Chinese translation of Tagore pulled for sexual embellishment

Chinese novelist Feng Tang's racy translation of Stray Birds by Rabindranath Tagore (left) has raised eyebrows.
Chinese novelist Feng Tang's racy translation of Stray Birds by Rabindranath Tagore (above) has raised eyebrows.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIJING • The Chinese translator of Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's poetry collection Stray Birds defended himself on Tuesday 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 Prize in Literature 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 1990s, was released in July.

But it raised eyebrows only when it was brought to light on social media this month.

In Feng's version, the line "The world puts off its mask of vastness to its lover" becomes "The vast world opens the crotch of its trousers before its lover".

Translating "hospitable" in the line "The great earth makes herself hospitable with the help of the grass", he uses the Chinese character sao, which is closer to the English word "flirtatious".

Online commentators have scornfully compared Feng's translation with the English and previous Chinese versions.

One user said on Weibo: "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!!!"

Stray Birds was translated into English by Tagore himself and first introduced to China in the 1920s by writer Zheng Zhenduo.

On, a popular website with a focus on discussions of art, Feng's translation received an average rating of 4.1 points, compared to Zheng's version, which got 9.1 points.

The China Daily cited so-called 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 in 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 poetry and our poetic tradition, there were also women being asked to take off their skirts."

The online maelstrom 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 added.

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

Chinese sociologist and sexologist Li Yinhe also voiced support for Feng's poems.

On her Sina blog, she wrote that Feng's version of Stray Birds is the best Chinese translation ever.

"If we compare Feng's version with Zheng's, it requires no effort to see that Feng's version is poetry, but Zheng's is merely interpretation of poetry," she said.

"Feng exceeds Zheng in terms of poetic quality as he has brought out the beauty of poetry, only in his way. If there is a flaw in Feng's works, then, it is being too Feng."

After online accusations that the book is inappropriate for young readers, Feng's publisher announced on Monday that it would pull his book from bookshops and scrub it off 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," Zhejiang Wenyi Publishing House said in a statement on its official microblog.

"It was a very natural decision for us," said its director, Mr Zheng Zhong.

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

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


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 31, 2015, with the headline 'Chinese translation of Tagore pulled for sexual embellishment'. Print Edition | Subscribe