Opinion / Raymond Zhou

Lust in translation

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily) Updated: 2015-12-21 07:53

There's a fine line between imprinting creative works with unique personality and screaming for attention. Feng Tang just crossed it, when he translated Tagore's tranquil verse into a vulgar selfie of hormone saturated innuendo.

Classical literature deserves more than one translation.

Rarely does one language have the exact equivalent for every word, phrase or concept in another language.

So even the best translators have to choose what is most important or relevant in the original and attempt to find the expressions in the target language deemed to overlap the most with the original. The choices can be subjective.

Rabindranath 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.

But a recent take made headlines, not only because the translator is himself a man of letters but also because of the personal spin the translator inserted in the text.

Stray Birds is a collection of Tagore's lyrical poems known for their simplicity and sublime beauty.

The poet published them while he was well into middle age, but they aren't age-specific. If one has to check to determine the age of the person who wrote a body of verse, I'd say they're reading a mature poet with no need to follow conventions. The language flows like a mountain stream, with no hint of artificial tinkering or mannerisms.

Never in a thousand years would I guess there was a horny teenager behind these lines. Thanks to the new Chinese translation, I was jolted out of my complacency.

The translator, Feng Tang - the pen name of Zhang Haipeng - is considered a crossover wunderkind. He was a medical professional by training but veered toward management consulting after getting a Master of Business Administration at Emory University. Deep in his heart, he probably always wanted to be a master of literature.

Above all, he comes across as a testosterone-driven lad obsessed with one thing and one thing only. That's not a problem when he writes his own novels and poems.

But this time, he's translating someone else's words as if they were his own. Take this line: "The great Earth makes herself hospitable with the help of the grass." Feng's rendition is: "Because of green grass, the great Earth becomes quite horny."

Does "hospitable" in this context carry an active sexual innuendo?

Dumb as I am, I honestly cannot fathom it.

But in the eyes of someone proud of his "bulge", it must be an implication waiting to be taken aboveground.

As a matter of fact, "bulge" is a buzzword that seeps into all of Feng's writings, including his translations, to the point the mere mention of the word becomes associated with him. It has become his de facto trademark.

Now, the translation of this next line has turned into an instant classic, for ridicule rather than for appreciation. Tagore's original says: "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."

As with all translation, you gain some and you lose some.

The previous Chinese version, published in the 1920s, was brushed aside by Feng as too flat. It sticks very closely to the original except for the title of the collection. Instead of Stray Birds, it translates as Flying Birds instead - a moot point noticed by Feng.

Strangely, he didn't change that.

Rather, he sprinkled lines with sexual imagery.

Feng also adopted some strange tactics, such as highlighting a word or two by putting them in separate lines of their own - words that are part of a flowing sentence in the original text.

Most dubious of all, the choice that convinced me of his mediocrity, is his insistence on rhyming.

He had stated earlier that a poem without rhyme is not really a poem. For me, this is tantamount to saying dance without ballet moves is not really dance.

A professional writer who holds this belief falls into the category of craftsperson.

I hope someone proves me wrong, but I firmly believe that we're way past the rhyme-or-no-rhyme debate and, though it may defy definition, we know a poem when we read it.

Worse still, Feng's rhyming lines are often limericks at best. They do not carry the internal rhythm that goes with ancient verses.

He often includes words wildly disparate in style ostensibly for the purpose of rhyming. The result is a hodgepodge with potential for a comedian's material. If he had called it a spoof of Tagore, it would be judged as competent - perhaps even brilliant.

Yet, what Feng lacks is a sense of self-deprecation, which I consider a sign of maturity for a great writer or a good comedian.

He has this look-at-me attitude that smacks of colossal insecurity. Once he was asked to write a preface for famed sexologist Li Yinhe. Feng turned in a piece all about how great he was, without a single word about Li or her book.

His swipe at Han Han, another crossover whiz kid, was redolent of jealousy.

Han talks more about his auto racing than about his writing, which raised Feng's suspicions.

But Han positions himself as an entertainer more than a serious writer and he is treated and paid as such.

Feng wants to possess both - the weight of a serious writer and the popularity of a mass entertainer.

He should be reminded that writing is a lonely profession. You don't see Mo Yan or Yu Hua flaunting their romances or being portrayed on the big screen as the object of affection by screen goddess Fan Bingbing.

I have empathy for Feng.

I feel there are parallels with the way I straddle several fields in my background and my vocation. I was gnawed by similar angst before.

There's no problem if a writer or artist has unrealistically high self-worth. The important thing is to produce a constant stream of good work.

Even if your contemporaries misunderstand you, your body of work will eventually speak for itself.

You, dear reader, may be puzzled why I suddenly brought myself into this column.

Well, I'm channeling my inner Feng Tang.

Contact the writer at

Lust in translation

(China Daily 12/21/2015 page20)

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