‘Racy’ translation of Tagore book pulled by Chinese publisher

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Dec 28, 2015 21:37 IST
A racy translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s “Stray Brides” has caused controversy in China. (HT Photo)

A racy Chinese translation of “Stray Birds”, a collection of poems by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, was withdrawn on Monday after it spawned a controversy and was described by one author as a “cultural terrorist attack”.

“Stray Birds” has been part of the Chinese high school curriculum for some time now but the new translation by famous writer Feng Tang shocked readers because of numerous misinterpretations and use of vulgar and erotic language.

In one sharply criticised case, Feng translated Tagore’s original line “The world puts off its mask of vastness to its lover” into Chinese that read “The world unzipped his pants in front of his lover”, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

The huge controversy sparked by Feng’s translation led to the publisher, Zhejiang Wenyi Publishing House, announcing on Monday that it would pull the book off shelves and websites and recall sold copies.

Users on the microblog Sina Weibo described the translation as “blasphemy against a classic” and children’s author Zhang Hong, in a widely circulated article, deemed the work a “cultural terrorist attack against young readers”.

“Tagore is Asia’s foremost literary titan, revered throughout the world and very much beloved in China. There are many Chinese versions of his poetry, so it is not surprising one more would appear,” columnist Raymond Zhou wrote in the state-run China Daily.

“But, there’s a fine line between imprinting creative works with unique personality and screaming for attention. Feng just crossed it when he translated Tagore’s tranquil verse into a vulgar selfie of hormone saturated innuendo,” he wrote in the column titled “Lust in translation”.

Feng, 44, is best known for a series of provocative novels about life in Beijing in the 1990s. He responded to the withdrawal of the book by telling Chinese media that history would judge him and that he would let time decide.

He acknowledged he had intentionally added his personal style into the translation instead of mechanically representing the original work.

Chinese fans of “Stray Birds” have for long deemed it a work of elegance and wisdom and the book has always been recommended to students. The public was divided regarding the decision to remove the translation from the market.

Sina Weibo user “Chengshuliang” wrote: “Well done! I don’t understand how this translation got published in the first place. Such a wilful translation is a huge disrespect to Tagore.”

But another user, “Miaoyemiao”, believed there was no need to pull the book. “Like it or not, buy it or not, readers can make their own choice,” the user wrote.

Some blamed the publishing house for failing to carefully edit the translation and said it had now recalled the book under public pressure. The withdrawal also prompted some to rush to bookstores to buy a copy before the disappeared.

Tagore, who visited China three times, has a fanatical following in the country and several of his followers have devoted their lives to learning Bengali to translate his works.

(With inputs from agencies)

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