China's Literary Police to Feng Tang: Don't Touch Our Tagore!

By Bruce Humes, published

Once again, we are reminded that poetry matters in China. And, equally interesting, that translation of poetry matters.

Feng Tang, author of Beijing, Beijing (北京北京 冯唐著), has apparently crossed the lines of decency with his new translation of verse by China's favorite foreign poet, Rabindranath Tagore. Just in case the world didn't know about this travesty, the Party's English mouthpiece, China Daily, has published an essay, Lust in Translation, about the “testosterone-driven” translator's very personal take on the work of this Bengali poet.

One example cited by Raymond Zhou in his China Daily piece:

"The world puts off its mask of vastness to its lover. It becomes small as one song, as one kiss of the eternal." But Feng's take is: "The wide world unzipped its crotch to its lover. Long as a tongue kiss, small as a line of a poem."

I wonder if something hasn't been lost (or gained!) in translation here . . .

Two questions for Paper Republicans:

1) Didn't Tagore write in Bengali? If so, isn't his English work already a translation? This would make Feng Tang's rendition a translation of a translation, since I assume he worked from the English.

2) Can someone find 1-2 poems by Tagore and put them up online with Feng Tang's Chinese versions so we can compare for ourselves?

You can read Raymond Zhou's piece here in English, and a similarly critical piece (not exactly the same, however) here in Chinese.


# 1.   

I'd been thinking about writing this up, wasn't expecting Global Times to beat me to it!
Here's a comparison of Feng Tang's version with the Chinese translation by 郑振铎:

The world puts off its mask of vastness to its lover.
It becomes small as one song, as one kiss of the eternal.

郑振铎 translation:

冯唐 translation:

Taken from this Weixin post. This is my favourite quote:


(and I believe Tagore translated his poems from Bengali to English himself. Not sure though.)

Dave Haysom, December 25, 2015, 8:04a.m.

# 2.   

Or even China Daily.

Dave Haysom, December 25, 2015, 8:06a.m.

# 3.   

In the original Bengali of quite a few of Tagore's poems, there was a certain sensuality that Tagore himself transformed into a spiritual sensibility when he translated into English. And then these English translations became the centerpiece around which a certain image of Tagore was created in the West. There's a fascinating discussion of this here:

Mahmud, December 28, 2015, 3:17a.m.

# 4.   

Apparently Feng Tang's book has now been recalled from bookstores and banned!

Don't mess with Tagore...

Eric Abrahamsen, December 28, 2015, 5:31a.m.

# 5.   

Li Yinhe 李银河 has called Feng Tang's version "迄今为止最好的中文译本"

Dave Haysom, December 28, 2015, 10:05a.m.

# 6.   

Slightly tangentially: I was reminded of Feng Tang again reading this in the Guardian:

the most idiosyncratic and subtly seismic additions in Indian writing in English in the last half-century have been “translations” by Indian poets: Arun Kolatkar’s versions of the bhakti poet Tukaram in American gangster-slang; AK Ramanujan’s Marianne Moore-like reworkings of ancient Tamil and Kannada poetry; Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s distillations of Prakrit love poetry and his recent rendering of the bhakti poet Kabir in comic-strip Americanese.

Dave Haysom, December 28, 2015, 10:07a.m.

# 7.   

Here are another three of Feng Tang's renditions, along with the original and translations by Zheng Zhenduo for comparison's sake:

O Beauty, find thyself in love,
not in the flattery of thy mirror.





You smiled and talked to me of
nothing and I felt that for this
I had been waiting long.





Sorrow is hushed into peace in my heart
like the evening among the silent trees.





Bruce, December 30, 2015, 5:53a.m.

# 8.   

Have done a bit of reading and can confirm that Feng Tang was working from Tagore's own translation into English.

Furthermore, according to a Weibo text from publisher Zhejiang Literature & Arts Publishing (浙江文艺出版社) in Hangzhou, it has recalled Feng Tang's 《飞鸟集》(Stray Birds) from both brick-and-mortar and online bookstores due to the huge controversy (极大争议) its publication has caused in the literary and translation worlds.

Furthermore, it will organize a group of specialists to assess the translation (认真评估审议), and then decide on any further measures.

This is clearly a case of literary censorship in action. What is not clear is whether the publisher was acting on its own, or was pressured by the powers-that-be to recall the book.

Intriguingly, according to a news report (印汉学家), Feng Tang will be among the Chinese authors attending the World Book Fair in New Delhi in January, and at least one of the Indian interviewees said he wants to discuss this with Feng Tang personally. The controversy has already been reported in the mainstream Indian press.

Bruce Humes, December 30, 2015, 6:19a.m.

# 9.   

Interesting to watch how coverage of the controversy has spread to the international media, and how it's being explained there. Both BBC and US News & World Report have reported on it.

Rather than calling attention to the recall of Stray Birds as an example of how China's state-run literary establishment under Xi Jinping is clamping down on the publishing industry, however, some international news items imply that it is the reaction in India that pushed the China publisher to recall the book. Here is one such headline:

China pulls latest translation of Rabindranath Tagore

A Chinese publisher recalls the latest Chinese-language translation of Tagore after it drew sharp criticism in India that it strays too far from original text

Just how intense that criticism has been, and whether it is based on a reading of the text itself, is not at all clear. The news item (Latest Translation) cites one Indian academic, who is reported to have said:

“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.

The questions she raises are indeed valid. But how did she learn about the content of Feng Tang's translations? She specializes in English literature, and a look at her publications does not suggest she knows Chinese, or does research in the field of Chinese literature.

Ironically, it appears that by running a withering criticism of Feng Tang's translation in the People's Daily, the party's literary morality police are succeeding in "guiding public opinion" (指导公共舆论) on the international literary stage, a prized goal of the party that it doesn't always accomplish back home.

I, for one, do not believe for one moment that the publisher withdrew the book in China because of criticism from India . . .

Bruce Humes, January 1, 2016, 11:50p.m.

# 10.   

May I present two my own translations, adding 2 cents to 冯唐's brilliant departure from previous attempts by more established Chinese 'professional' translators?

Sorrow is hushed into peace in my heart like the evening among the silent trees. 痛在我心里渐渐平和/ 如夜被屏息的深林哄睡。

that i exist is a perpetual surprise which is life 我的存在無外與一个永恒的问号化梵。

Susan , January 7, 2016, 12:14a.m.

# 12.   

For those of you too lazy to click on the link provided by Dave above, here's the juicy bit from the Hindustantimes report:

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.

Bruce Humes, January 7, 2016, 10:52a.m.

# 13.   

Ezra Pound had his own change of heart after Tagore became the 'untouchably' famous poet, according to this published article

Paying respect is the opposite of showering with love and praise, no? But how do we respect Ezra Pound's change of heart, has he gone mad or half crazed in the end ?

Susan , January 7, 2016, 2:48p.m.

# 14.   

I had the impression that Tagore's 'Stray Bird' was part based on his translation from another Bangali classic 《碎玉集》(1899) to English, while he was visiting Japan. Can anybody verify that ? If so, we could appreciate the evolution from 《琗玉集》to 《零散的鸟语》 I never satisfy with translating 'Stray Birds' into 《飞鸟》

Susan , January 7, 2016, 3:01p.m.

# 15.   

Rabindranath discussion recommended by reader Mahmud. Thanks. It was a good read.

Susan , January 7, 2016, 3:09p.m.

# 16.   


Susan , January 7, 2016, 3:19p.m.

# 17.

I wonder how much editorial control/assistance must Chinese publishing house exerts on writers' work before it goes into final preprint ? Peerless writer only exists every 200 years or so? Well, in 冯唐's case, I hope thru this fiasco, he employs a better editor or agent for his future book length project.

Susan , January 7, 2016, 5:44p.m.

# 18.   


Lao Zhang, January 20, 2016, 8:54a.m.

# 19.   


Bangladesh officially became a country in 1971; before that it had been East Pakistan, a part of the country of Pakistan, but of course that was after the partition from India, in 1947. Tagore died in 1941.

The national anthem of India is also based on verse written by Tagore. Some say the anthem of Sri Lanka is, too.


Lucas Klein, January 20, 2016, 10:07a.m.

# 20.   

Sheila Melvin has made an intriguing contribution to the Stray Birds controversy with her column, An Indian Poet at the Centre: A translation of a book of poetry by Rabindranath Tagore has caused a kerfuffle, which is fitting because his trip to China in the 1920s did the same thing.

Highlights (quotes are in italics):

The subtext to all this is the long-running debates on translation theory in China. Should a translation be "faithful," "expressive" and "elegant" or "sincere," "natural" and "creative"? What "right" does the translator have to put himself in the work?

People's Literature Publishing House was set to publish the last volume of the complete works of Tagore, translated directly from Bengali to Chinese for the first time, just one month after the Zhejiang Press's Stray Birds came out.

Tagore's anti-materialism and association with Liang caused many intellectuals to oppose his visit, albeit often without opposing the man himself, including Mao Dun, Guo Moruo and Chen Duxiu.

By April 17, five days after his arrival in the country, radical students were distributing anti-Tagore leaflets at his talks that contained claims he was criticizing them for trying to improve their material circumstances and that his defense of China's spiritual civilization was really a defense of the barbarity of the ruling classes. At some talks, they became disruptive. Tagore decided to give only one more lecture and left China on May 30.

Bruce Humes, February 1, 2016, 2:08a.m.

# 21.   

Tagore came from a large aristocratic family, youngest of 14 siblings. When I read his poem 'the ungrateful sorrow', I sensed his deep attrition by the suicide of his youngest sister-in-law who was possibly in love with him for a long time. At the time of his visit to China and Japan, the Japanese and Chinese Imperial Family's hold on people was in disarray. Tagore's own nationalistic struggle for his people wasn't translated well into Chinese revolutionary fever of the time. The other tidbit about hosting Tagore's visit which I find intriguing is the fact that poet 徐志摩 accompanied Tagore with newly wed 林徽因 which caused a family crisis from her in-laws, as they have tried very hard to stop budding 'free love' between the two.

Susan, February 1, 2016, 1:35p.m.

# 22.   

FRIDAY, 12 FEBRUARY 2016 [ Sarah Howe's Eliot Prize By Jon Stone ] (

susan, March 15, 2016, 7:48p.m.

# 23.   

Yes label by Cliff Asness
No Labels’ goal of arguing less and getting more things done is not simply wrong but dangerous too. Instead, this country needs to vigorously debate how a free society is supposed to function, with the people ultimately deciding the victor.

Susan, March 15, 2016, 7:51p.m.

# 24.   

I am soon coming up with a rich volume of Tagore's Songs rendered in Rhymed English Verse.

I can post some of my translations of Tagore's poems but there is no such sight.

RG only welcomess research-based articles.

Sibaprasad Dutta, April 23, 2016, 8:03a.m.

# 25.   

Prof. Dutta, Thanks for stopping by. - susan

Your RG contribution link

Susan, May 23, 2016, 2:30p.m.


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