Recently a translation work of the famous Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore’s Stray Birds by Feng Tang, a Chinese writer, was pulled by his publisher after causing controversy for its “racy content”.

How “racy”? Well let’s see –

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

Feng Tang:
大千世界/在情人面前/揭开裤裆
长如舌吻/小如诗行

Back-translation:
The big world unzips its crotch in front of its lover
Long as a tongue kiss, small as a verse

You may think, “Umm… What?” One might not understand how the mask of the world can be understood/translated as its crotch; and might think that by narrowing the meaning of the original poem (love doesn’t have to be physical) and making it sexual, the translator seems to be abusing his power as the medium between two languages/cultures/groups of readers.

But then, is the translator’s just prerogative to make such interpretation? Read Feng’s self-justification here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/15/my-vulgar-tagore-translation-has-been-suppressed-but-i-should-have-the-freedom-to-use-language-as-i-wish

But one must see that Feng’s translation is not all that ‘racy’. Here’s an example of the more beautiful ones –

Tagore:
It is the tears of the earth that keeps her smile in bloom.

Feng Tang:
大地的眼泪/让笑脸/常开不败/如花/如她

Back-translation:
The tears of the earth makes the smiling face blossom without withering – like flower, like her.

Again, the translation is not so literal but at least it’s not vulgar.

What’s your opinion on what can or can’t a (poetry) translator do?

Read more: ​http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/01/chinese-publisher-pulls-vulgar-translation-indian-poet-rabindranath-tagore

(First posted on 15 Jan 2016)