Zhejiang Literature and Arts Publishing House announced this week that it would pull from shelves all copies of Tagore’s Stray Birds, translated by the Chinese writer Feng Tang, and would review the translation.

A Chinese publisher has recalled the latest Chinese-language translation of a work by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore after criticism in India that it was too vulgar and strayed too far from the original text.

Tagore’s original poems were written in Bengali and Feng was working from an English translation, according to the Xinhua news agency.

In the passage that has drawn the strongest objections, Feng translated the line “The world takes off its mask of vastness for its lover” as “The world unzipped his pants in front of his lover”. Feng also used the Chinese word for “coquettish” to translate the word “hospitable” in a line where Tagore describes the grass-growing earth.

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Tagore, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1913, is revered as a literary giant in India, and the Chinese translation has angered many Indian intellectuals. It has also drawn strong criticism in China, where Tagore is widely admired.

“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 Delhi’s Ambedkar University. “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 licence begin when we talk of creative freedom and creative expression.”

Writer Feng Tang
Writer Feng Tang believes his translation better reflects contemporary Chinese language. Photograph: AP

An editorial in China’s state-run People’s Daily newspaper said Feng had failed to meet the basic requirement of translation to be true to the original text, and called for rules to be established by government agencies and publishing houses to better define translation.

“Feng Tang has the freedom to show his personal style, and there are people who may like this style, but arbitrary translation without any shackles cannot be called translation,” the editorial said.

Feng, whose real name is Zhang Haipeng, is a well-known Chinese novelist and essayist, although he considers himself a poet foremost. Trained in medicine, the 44-year-old has had a successful career in business, first as a consultant for McKinsey and later as an executive at a state-owned company, until he resigned about a year ago.

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He said he was approached by the publisher to translate Tagore’s works and believed he could do a better job than Zheng Zhenduo, whose translation from the early 1900s is considered the best in China. He said his version better reflected current Chinese after the language underwent a transformation in the early 1900s to move away from its formal classical style to a version closer to the spoken language.

“I firmly believe I have the ability to better use the Chinese language now,” Feng wrote.

Feng has stood by his translation. He has shared some of the poems on social media, which appear to be faithful and poetic translations of Tagore’s words, a fact his critics have acknowledged, but they still argue Feng has overstepped as a translator by sexing up Tagore’s soft-toned poems.

“History and literature will make their judgments,” Feng told the state-owned media website The Paper. “Let time speak. Let the work itself speak.”

• This article was amended on 4 January 2016 to clarify that Feng based his translation on an English version of Tagore’s poems.

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