Feng Tang, one of China’s most provocative authors, has been pulled out of a delegation of writers slated to participate in a New Delhi book fair next week because of the backlash over his translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems that was deemed vulgar and racy.
The translation of “Stray Birds”, a collection of poems by the Nobel laureate, was published early last year but the controversy erupted last month. One author described it as a “cultural terrorist attack” and the translation was pulled off the shelves by the publisher on December 28.
“It would be unsafe for me in New Delhi, is what my publisher told me in as many words,” Feng told Hindustan Times in Beijing on Wednesday.
He was among nine Chinese authors set to take part in the book fair, and was to speak on Tagore’s contribution to Chinese literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University on January 9.
“Clearly, the publisher didn’t want any trouble,” Feng said.
It was at Berkley in 2014 that Feng took 100 days, and about a bottle of red wine daily, to translate “Stray Birds” from English to Chinese.
Translating Tagore was the 44-year-old’s idea of “slowing down” – to catch his breath after 80-hour weeks of strategising investments for a Hong Kong-based company. Feng is also a gynaecologist, trained at the prestigious Peking University Medical College.
Feng is not unfamiliar to controversy but was not prepared for the sharp criticism that came his way for the translation.
“They picked on three lines from the collection of 326 poems. Three lines!”
One translated line came under particular focus: Feng translated Tagore’s original line “The world puts off its mask of vastness to its lover” into Chinese as “The world unzipped his pants in front of his lover”.
The author of six novels, collections of essays and short stories and a book of poems defended his work with disarming sincerity.
“Translation is always a distortion. Language is a misleading thing, made by humans. I tried to get the essence of what Tagore wanted to say and then I can only use my own language system. In it, unzipping my pants is normal. I am sorry, I am a doctor. In front of your lover, you show her every single secret; that is the essence, give her the whole of yourself,” Feng said.
But such explanations have not worked even with the Chinese, especially fans of “Stray Birds” who have for long deemed it a work of elegance and wisdom. The book is also part of the high school curriculum.
The controversy was followed closely on Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like social media platform, and the story was viewed more than four million times.
The debate might have left Feng a little dazed but certainly not confused.
“I did not break any rules of translation. But I must make it clear that I did not have any malicious purpose when I translated Tagore. I only had respect for him. I respect him fully. It was my effort to try and bring the two cultures a little bit together.”