Rabindranath Tagore: The ‘Bawdy’ Bard Of Bengal?

Photo of Rosie Tobutt
19 February 2016

Rabindranath Tagore is one of India’s most famous poets, revitalizing Bengali literature and art in the late 19th century, and becoming one of the first non-Europeans to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. However, a recent Chinese translation of his poetry collection, Stray Birds, was pulled from bookshelves by its Chinese publishers for being too ‘racy.’

Rabindranath Tagore, oil on canvas, Walther Illner | WikiCommons

Tagore’s poetry is normally described as ‘sensitive’ and ‘magical,’ often grappling with the relationships between people, spirituality, and nature. His works in prose — such as The Home and the World (1916) — delved into the issue of Indian independence (Tagore was very much anti-imperialist and was even close to Gandhi). His support of Indian sovereignty, alongside his statewide popularity, is probably why the Indian national anthem was taken from his work ‘Jana Mana Gana.’ Years later, the newly created Bangladesh also adopted one of his works — ‘Amar Sonar Bangla‘ — as its national anthem.

There’s no disputing his popularity in his homeland, but Tagore also has an international following. Surprisingly, the biggest is in China. His popularity likely comes from the fact Tagore visited China three times in his lifetime and that the young Chinese intellectuals he befriended published translations of his work in communist publications. His legacy means that his poetry has been a mainstay in China’s school curriculum.

As this year is the 155th Anniversary of Tagore’s birth, Chinese publisher The People’s Publishing House is releasing The Complete Works of Tagore. It is a unique collection, because it’s the first translation of his poems from the original Bengali (most of the time, translations of Tagore’s works come from the English translation). When acclaimed Chinese writer Feng Tang released his translation of one of China’s favorite Tagore poetry anthologies, Stray Birds, his raunchy translations shocked and appalled the Chinese public. The most infamous was the following:

Tagore’s original (English version)

The world puts off its mask of

vastness to its lover.

It becomes small as one song,

as one kiss of the eternal

Feng Tang’s translation

The vast world unzips its trousers in front of its lover

Long as a tongue kiss

Slim as a verse

Another line went:

Tagore’s original (English version)

The great earth makes herself hospitable with the help of grass.

Feng Tang’s translation

The great earth makes herself horny with the help of grass

The book was quickly pulled from shelves, the publisher reasoning that it could ‘mislead teenage readers.’ Some in China have called the translation blasphemous, and the state-run paper, China Daily, accused Feng Tang of purposely distorting Tagore’s words; critic Raymond Zhou said Tang had translated ‘tranquil verse into a vulgar selfie of hormone saturated innuendo.’ Some Indian newslets have also condemned the translation as a ‘mockery of Tagore.’ Feng Tang’s abandonment of the three translation principles in China — faithfulness, expressiveness, and elegance — is likely another reason for the sharp uproar.

Tang is no stranger to controversy; his novels have been accused of using ‘salacious’ language. He has defended himself and his translations. He criticized the reaction: ‘They picked on three lines from the collection of 326 poems. Three lines!’ He also stated that his ‘only intention was to capture the aesthetics of Tagore’s poems.’

Many commenters have conceded the difficulty of translating poetry, and in China, a backlash occurred over the book’s recall. Online, some expressed their worries over the censorship of the book, defending Tang’s right to freedom of expression. Nevertheless, Tagore remains Asia’s most celebrated writer, and as Tang himself said, ‘Time will speak for the book.’

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