Racy translation of Tagore’s ‘Stray Birds’ sparks controversy

By Lu Qianwen Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-22 18:38:01

Feng Tang's Chinese translation of Rabindranath Tagore's Stray Birds

Held up as a holy book of poetry, Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore's Stray Birds has long been equated with elegance and wisdom by its Chinese fans. However, a new translation of this first Asian Nobel Laureate's masterpiece by young domestic author Feng Tang has shocked a number of Chinese readers. Published back in early July, the controversy around this new translation reached fever pitch this month.

"It is a terrorist attack against the translation world." "Feng Tang's version? I'd say it's an adult version." "His translation is full of hormones."  Increasingly sharp criticism such as this have been making media headlines since the middle of this month. First introduced to China by veteran translator Zheng Zhenduo (1898-1958) in 1922, Stray Birds has been translated a number of times over the years. Yet to this day Zheng's version is still commonly regarded as the best and most authoritative version when it comes to faithfulness to the original work or the ability to transmit Tagore's sentiment.

Sexualized classic

After reading Feng's translation, I'd say it's not surprising in the least that his work has been so controversial. Anyone familiar with Feng's works may get the feeling that this is not so much Tagore' Stray Birds, but rather Feng's. The choice of words and language style is clearly consistent with that of Feng's novels.

The controversy makes sense since Feng's novels themselves are also controversial. While his fans feel his work represents true literature and admire him for his independent observations about the world, others call his books xiao huang shu (light pornographic books). This racy tone has earned Feng a large amount of fans, especially female fans. The film adaptation of his Ever Since We Love was a huge hit when it premiered back in April. 

While Feng's bold and blunt language is a good fit for his novels, it's a disaster when used to translate such an influential and classic work of poetry. Feng's translation lacks the seriousness and classic delivery that exists in both the original work and Zheng's translation. Instead readers find Feng's unbridled imagination and an expanded interpretation of the original work.

For example, one of Tagore's original lines reads: "The great earth makes herself hospitable with the help of the grass." In Zheng's translation the word "hospitable" is translated to haoke, a word describing a host's friendly behavior towards guest, but in Feng's translation, he uses the more sexually charged word sao which is closer to the English word "coquettish."

There are quite a few examples of this sexualization of the original work. One commonly used example is Feng's translation of the line: "The world puts off its mask of vastness to its lover." Feng translates "puts off its mask of vastness" in Chinese using a phrase that literally means "takes off her pants" in English.

More absurdly is the appearance of popular Internet slang such as da which is now frequently used among Chinese netizens to emphasize a speaker's pouty tone.

Feng Tang Photo: CFP

Golden rules of translation

Reportedly getting paid more than the highest earning translators in the country for this work, Feng was very confident in his ability to translate this great work. Encouraged by one of his editors, Feng decided to translate Stray Birds because he could more accurately capture the essence of the original work than Zheng's translation, which was written during a time of great transformation in the country: the Republic of China (1912-49) period.

However, despite the confidence he displayed on his Sina Weibo a year ago, the results are far from satisfying. On domestic website book.douban.com, a highly influential community dedicated to the discussion of books, the rating for Feng's translation of Stray Birds has dropped from a 5.2/10 in late November to its current 4.1/10, with 54 percent of users giving it a 1/10. Zheng's translation, meanwhile, holds a 9.1/10 on the site.

After Western scholars began bringing overseas classic into China during the latter part of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the translation of foreign works became a major undertaking. During that time various standards for translation arose among translators. Of these, the three principles of "faithfulness," "expressiveness" and "elegance" proposed by esteemed translator and educator Yan Fu (1854-1921) have been seen as the golden rules for translation in China.

And the order of those three principles can not be easily shifted, since "faithfulness" of the original works is believed as the most important. Ma Ainong, the Chinese translator of the Harry Porter series, also once expressed to media her deep belief of the "faithfulness" as the first place in translation.

"Faithfulness" is not limited to the words used in the original work, but bring faithful to the overall meaning and writing style of the original.

Obviously, if we hold Feng's translation to these principles it doesn't qualify. Not only does Feng's version not stay faithful to the original, he seems to go out of his way to take liberties with it adding a large amount of his own personal feelings and flights of fancy to the work.

Speaking about the controversy that has arisen, Feng remarked that he doesn't believe the order of importance of Yan's three principles should be immutable.

"Every translator has his own understanding of the original and its author. My translation represents my understanding of Tagor's style," he told thepaper.cn in an interview.

However, with so many readers who are familiar with Tagor's raising a ruckus, one wonders how Feng's understanding could be so far from those that have gone before him.

Perhaps, after having his Ever Since We Love adapted into film, Feng has forgotten the difference between a translation and an adaptation.
Newspaper headline: No room for creative license

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