Translating Tibetan Literature14 min read

Kevin McGeary talks to Tsering Döndrup’s translator, Christopher Peacock

Christopher Peacock is a PhD candidate at Columbia University, and translator from the Tibetan of The Handsome Monk and Other Stories, a collection of fiction by Tsering Döndrup. Born in 1961 in Qinghai, a Tibetan area of China, Döndrup began writing in the early 1980s and has published many collections of short fiction and four full-length novels. His work has been translated into several languages, and he is the recipient of a number of Tibetan, Mongolian and nationwide literary prizes in China. I talked to Christopher Peacock about Döndrup’s work and the state of Tibetan literature.

How did you become involved with Tsering Döndrup and The Handsome Monk?    

Initially, because I was researching his short story ‘Ralo.’ I was aware that several Tibetan critics had compared it to Lu Xun’s ‘The True Story of Ah Q,’ and this fit very closely with my interest in Tibetan adaptations of Chinese literary discourse. I interviewed the author about the story, and later I translated it for my own use. As I read more of his work, I became interested in putting together a whole collection. I began working on a few more stories, and it just snowballed. There is so little contemporary Tibetan-language literature available in English, and one of the biggest problems I had when discussing Tibetan literature with non-specialists was that, even if they were interested, there wasn’t really any way for them to access it. If we want to discuss modern Tibetan literature beyond the context of Tibetan studies, then translation is essential. Even within the field of Tibetan studies, modern literature is quite niche, as it isn’t what most scholars are interested in. I hope that more translation will be done so that we can raise awareness of the great writing being done in today’s Tibet, and from that I believe some really interesting and productive conversations will develop.

Does the Tibetan language in general, or this book in particular, pose any unique challenges to a translator?

Yes, there are a number of quite unusual issues that crop up when translating a contemporary Tibetan text. For one, there’s an issue of vocabulary. A lot of modern terms aren’t standardized, so you won’t find them in any dictionary (some examples from ‘The Story of the Moon’ come to mind: “space station,” “supercomputer,” etc.). This tends to involve a bit of detective work, consultation with the author, and possibly working across languages, as authors sometimes adapt or translate from Chinese when using non-standardized modern terminology. There have been numerous attempts to combat this problem of standardization, going back decades, but so far none has proved definitive. Another hurdle with Tsering Döndrup’s work is that he uses a lot of terms specific to nomad life, which are likewise hard to find (Tibetan-English dictionaries tend to be very strong on Buddhist terminology, but not so much on modern, colloquial or regional terms). I’m very fortunate to have some Tibetan friends who are extremely knowledgeable with this sort of thing, and they helped me a lot.

I hope that more translation will be done so that we can raise awareness of the great writing being done in today’s Tibet”

Lastly, there is one tricky (but very enjoyable) challenge with Tsering Döndrup’s work, and that is his tendency to use Chinese words and phrases in his fiction. Many Tibetan authors avoid this for a variety of reasons, but Tsering Döndrup is quite unique in his desire to bring this issue of language to the fore in his writing. He wants to highlight the effect that Mandarin is having on modern Tibetan, especially the fact that many Tibetans have little choice but to experience many aspects of life in modern China through Chinese. In some of his recent work he has used Chinese characters [ed. hanzi] directly in the text. In the stories in this volume, however, he renders them phonetically in Tibetan. These spellings (Tibetan has an alphabetical writing system) are of his own invention, and to all intents and purposes they come across as gibberish (imagine making up your own spellings of Chinese words in an English short story). I specialize in Chinese literature, and I still couldn’t figure out what some of the words were on my own, even when he included a Tibetan translation in parentheses.

These parts were so much fun to translate, particularly trying to capture the sense of alienation, confusion and humor inherent in these moments where Chinese and Tibetan meet. One thing I also tried to do in the story ‘Black Fox Valley’ was to convey a sense of relative fluency. In other words, there are some characters who, from context, we know speak fluent Chinese, and others who know no Chinese at all and are just using Chinese loanwords in their speech, meaning they wouldn’t be pronouncing them very accurately. I opted to use standard pinyin versus my own made-up spellings to get at this idea. You probably have to know Chinese for this to come across, but Tsering Döndrup’s stories themselves often play on the presumed bilingual status of many of his readers.

In the UK, Penguin has vowed that its published authors will be representative of the UK population by 2025 (e.g. people of color, LGBT and low-income writers). Is there any hope for fair representation of non-Han writers in Chinese publishing?

That’s a really interesting question, and a difficult one to answer. Firstly, unlike the Penguin situation, we’re not just talking about ethnic representation, but about language. Even though they are still a tiny fraction of authors in China as a whole, Tibetans who write in Chinese (e.g. Alai and Tashi Dawa) actually gain quite a lot of traction because they are speaking directly to a Chinese readership. If you write in Tibetan, however, you are essentially writing only for a Tibetan readership. Almost no non-Tibetans in China are aware of authors like Tsering Döndrup, even when their work has been translated into Chinese (as Tsering Döndrup’s has). This is largely the case for other minority language literatures as well (Uyghur, for example). These are official languages of China, but their literatures essentially exist in their own separate worlds, virtually cut off from the “mainstream” of literature in Chinese. I think the real issue here is attaining greater recognition for literatures in other languages, which practically speaking has to come through translation. Many such translations into Chinese do exist, but they are largely overlooked, so clearly the problem is a lot bigger than a simple matter of access to the material.

In the world of Tibetan-language publishing, it doesn’t make much sense for us to talk about representation, because almost all the published authors are ethnically Tibetan! In the context of modern China, demanding greater representation along a UK/Western type model would likely mean greater representation for writers working in Chinese, which is not the fight these authors are fighting. And lastly, we couldn’t hope to solve any problems of ethnic diversity in Chinese literature through demographics, since over 90% of the population is Han. There is certainly a serious problem of visibility and opportunity for “minority” literatures in China, but the issues at play are very different, and the solutions would therefore also have to be very different from the kind proposed for a country like the UK.

Many Tibetans have little choice but to experience many aspects of life in modern China through Chinese”

The Western tourists in ‘Ralo’ fall into the trap of having a clichéd image of Tibet. How much literature is being published in English that can help readers gain a more nuanced understanding of the place?

Whether in China or the West, people seem to speak on behalf of Tibet and Tibetans (as I’m doing right now), so to gain a more nuanced understanding it’s essential that we pay attention first and foremost to the voices of Tibetans themselves. This is one of the reasons why translation is so important. There is very little modern Tibetan literature translated into English, but we are starting to see more coming out now. There was recently a translated volume of short stories by Pema Tseden, who is well known for his work as a director, titled Enticement. Pema’s films are beautiful, compelling and very nuanced in their portrayal of modern-day Tibet.

An excellent resource for hearing voices from within Tibet today is the website High Peaks Pure Earth. High Peaks translates all sorts of things from blogs and social media: poems, cultural commentary, political essays, songs. The work they do gives great insight into contemporary Tibetan culture and society, and crucially it is a platform that gives voice to Tibetans themselves.

One book I would certainly recommend is Naktsang Nulo’s My Tibetan Childhood. This is a memoir that deals with some very sensitive political issues but in an extremely matter-of-fact way (it is told from the perspective of a child), and it was enormously popular among Tibetan readers. But overall, in terms of translations of literature, there is a huge amount of work to be done. Japanese scholars have done incredible work in publishing translations of modern [Tibetan] novels and short story collections. We need to catch up to them.

The story ‘Revenge’ suggests the cyclical nature of Tibet’s societal problems. Is this pessimism a common characteristic in contemporary Tibetan literature?

There is a trend of deeply self-critical literature in Tibet that follows the contours of Chinese May Fourth writing, which one could certainly see as pessimistic. However, much like the May Fourth model, while authors might despair of Tibet’s social problems, there is also a future-oriented, utopian aspect to such writing. In other words, there is the belief that these problems can be solved, that society can change. Döndrup Gyel, the most renowned of modern Tibetan authors, who had a brief but prolific career before his suicide in 1985, painted a very critical picture of Tibetan cultural “backwardness.” Yet, at the same time, his work is filled with a sense of optimism, of hope for the possibility that Tibetan culture can be led in new directions by young, innovative thinkers. Tsering Döndrup’s world, by contrast, is much more bleak, and as a writer he has a particularly dark sense of humor and irony. I don’t see the same sense of optimism in his writing. We could argue that the very act of probing social issues, of bringing them to light, is the first step in solving them, but I don’t think he shares the grandiose idealism of a writer like Döndrup Gyel.

And of course, writers who deal with or touch upon the politics of Chinese rule, a subject that cannot be dealt with without repercussions, have an understandable sense of pessimism. Nevertheless, even in such works, we see affirmations of Tibetan group identity and cultural survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, which can imbue even the darkest rendering of modern Tibet with a sense of (sometimes desperate) hope.

In ‘The Handsome Monk’ and ‘A Show to Delight the Masses,’ characters use political pressure as an excuse for the deterioration of their own behavior. Is it typical to blame the Han for problems that may have preceded their encroachment on Tibetan culture?

For society in general, it’s hard to say. There are likely those who would argue that problems such as alcoholism and gambling addiction have been brought by Chinese rule, but others might not agree. In Tsering Döndrup’s fiction, these issues are not clear-cut. His writing does seem to show that certain social problems stem from Tibet’s incorporation into China. Mahjong, for example, crops up in his fiction a lot, and this is clearly a Chinese import. However, at the same time, he doesn’t let his characters off the hook for their actions. You have Tibetan officials who will happily exploit the people for profit, young men who will rack up debts through the weaknesses of their own character, and nomads whose credulity makes them easy targets. His characters might try to find ways to offload moral responsibility for their actions, but we as readers are skeptical: when the official in ‘A Show to Delight the Masses’ tries to blame the upheavals of Chinese politics for his behavior, we know that it is an attempt to deflect from his own personal culpability.

Writers who deal with or touch upon the politics of Chinese rule have an understandable sense of pessimism”

In modern Tibetan literature as a whole, I would say that there is a strong current of self-examination and self-critique. This goes all the way back to Döndrup Gyel, as he was very much invested in the idea of Tibetans taking their social and cultural development into their own hands – as impossible as that might seem, given the lack of control Tibetans have over actual policy in their society. But this sense of responsibility, of self-examination, is highly visible among certain writers, especially the subset of radical intellectuals who do in fact blame Tibetan cultural attitudes for many of Tibet’s problems.

This does not mean that there are no writers highlighting the problems of Chinese rule. There are several writers who have dealt with this head on, but there are serious consequences for openly criticizing the Chinese government or suggesting that they are responsible for Tibet’s problems. Tsering Döndrup himself encountered trouble as a result of his novel The Red Wind Howls, which was never published because it dealt with the Cultural Revolution and the atrocities of 1958, when the PLA brutally suppressed an uprising in Amdo. But overall, when it comes to broader social issues, modern Tibetan writers are often engaged in a complex presentation of Tibetan society that doesn’t absolve Tibetans of responsibility for the world they live in, even if they don’t politically control it.

Both ‘A Story of the Moon’ and ‘Black Fox Valley’ are impregnated with skepticism of technological progress. Are attitudes toward “progress” a prevalent source of conflict in Tibetan literature?

Definitely. Döndrup Gyel was deeply concerned with the question of “progress.” He spoke of the need for technological and industrial modernity for Tibet. His poetry in particular conveyed these ideas, and in itself embodied his drive for literary innovation via his use of free verse. Döndrup Gyel followed a very May Fourth-inspired agenda, but a group of intellectuals who arrived on the scene in the late 1990s pushed these connections even further. They wrote zawen-style essays following the model of Lu Xun, attacking all manner of Tibetan customs and religious beliefs for their “backwardness” and advocating a thought-revolution based on scientistic, rationalist lines.

The writers in this group tend to be very fond of Tsering Döndrup because they see him as tackling the “big questions” in Tibetan society that others don’t. However, I don’t believe that Tsering Döndrup shares this ethos of materialist progress. As you point out, his stories are in fact very critical of technological and industrial modernity. Tsering Döndrup is deeply concerned with environmental issues, which naturally brings with it a skepticism towards the benefits of industrial progress. There are also, in contrast to the radical modernists, writers who find much more of a role for tradition in their work and who have little interest in social critiques or grand notions of progress. Tsering Döndrup doesn’t necessarily fit into either of these broad categories; he’s quite a unique writer in that sense. He is merciless when it comes to hypocrisy and corruption – be it in Buddhism or officialdom – but he still bases his work in Tibetan literary traditions and doesn’t follow a path of extreme iconoclasm. This is one of the aspects of his fiction that makes him such an interesting writer, and that really makes him stand out in the Tibetan literary world. ∎

Tsering Döndrup, trans. Christopher Peacock, The Handsome Monk and Other Stories (Columbia University Press, January 2019).