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How Far Can a Translator Stray?
Feng Tang's vulgar and racy translation of Stray Birds sparked a controversy among China's literary circles
 NO. 2 JANUARY 14, 2016


Chinese author Feng Tang sparked a controversy among China's literary circles for his vulgar and racy translation of Stray Birds , a collection of poems by Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). The controversy developed into a heated debate about today's translation standards.

In one of the most controversial lines, Feng translated "The world puts off its mask of vastness to its lover. It becomes small as one song, as one kiss of the eternal" into Chinese sentences which literally mean "The wide world unzipped its crotch to its lover. Long as a tongue kiss, small as a line of a poem." In another instance, "The great Earth makes herself hospitable with the help of the grass" is rendered into "Because of green grass, the great Earth becomes quite horny."

The work was released in July 2015 but didn't catch the public's attention until recently when some of the translated lines were discussed on social media. Many criticize Feng for straying too far from the original and regard his translation as a desperate attempt to gain attention. In response to the virulent criticisms and controversy, the Zhejiang Literature and Art Publishing House announced its decision to pull Feng's version from shelves on December 28, 2015. Feng responded to the move by saying, "Let the work speak for itself. Let the time and the history of literature make a judgment."

Not everyone agrees with the decision to recall the book with some saying there should be no universal standards for judging translations. Notably, Chinese sociologist and sexologist Li Yinhe expressed support for Feng on her microblog, saying his translation is the best Chinese version of the anthology. She made a detailed comparison between Feng's translation and that of renowned Chinese writer Zheng Zhenduo (1898-1958), who translated the poems into Chinese in the 1920s and whose version was widely regarded as the best. Li concluded that Feng's version excels in beauty. Feng himself also dismissed Zheng's translation as too flat. Li said the only shortcoming of Feng's translation is that he applied too much of his own style to the translated version.

Tagore is one of the most popular foreign writers in China, with many of his works available in Chinese. Stray Birds  is a collection of short poems and aphorisms that embody the writer's love of nature and simplicity. Feng, 45, has published a wide range of literary works including novels, prose and poems.

Away from the original text 

Ye Qingchen ( Translations of Tagore's Stray Birds  by Feng's predecessors, such as Zheng, are well-regarded by many literature lovers in China who appreciate the beautiful verses. Feng would need to have a major breakthrough in his translation to win over more readers.

Feng's translation may have achieved a breakthrough thanks to the controversy surrounding it, but his version is vastly different from Tagore's style. He did not translate Tagore's work, but rather created his own poems. However, translation is different from literary creation. Translation without respect for the original work may look new and sensational, but detracts from the initial text. Tagore fans would rather read his meaning rather than Feng's creative interpretation.

The publishing house's decision to recall Feng's translation in response to the controversy shows respect for the original work.

Han Haoyue (The Beijing News ): Renowned literary works should have numerous translated versions. Although translators, such as Zheng, have already translated Stray Birds , new versions should be made available to cater to the tastes of contemporary readers. However, the bottom line when creating a new translation is that a translator should not deviate from the writer's original meaning or put his or her own thoughts into the new version.

Feng added too much of his personal style to his translation, resulting in an adaptation too distant from the original. He will inevitably be suspected of seeking attention by expressing himself through his translations. If Feng wants to express his emotions, he can create his own work.

A more tolerant attitude 

Yang Xinyu (China Youth Daily ): Since there are 1,000 Hamlets in 1,000 people's eyes, why not have 1,000 versions of Stray Birds  in 1,000 readers' eyes? No more than 10 translations of Stray Birds  were available on the Chinese mainland before the publication of Feng's translation. For such an influential and classic poem collection, China has too few translated versions.

A more open attitude should be adopted toward Feng's translation. Although his may not be the best, some literary critics recognize his recreation of the original and focus on rhyming. It's hard to make a judgment of his translation at present. Its influence and repute will be revealed in the future. However, the publishing house has interrupted the debate surrounding Feng's translation by taking his work off the shelves. Such a solution is unfair to Feng and his supporters.

People have criticized literary works since ancient times with the intent of improving the works' quality rather than suppressing unfavorable texts. A rational critic should contribute to the improvement of poetry translation through his criticism. People are allowed to criticize Feng's literary talent, as well as his translation. However, they should not deprive him of the right to translate or his supporters of the right to read.

Liao Baoping ( I doubt whether those who criticize Feng's translation have ever bought it and read it all the way through. I admit that I haven't bought one either. But from the several pieces of translation I saw online, I can say that Feng's translation is better than Zheng's.

I agree with Li that Feng's translation is poetry, while Zheng's translation is flat. Feng's rendition is vibrant, although it differs vastly from the original in terms of style. Zheng's translation remains loyal to the original but it trails Feng's version when it comes to aesthetics. I have read Zheng's translation. It is too simple and is only suitable for high school students.

Unless Tagore translates his own work, others can only interpret the meaning according to his or her own understanding of the author. It should not be said that Feng is cursing Tagore because his translation does not follow Zheng's style.

The decision to recall Feng's adaptation was not made by the government but rather by the publishing house, which says it will organize a team of experts to evaluate the work and come to a decision at a later date.

I don't know whether this is a tactic employed by the publishing house to attract attention. If this is its intent, I am promoting the work myself by writing this article and am impervious to such a trick. If that is not the publisher's goal, such a practice sets a bad precedent.

Copyedited by Jordyn Dahl

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