◎罗皓菱 Author: Luo Haoling, staff reporter of Beijing Youth Daily
Towards the end of 2015, Feng Tang aroused huge controversies in literary circles with his version of Stray Birds, an album of Tagore. The story ended with the publishing house’s decision to remove all the books off shelves.
“After the birds fly and vanish in the height, the clouds can enjoy their solitude in the sky.” After the absurd incident, Feng Tang responded to what happened with a line of poetry via his Sino Weibo. However, the story didn’t simply end there.
Feng Tang is finally “free”, as he failed to make it to the New Delhi World Book Fair in India, which he was scheduled to attend with his Stray Birds. Although he remained silent for a while, he finally decided to straighten things out with his characteristic stubbornness. Therefore, we had another interview with Feng Tang in his study, on a quiet winter morning. During our conversation, he would occasionally find the collections of poems written by poets we just mentioned: The Book of Songs, Complete Tang Poems, and the poems of Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, Zhang Zao, etc. He would also read a few lines out. A shoot of sunshine was cast upon one page of Stray Birds, which was unfolded on Feng Tang’s desk, and I can read the words highlighted by the light spot:
You smiled and talked to me of nothing and I felt that for this I had been waiting long
有印度网友要“绞死冯唐” Indian netizens want to “strangle Feng Tang”
“I would never imagine that I started my road towards internationalization in this way.”
Q: You were supposed to be in India, attending the World Book Fair at this moment. But now the plan was cancelled because of what happened in last few weeks. I hear that the controversies stirred by your translation of Stray Birds are spreading to India, and some Indian netizens even threaten to “strangle you”?
Feng Tang: Yes, it’s true. We can see this kind of “keyboard man” everywhere in China. But I would never imagine that I started my road towards internationalization in this way. (Laughing) For a Chinese author, the road towards internationalization must be hard. I’ve figured out how it started, but have no idea how it ended.
Q: Although you didn’t make the trip to India, it seems that the whole incidents continue to brew among Indian readers.
Feng Tang: Indeed. I was recently interviewed by the foreign correspondents of several mainstream Indian media in Beijing, and most of them understood my situation. One of them used to read Beijing, Beijing, one of my early novels. He said: “Your early works are far more vulgar and salacious than your translation of Stray Birds.” I made a few key points to him: first, I have enormous respect for Mr. Tagore; second, the whole process of my translation is serious and prudent, and I didn’t translate Stray Birds for sake of fame, money or blasphemy. The prior signal they sent to Indian readers was that a Chinese author was “blaspheming” Tagore, their ambassador of culture.
Q: How do you plan to explain the whole incident to Indian people in the future?
Feng Tang: Good question. For one thing, I don’t believe I can explain “what beauty is” to them. It’s quite like a clash of opinions, and each side believes that it has the better version. The sense of beauty is achieved with acceptance, and I cannot push them if they cannot accept my ideas. Things are even worse in China, as you can never educate the media with you own aesthetics, and you can never win a debate with the media. The only lesson I can teach is “tolerance” – tolerance of originality. There are too many conspiracy theories in their reports, and I suggest that they have a full grasp of the original contexts before they even dare to speak.
Q: How do you feel now, since things have gone quite out of your expectations?
Feng Tang: I can treat everything like a novelist – I see the whole incidence as a cultural phenomenon, as people are playing different roles within. Some are watching the fun as on-lookers. On the other hand, it’s my business after all, and I decide to embrace it as a practice. At first, I was overwhelmed by the positive opinions, and later I managed to find a balance between the praises and the criticisms.
Q: Aren’t you unhappy at all?
Feng Tang: Not actually. I do realize now that the world is too different from what I assumed in the past, by which I mean the tolerance and aesthetics. Things went quite out of my expectations, and I’m kind of disappointed – but not angry. I met with similar incidents before, and I believed the best solution was to pour oil on troubled waters. But later my sentiments were aroused in a prior interview when I remarked upon Han Han. Now I believe that you can never take the real for the fake, and vice versa.
There’re two principle issues in the incident of Stray Birds, to which I shall never give in. First is the freedom of translation. I did mention that there is a “gold line” to judge whether a literary work is good or not, but I didn’t say that my version is the only valid standard. So long as your work reaches the “gold line”, you can have your own style of course. The prose of Wang Zengqi is indeed graceful, but you can be equally graceful by sticking to your own style.
It’s also the same case with translation. The well-known standard of “faithfulness”, “expressiveness” and “elegance” was contrived by Yan Fu, but he failed to obey the standard himself. I don’t believe there is a single “gold rule” in any form of art; if there is, you cannot call Marcel Duchamp an artist since he added mustaches on Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It never ends quite well with strict restrictions of diversity. In our times, the common sense and tolerance for differences are too far away from what you call “a civilized society”. You’re free to dislike something, but you don’t have the right to silence others.
Likewise, everyone is entitled to the freedom of translation. Call me “messing things up”? No, it’s a matter of base line. I understand English perfectly well, and I published several books in Chinese. I’m not saying that I’m a genius of Chinese language, or I have a good command of English – maybe better than most of you, frankly. I have my own consideration since I accepted the mission of translation.
What you call “principles” – pardon me – call not my “principles”. I’m not obligated to recognize your principles, and why do I have to follow the single standard supported by others? It’s a matter of legal right, no matter my translation makes you happy or not. Do you have the right to push me to do something? I think it’s a major issue of principle.
I’m recently reading the poems of Takuboku Ishikawa, a talented Japanese poet who died very young, and the Chinese version is translated by Zhou Zuoren. Zhou managed to translate every of Ishikawa’s poems into three lines: “On the coast of a small island in East Sea/My face was covered with tears/When I was playing with crabs on the white beach.” “Cannot forget my sweats streaming down along the cheeks/I didn’t wipe my tears off/When someone showed me a handful of sand.” “All alone, in the face of the sea/I prepared to cry for seven, eight days/And I walked out of home.” Zhou transformed Japanese haikus (usually with two lines) into three lines, and I think it’s an extraordinary achievement, simply judging by the form. But if people deprive the artists of whatever freedom, how can we create something for the world?
Second, it’s a matter of basic aesthetics. If you read my translations carefully, in juxtaposition with the Chinese version of Zheng Zhenduo and the original English text of Tagore, and you reach the conclusion that Feng Tang’s version if without any single merit – I would reach the conclusion that you have no sense of aesthetics at all. At least I cannot fully understand your sense of aesthetics. If you think what you buy in IKEA is far better than my Ming-style furniture of hardwood – well, good luck with you. After this incident, I find many of ordinary Chinese have no common sense in aesthetic education, and the rate of “art illiteracy” is higher than I imagine.
Some of us have blind worship to so-called “authorities”, and many problems we meet in China can be explained with this mindset: you are a deity, or you are a loser – there is no intermediate state. In Zheng Zhenduo’s era, modern Chinese language was going through a vital process of transformation. You cannot simply call their language “good” because the author is Zheng Zhenduo, Guo Moruo or any other celebrities. That sounds like total bullshit to me, and goes against the principle of “seeking truth from facts”. Do you think there are any excellent poems in The Goddess, an album by Guo Moruo? Don’t ever try to insult the aesthetics of others, so long as you understand nothing at all.
Based on the two principles I mentioned above, I believe I’m totally qualified to translate. And I think I’m doing a pretty good job with it. You have your voice, and I have mine, too.
I’ve never thought that my translation of Stray Bird is targeted towards children. I’ve neither thought of blaspheming Tagore, either. I’m not trying to fool anyone. And if I’m given the chance to redo the translation, I will finish it in the same way – without any slightest alterations. I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do, do it yourself, please.
一场有预谋的“炒作”？A “hype” with subtle premeditation?
我讨厌任何形式的阴谋论 detest conspiracy theories in any form
Q: Many explain the incident with “conspiracy theories”, and you call them “having no common sense”. Ever since it happened, many critics have concluded this incident as a “hype”.
Feng Tang: How comes that the publishing house removes all my books off shelves if it is merely a “hype”? It doesn’t seem like a joke to me, and the publishing house has to provide a solid reason for the reprint of the book. Well, no one has discussed that issue with me. If I refuse to make necessary alterations with the previous version, you’ll never see the reprint, perhaps. In that case, the publishing house shall receive no good at all. The book was actually published in July of 2015, why did the “hype” start in December? It’ll do little difference to me whether the book sells well or not, as the publishing house pays me translation fee, rather than copyright royalty. To be frank, I’m famous enough.
The first article attacking me – the first I’ve read – is named “What Wang Xiaobo understood when he was fifteen, Feng Tang has not yet figured it out when he was forty-four”. In that article, Wang Xiaobo heard how Mr. Zha Liangzheng translated the poem of Alexander Pushkin: “I love you, the city built by Peter/I love your solemn, well-ordered outlook/The stream of Neva River is so grandeur/Marbles are paved on both sides of the river…” The author thinks it is written in excellent Chinese. And I’m now forty-four years old, and cannot understand why Zheng Zhenduo’s translation is good. I smiled at the ridiculous article, as I don’t know how old the author is, or what kind of Chinese he is taught at school. For me, I never tried to learn Chinese from translated works. When I was a child, I read The Song of Poems, Records of the Grand Historian, History as a Mirror, notes of a few ancient dynasties, the poems of Tang Dynasty, the lyrics of Song Dynasty, the verses of Yuan Dynasty, and the proses and novels of Ming and Qing Dynasty.
Three days later, my friend read another funny article and reposted it, with the name of “After Feng Tang translated Stray Birds, Tagore was immediately transformed into Guo Jinming”. I didn’t take it too seriously. The title is eye-catching indeed, but I highly doubt whether the author has read the original text of Tagore and my translation thoroughly – perhaps he/she is not familiar with Guo Jinming, either. If you read carefully, you may find that Zheng Zhenduo’s version is more similar to the language style of Guo Jinming! After a couple of days, the media started to investigate the whole incident like a criminal case. And soon, I found that I made the headlines of almost every newspaper, magazine or website. Even Mo Yan was not so “welcomed” than me when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Is it against the ethics of translation to override Tagore with your own language style?
You cannot evade the problem if the translator also happens to be an author
Q: Let’s discuss translation for translation’s sake. The overwhelming opinion of the critics is – everyone is entitled to the freedom of literary creation, but a translator is not supposed to alter the meanings of the original text, and it is wrong to override the original author with the language style of the translator’s own.
Feng Tang: Well, it sounds like another bullshit to me. What is creation after all? By creation I mean you have to transform what you think into what you write, aided by your own views of world, value and life, and your own system of logic and language – how is it different from translation? In translation you are transforming something written in another language and another cultural context, rather than what is already there in your heart. But you have to understand the original text perfectly well by heart, including the language style, the era and the cultural context. There is no “perfect match” in translation, unless you are referring to a translating machine. As a translator, you’re trying to achieve consistency of the souls of the original and translated texts – bring them as close as possible.
Q: Some critics argue that excellent translation should be “transparent”, by which they mean you’ll do the best to reflect the original meaning and style of the author. Joseph Brodsky said that a translator of poems not only shows his/her personality, but also the courage to sacrifice, and he saw that as “the qualities of a mature personality”, and “the primary demand for literary creation and translation in any form”.
Feng Tang: What was Tagore trying to say when he wrote the English version of Stray Birds? And do you know how much was lost in mistranslations of prior generations? Tagore completed Stray Birds in his fifties, and he was not writing for the children at all. The previous translators reduced Stray Birds to a children’s book, and they are calling my version as “blasphemy”? If a translator happens to be an author, he/she cannot escape the language style of his/her own. Good authors write in their own language styles, and by doing that they make their contributions to the evolvement of a language. And translators can make new words sometimes. What you call “traditional translators” are no more that Google Translators of their own era. I’ve read the translations of Fu Lei, and everyone believes that Roman Roland was writing with the same style as Fu Lei. But who of us knows what Roman Roland’s style was like? It’s safe to say that it’s quite different from what Fu Lei’s translations present to us.
Does it sound obscene when “the world reveals its penis in front of its lovers”?
“Penis” is sharper, and more real than “mask”
Q: Well, do you care to explain again why you use the words like “the world reveals its penis”, “‘the great earth becomes flirtatious” or “I am to give you fresh birth da” in your translation?
Feng Tang: I confess that I am exaggerating, but quite moderately.
有读者解读得挺符合我本意的：泰戈尔的诗写作完成，就是跟自己的表述告别。冯唐翻译，就是可以按照他的认知二度创作，有他自己在诗中的权衡配比。“大千世界在情人面前解开裤裆，绵长如舌吻，纤细如诗行。”这段翻译的原文是“The world puts off its mask of vastness to its lover. It becomes small as one song, as one kiss of the eternal.”郑振铎翻译的版本是“世界对着它的爱人，把它浩瀚的面具揭下了。它变小了，小如一首歌，小如一回永恒的接吻。”马尔克斯曾说过，凡赤身裸体做的事，都是爱。所以世界对它的爱人揭下面具的方式，冯唐换作了解开裤裆，同样的比喻，冯唐用了舌吻，加深了程度，多了一个借代诗行，拓宽了广度。
A few readers seem to understand me quite well with their own interpretations: when Tagore completed Stray Birds, he was actually bidding farewell to himself. Feng Tang’s translation can be seen as a re-creation based on his own understandings, and he balanced Tagore’s and his own styles quite well with appropriate percentages. The original text of the “penis part” is “The world puts off its mask of vastness to its lover. It becomes small as one song, as one kiss of the eternal.” And when Zheng Zhenduo translated “mask of vastness” faithfully with the original text, the poetic imagery becomes smaller – like a song, or a kiss of the eternal. Garcia Marquez said that whatever people are doing naked can be called “love”. Therefore, Feng Tang changed “the world puts off its mask of vastness to its lover” into “the world reveals its penis in front of its lovers”. With the same comparison, Feng Tang deepened the emotion with a “French kiss”, and expanded the scope of the poem with even more vivid analogues.
And I don’t think it is a direct action for the world to “put off its mask of vastness to its lover”. It is highly likely that Tagore was referring to a specific person when he mentioned “the world” in front of its lovers. If it happens to be the sensations between a man and a woman, he can make his intention clearer by “revealing its penis” instead of “putting off its mask of vastness” – there’s nothing to be concealed in front of her, and he wishes to show an integral self to his lover, including the secrets to be understood, and all the bright and dark sides in his body. Therefore, Tagore personified the relationship between the world and its lover into that between a man and a woman. On the other hand, if you want to understand the world, the complication of things, or even a lover from the perspective of a person, you cannot see the nature unless it/he reveals its penis. Doesn’t “penis” sound sharper than “mask”? A man doesn’t normally wear a mask every day, but he does have a penis – most of them. There’re some details in my translation that you can call “unconventional”, but I’m not trying to make a scene here – with my own considerations.
Q: But some translators believe that you cannot add in the translation what isn’t there in the original text.
Feng Tang: I think they’re running out of creativity. It depends on the depth of your understanding.
Q: Speaking of the “da” in “I am to give you fresh birth da” – some argue that you’re rhyming for rhyme’s sake. And it sounds like a doggerel to them.
“The night kisses the fading day whispering to his ear, I am death, your mother. I am to give you fresh birth.”郑振铎的译文是：夜与逝去的日子接吻/轻轻地在他耳旁说道：/我是死，是你的母亲/我就要给你以新的生命。
Feng Tang: Let’s read the original text first: “The night kisses the fading day whispering to his ear, I am death, your mother. I am to give you fresh birth.” And Zheng Zhenduo is translating very faithfully to the original text.
Tagore’s poem sounds to me like how a mother is getting her baby asleep. She was murmuring to his baby, and he was a strong woman indeed. That’s why you can hear some colloquial words in my translation: “The night kisses the fading day whispering to his ear/I am death ah/I am your mam/I am to give you fresh birth da.” Yes, some rhymes sound awkward to you, but I’m not trying to rhyme all lines. I do have the sense of decency, and have a good command of what “proper” is. Likewise, you have your own command of what “proper” is. I am trying to emulate the soft, slow voices of the mother, and it doesn’t make sense if she says to his baby “I am to give you fresh birth” in a very hard, cold tone.
诗歌一定要押韵？Poem rhymes, but is it a must?
我认为的好诗基本都是押韵的 I believe a good poem rhymes – most of them
Q: You are almost stubborn about rhyme.
Feng Tang: Yes, but it’s my own opinion. I believe that all poems should rhyme – or at least try to rhyme. If not, what’s the difference between a poem and a prose? To some extent, the poems cannot be handed down to further generations without rhymes, as people can better memorize them by rhymes. Most of the poems that can touch my heart rhyme perfectly. I can show you an example, a very powerful one, in my translation of Stray Birds:
我不知道 I have no idea
这心为什么在寂寞中枯焦 Why the heart is withered in solitude
为了那细小的需要 For those petty needs
从没说要 It never speaks of its desires
从不明了 And no one really understands
总想忘掉 I choose to forget them all
(The Chinese poem rhymes with each line)
Do you expect that children can understand what the poet means? The truth is – most of the poems are not written for the children. We discussed the rhyming issue just now, and I can only say that everyone is entitled to his/her own opinions, and yours may be totally different from mine. At least I’m making my own efforts to rhyme every line of my poem, and I see it as my obligation. Writing poems becomes a relatively difficult task if a poet bears rhyme in heart, and I believe it’s worthy of the time to undertake that Hercules task.
Let’s look another example – a poem by Gu Cheng. “The dark night gives me dark eyes, and with them I seek for the bright.” If we change “bright” into “light” or “sun”, the original effect of Gu Cheng is reduced. And let’s continue with another one:
自信你说 You said with confidence
再不把必然相信 You would never trust “certainty”
再不察看指纹 You would never trust fingerprint
攥起小小的拳头 With your little fist clinched
再不相信 You would never trust nobody
(The Chinese poem rhymes with each line)
A good poem does rhyme, without doubt. But sometimes the definition of rhyme is not so strict, like this one by Zhang Zao:
二月开白花，你逃也逃不脱，你在哪休息 The white flowers open in February, and you can never escape them; wherever you take a rest
哪就被我守望着。你若告诉我I’m watching you from afar. If you tell me
你的双臂怎样垂落，我就会告诉你 How your arms hang in front, I will tell you
你将怎样再一次招手；你若告诉我 How you will wave to me again; if you tell me
你看见什么东西正在消逝 What’s vanishing into thin air in your sight
我就会告诉你，你是哪一个 I will tell you, you are one of them
(The Chinese poem does not rhyme with each line)
Q: You mentioned just now that you’re fond of Zhang Zao’s poems. Have you ever read the poems translated by Zhang Zao? I feel as if the sense of form is destroyed in his translations.
Feng Tang: You’re right. But at least we should provide the readers with an alternative option, and it’s not fair to say he’s wrong with his persistence.
I will not try translation of poems at least in the near future – it is too hard.
Q: In the epilogue of Stray Birds, you mentioned two jobs that you would never consider – lawyer and translator. Because “language is the most deceptive tool invented by human beings, culture is a largest collection of information of a certain people or race, and translation is aimed to build an accurate, smooth and scenic bridge between two vast seas of information, with the most deceptive tool.” After this incident, do you dare to be a translator again?
Feng Tang: It’s too hard, as you have to understand other people really well. For several authors I adore, the rhythm of their language is actually something of their own. I will not try translation of poems at least in the near future – it is too hard.
Q: In Search of the Supernatural, your latest reality show was premiered in last week. Some say, well, Feng Tang is blaspheming In Search of the Supernatural this time!
Feng Tang: Ha, there’s nothing to be blasphemed at all. In Search of the Supernatural (the ancient version) is no more than a mediocre literary sketches, and my show is to instill the name with new, modern soul. I’m trying to record by video the entire process of writing a novel, including interviews with the protagonists, and jokes about myself, something like that. With the show of In Search of the Supernatural, I plan to conclude with a collection of short stories. Each episode accounts for one short story, which features one protagonist only. The themes and forms of the stories might differ. I plan to make it 3 seasons, and each season includes 12 t0 13 episodes – up to 40 short stories all together. After 3 seasons are over, I shall see whether I can develop them into a full-length novel, or adapt them into a movie directly. I’ll be left with no regret if In Search of the Supernatural is completed, even though I have to exhaust all my inspirations of literature.