tagore's works through translation may simply be a near-impossible task.

"Poetry is, of course, notoriously difficult to translate," Amartya Sen wrote in The New York Review Of Books in 1997. "And anyone who knows Tagore's poems in their original Bengali cannot feel satisfied with any of the translations."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2016, with the headline 'Chinese novelist stands by racy translation of Tagore's works'. Print Edition | Subscribe