Publisher pulls disputed Chinese translation of Indian poet

BEIJING: A Chinese publisher has recalled the latest Chinese-language translation of a work by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, after it drew sharp criticism in India that it is too vulgar and strays too far from the original text.

Zhejiang Literature and Arts Publishing House announced this week that it would pull from shelves all copies of Tagore's "Stray Birds," translated by contemporary Chinese writer Feng Tang, citing controversy and saying it would review the translation.

In the passage that has drawn the strongest objections, Feng Tang translated the line "The world takes off its mask of vastness for its lover" as "The world unzipped his pants in front of his lover." Feng Tang also used the Chinese word for "coquettish" to translate the word "hospitable" in a line where Tagore describes the grass-growing earth.

Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, is revered as a literary giant in India and the Chinese translation has angered many in the Indian intellectual circle. It also has drawn strong criticism in China, where Tagore also is widely admired.

"This incident raises questions about the role of the translator in relation to the author and what his motives were," said Radha Chakravarty, a Tagore scholar who teaches in the Ambedkar University in New Delhi. "Was it about marketability? Was it to push its sales? Or was it an attempt at satire, at lampooning Tagore?"

"It also raises questions about authorship authority and where does liberty end and where does license begin when we talk of creative freedom and creative expression," the scholar said.

An editorial in China's state-run People's Daily newspaper said Feng Tang failed to meet the basic requirement of translation to be true to the original text and called for rules by government agencies and publishing houses to better define translation.

"Feng Tang has the freedom to show his personal style, and there are people who may like this style, but arbitrary translation without any shackles cannot be called translation," the editorial said.

Feng Tang, whose real name is Zhang Haipeng, is a well-known Chinese novelist and essayist, although he considers himself a poet foremost. Trained in medicine, the 44-year-old has had a successful career in business — first as a McKinsey consultant and later an executive at a state-owned company until he resigned about a year ago.

He said he was approached by the publishing house to translate Tagore's works and that he believed he could do a better job than Zheng Zhenduo, whose translation from the early 1900s is considered the best in China. He said his version better reflects current Chinese after the language underwent a transformation in the early 1900s to move away from its formal classical style to a version closer to the spoken language.

"I firmly believe I have the ability to better use the Chinese language now," Feng Tang wrote.

Feng Tang has stood firmly by his own work. He has shared some of his translated poems in social media, which appear to be faithful and poetic translations of Tagore's words, a fact that his critics have acknowledged but still argue Feng Tang has overstepped as a translator by sexing up Tagore's soft-toned poems.

"History and literature will make their judgments," Feng Tang told the state-owned digital media The Paper. "Let time speak. Let the work itself speak."