“The Language of Languages” – My Contribution to La.Lit Literary Journal

Below I’m posting an essay I originally wrote a while ago for the Kathmandu based literary journal La.Lit which was published in La.Lit Volume 4 earlier this year. It was fun for me to think about translations for this essay as well as to think about the literary relationship between Nepal and Tibet. 

In the time since this essay was published, I have read about Google including support for Tibetan script in Android but to be honest I haven’t quite understood how this works (!) My phone still doesn’t display Tibetan!

Lastly, many thanks to my friend Iona Liddell for introducing me to the lovely people at La.Lit who are doing an amazing job.


La Lit Journal Vol 4


“The Language of Languages”
By Dechen Pemba

In October 2012, at an event marking International Translation Day at the British Library in London, I was struck by how Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o described the act of translation. He spoke of translation as “the language of languages, the one language that all languages speak”. As someone who grew up bilingual, studied two more languages, and now works full time with translations, I very much liked his idea that somehow all languages have one thing in common, the ability to be translated into another.

This idea reinforced my belief that translation was a priority area when it came to any kind of work related to Tibet. As the editor of High Peaks Pure Earth, a website that monitors social media use by Tibetans and translates blog posts, poetry and music lyrics from Tibetan into English, I both translate and commission translations. In doing this work, I like to think that I am not only bringing the voice of Tibet and Tibetans to a wider world but also contributing to the world of languages and the universal language of translation.

Due to the political situation in Tibet today and long-standing policies of the Chinese government on language, it is necessary to monitor Tibetan blogs, social media and cultural expressions in both Chinese as well as Tibetan languages. It became clear to me in 2008 that whatever information was being made available online by people on the ground, despite being freely accessible (at least for a while), was not getting out due to one simple reason, the language barrier. For example, had it not been for the efforts of China Digital Times, key information being blogged by Tsering Woeser would not have had the impact that it did. Woeser’s documentation of the Tibetan uprising in real time was translated from Chinese into English and made available on almost a daily basis. This proved invaluable throughout 2008, and, Woeser’s blog is now regularly translated into English on the translations website I subsequently co-founded in September 2008.

Though it has racked up close to 500 translations into English alone since them, High Peaks Pure Earth started as a humble blogspot blog and has now expanded into a trilingual website far beyond anything I had envisaged at the beginning. There are regular translations, Tibetan music videos, commentaries, a section for resources (useful for translators) and reading recommendations. For various reasons, it hasn’t been as easy to keep with translations into Chinese and Tibetan and a fully trilingual site with every post available in English, Tibetan and Chinese is still a goal I strive towards.

In 2010, on a trip to New York, I had a memorable lunch with the staff members of the Office of Tibet. We talked about our shared love of literature but also of our concern that Tibetans were missing out on world literature as too little was being translated into Tibetan. We ascertained that there were certain disconnects in the Tibetan community relating to language and, interestingly, the people at the table represented these disconnects. The Liaison Officer for Chinese at the Office, Kunga Tashi, felt comfortable in Chinese and Tibetan, and is very active online on social media in those languages, but not in English. The Liaison Officer for Latin America, Tsewang Phuntso, is active online in English and Spanish and also has a very good level of Tibetan but knows no Chinese. The Special Assistant the Dalai Lama’s Representative to the Americas at the time, Tenzin Dickyi, felt comfortable with Tibetan and English, and is an accomplished translator in those languages in her own right, but has no knowledge of Chinese. As for myself, one reason I had wanted to learn Chinese was to try to be able to build more bridges in the world but that at the end of the day, the language I felt the most comfortable with was English. When it came to Tibetan affairs, Kunga Tashi observed that Tibetans who read Chinese were reading Woeser’s blog, Tibetans who read Tibetan were reading Khabdha.org and Tibetans who read English were reading Phayul.com. Wouldn’t it be great, we mused, if there were one site where all Tibetans could read and exchange with no language barriers? I guess we didn’t realise at the time that we were wishing for a Tibet website written in the language of languages!

But it’s not just disconnects between Tibetans or in gulfs between very different cultures where translation can play a big role. Even when it comes to our neighbouring countries such as Nepal, literary translation has been sorely neglected. It is bewildering to think that two peoples, a great number of whom are fluent in each other’s spoken language, have no written works translated into each other’s languages. There are no comprehensive Tibetan-Nepali dictionaries in existence. Despite the most famous work in Nepali literature, Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s “Muna Madan” being set in Lhasa, there is no commercially available Tibetan translation. In fact, a Tibetan translation was done in Lhasa, from the English (!), on the occasion of the Nepali King’s visit to Tibet and was given as a gift to the Nepali delegation. So how many Tibetans know the work of Devkota and how many Nepalis know the work of Gendun Choephel? Two communities remain totally ignorant of each others’ literary history only because no work has been translated.

There are other Tibetan-run translations projects online that are doing great work. For example, the team at Karkhung.com translate all kinds of articles from English into Tibetan, not just Tibet-related articles but also works of investigative journalism and literary fiction. These acts of translation go far beyond mere words on the screen: translations into our own language contribute towards modernising and enlarging our own culture and play a large part in raising the self-esteem of a nation. We Tibetans can feel proud that our language is not only being translated into other languages but that our language is also more than able to handle and convey complex meanings and ideas from outside. Using our language is akin to asserting our right to exist.

Given that the Tibetan literary tradition goes back to the 7th century and its linguistic influence reaches far across the Himalayas encompassing areas of India, Bhutan, Mongolia, Russia and Pakistan, my pet hate is when Tibetan language is described as “obscure”. I wonder how it is possible that the language of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhists, comprising of as many as 60 million people, can be wilfully left behind in terms of modern technology? For instance, Google has failed to incorporate a Tibetan font into its Android software, failed to develop a Tibetan language interface and failed to include Tibetan in Google Translate, the most useful of tools. At least Apple has seen the light there.

Imagine a Tibetan education curriculum solely made up of literature in translation – would China allow Tibetan schoolchildren to grow up reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, 1984 by George Orwell and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie? A handful of Tibetan translation projects are by no means enough and in an age of fast media, quick fixes and online translation tools, the humble practice of translation isn’t receiving enough support, recognition or funding. How incredible it would be, to have more translations of Tibetan literature and writings in world languages. Well-trained translators who are fluent in Chinese, English and Tibetan would change the game in terms of our movement when it comes to information and knowledge bases, not to mention the wealth of cultural capital that would be at our fingertips. So to get back to our friend Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, let’s pay more attention to the one language that all languages speak.

Published in Volume 4, 2015, of La.Lit Literary Journal

My First Piece for Huffington Post Published for the Dalai Lama’s 80th Birthday

2015-07-07 HuffPo Screenshot

Just over a week ago I received an email out of the blue asking for a contribution to The Huffington Post to be published on the occasion of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday on 6 July. Initially I had no idea what to write, after all, what is there left to be written about the Dalai Lama? What could someone like me possibly have to add to all the books, articles and posts about him?

But the more I started to think about it, all these memories started to come to me that were related to the Dalai Lama. Strong memories from my several trips to Tibet over a span of almost 15 years and also childhood memories of getting days off school just so we could go to London for the day for an audience with him.

I somehow combined these few things for my Huffington Post contribution, throwing in some references to songs and writings from Tibet as well. The final piece is online here:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dechen-pemba/kundun-the-presence-of-an-absence_b_7739666.html

A big thank you to everyone who made this happen! Thank you to the Huffington Post editors for extremely quick work.

Photos from the “Banned Expression in Tibet” Event at Kings Place and Thanks Yous!

I’m happy to report that the “Banned Expression in Tibet” event at Kings Place on 20 June 2015 went very well! Thank you to everyone who came along and made it a memorable night!

We had such a great team of performers and crew so that on the actual day, it wasn’t stressful at all but really fun and everyone played their part beautifully.

I just wanted to post some of the amazing photos of the event which were taken by our good friend Luke Ward at Kings Place. If anyone re-posts the photos from here, please be sure to credit him as the photographer and mention that the photos were taken at Kings Place, thanks.

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The Programme Sheet for the night


For everyone who came and enjoyed the visuals we used as background on the night, here they are below. Many thanks to our talented graphic designer who offered her services and did all the artwork for Banned Expression, often to tight deadlines!


I’m also glad that Tibetan media picked up on the event, here are two radio reports online:

Voice of Tibet: http://www.vot.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/tib_23_06_2015.mp3 (From minute 19:26)

Voice of America report: http://www.voatibetanenglish.com/audio/2815048.html (From minute 33:20)

Finally I’d like to thank everyone who gave their time and effort to making “Banned Expression” a success. It’s going to be a long blog post but I wanted to take the time here to thank everyone who contributed and also make their contribution known!

My website High Peaks Pure Earth has enjoyed an extremely fruitful partnership on Banned Expression with Voice of Tibet and Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy and their support has been unwavering these past three years.

Thank you to FreeMuse for supporting Tibetan musicians and for sending a wonderful message of solidarity to us. Several Tibet-related groups helped with spreading the word, so thank you to Students for a Free Tibet and Tibet Society. A special mention must go to Tibet Society and Tibet Relief Fund for bringing their whole crew to the event and especially to Philippa and Riki for supporting the work of High Peaks Pure Earth.

Thank you to co-host and co-organiser Kunsang Kelden, a natural on the stage and a prolific blogger at Lhakar Diaries: http://lhakardiaries.com/author/kunsangkelden/

Thank you to our performers! Thank you Ngawang Lodup! Ngawang is an emerging artist on the world music scene here in UK, don’t miss his session for BBC Radio 3: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02tykp5 and catch him at the end of July at WOMAD for a full 45 minute solo set: http://womad.co.uk/lineup/ngawang-lodup

Ugyen Choephell thrilled us all with his rock and roll heart and passionate words. Ugyen is always there to lend his support for Tibet, no matter how big or small the event, thank you for coming all the way from Bristol for us! Visit Ugyen’s website here: http://www.tibetalivingtradition.co.uk/about.htm

Thank you to Palden, someone who is somehow able just to turn up on the day and effortlessly pull off two songs amazingly!

Thank you to Sonam who conquered her nerves and reached new heights! Thank you to Bhuchung D. Sonam for letting us premiere his translation of “Today, I wish to offer three prostrations towards Lhasa” by Tashi Rabten at the event. Sonam read it well and the full power of his words could be felt in the room.

And thank you to Youdon Aukatsang who managed to fit Banned Expression into her already packed programme and effortlessly graced the stage like a true pro! A thank you must also go to A.E Clark at Ragged Banner whose translations of Woeser la’s work are so beautiful, the two poems that Youdon la read, A Vow and Scream are both to be found in Tibet’s True Heart, a highly recommended book.

And where would we be without our amazing crew members? Eli, thank you not only for your genius make-up and beauty skills but also for your support over the years for everything that we do. Eli was with us on Banned Expression from the start and looks after us all! From the Green Room to the Dressing Room to the way home, Eli had it all covered so that we were hydrated and had plenty to snack on, she thought of everything, even bringing flowers and scented candles to calm our nerves.

Shu-Ting, thank you for your AV assistance and sorry you got stuck in the booth all night! Thank you JD & ND for lending a hand whenever we needed it and thank you to Luke Ward for his photos.

Several businesses in London promoted Banned Expression by giving out our leaflets and having our posters up, including the Tibetan owned businesses Vintage Basement just off Brick Lane and in Camden and Kailash Momo Restaurant in the Tibetan hub of Woolwich. The lovely Nepalese couple at Rising Green Coffee Shop were similarly helpful, anyone in the Old Street area should check out their delicious momos every Wednesday!

The Kings Place crew were a God-send and made us look professional, thank you Andrew, Delfina, Michael, Alex, Matt and all the Front of House staff.

As this post shows, it takes a lot of people, planning, patience and support to put on a 90 minute show! I hope that events like this will continue to be supported so that the incredible creative resistance taking place in Tibet today can be honoured and given a fitting space.

Press Release: “Banned Expression in Tibet” Event in London to Highlight Tibet’s Creative Resistance

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Press Release, 20.06.2015

For immediate release

“Banned Expression in Tibet” Event in London to Highlight Tibet’s Creative Resistance

Exile Tibetans based in the UK will amplify the voices behind Tibet’s creative resistance at an event on 20 June called “Banned Expression in Tibet” which will be held at Kings Place.

The event will focus on the Tibetan singers, poets and writers who express themselves creatively at great personal risk. Through a programme of live musical performances, poetry readings and short talks, Tibet’s vibrant and defiant creative spirit will come to life.

“Banned Expression in Tibet” will be hosted by UK-born Dechen Pemba, editor of the translations website High Peaks Pure Earth, and-US born Kunsang Kelden, co-founder of the Tibetan youth blog Lhakar Diaries.

“For the past few years, Tibetan artists inside Tibet have been producing incredibly bold expressions of creative defiance in the form of songs, poetry and writings. It is our intention to amplify these expressions that come at a heavy price in Tibet. We are fortunate here in the UK to have talented Tibetan musicians and performers to support our fellow Tibetans and showcase their work”, said Dechen Pemba.

Ugyen Choephell, a Tibetan artist, poet and musician, said: “We Tibetans will never give up our Tibetan identity. This is the most powerful tool we can have and wherever we are, no one can take that away from us. That’s why I’m happy to perform at “Banned Expression in Tibet”, to express my identity proudly and to honour the artistry in Tibet today.”

Artists and performers will include Dechen Pemba, Kunsang Kelden, Ugyen Choephell and Youdon Aukatsang. The “Banned Expression” campaign is a joint project of High Peaks Pure Earth, Voice of Tibet and Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

“As Tibetan artists continue to be censored, repressed and imprisoned, it is important to create platforms for Tibetan artistic expressions round the world.”

Freemuse – world’s leading organisation advocating freedom of expression for musicians

Tickets: Tickets are priced £9.50 online: http://www.kingsplace.co.uk/whats-on-book-tickets/spoken-word/renaissance-series-banned-expression-in-tibet

Location: Kings Place, 90 York Way, London, N1 9AG

Kings Place Box office: 020 7520 1490

Available: Press tickets & interviews with the Tibetan artists

Contact: Dechen Pemba, Editor of High Peaks Pure Earth

EMail: hpeaks [@] highpeakspureearth [ . ] com

Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/freespeechtibet


“Banned Expression in Tibet” Comes to London on 20 June 2015!

Banned Expression plasma screen display

At the end of 2013, the “Banned Expression” campaign officially kicked off with a huge rock concert in Dharamsala, India, by Parikrama, one of India’s most respected rock bands. The campaign Banned Expression aims to highlight the fast shrinking space for writers and artists in Tibet to freely and fearlessly express their views and it is being jointly run by Voice of Tibet, Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy and my website High Peaks Pure Earth.

The Banned Expression story actually goes back a bit further than that though, when a small group of us took part in a conference that was one of the most inspiring I’ve ever attended. It was held in October 2012 in Oslo’s Opera House and it was called “ALL THAT IS BANNED IS DESIRED – World Conference on Artistic Freedom of Expression”, it was organised by Fritt Ord Foundation and Freemuse. The conference promised a lot:

Artists from all genres: music, literature, film, performance, theatre, painting, photography, etc., will perform, examine and discuss where, how and to what extent constraints are placed on artistic freedom of expression, not to mention examples of the potential of art to challenge established truths and framework conditions.

Tibet was represented by visual artist, USA based Tenzing Rigdol and France based musician Tenzin Gonpo in a session moderated by British journalist Frances Harrison. Their session can be seen on YouTube and is highly recommended viewing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1_0Su_0Eio

The conference was thought-provoking and led all of us to think about the many silenced creative voices in Tibet, especially after 2008 and what we could do to highlight their words and music. We all went away and did our bit, on High Peaks Pure Earth we started to translate, subtitle and post all kinds of music videos from Tibet and to date have over 50 music videos on the website. In a personal capacity, I started to focus more on Tibetan musical expression and published articles on Global Voices about music censorship and creative Tibetan musical initiatives.

For what became the “Banned Expression” campaign, Voice of Tibet and TCHRD did a formidable amount of work, putting together not only the rock concert but publishing a report Banned Expression: Stifling Creativity and Dissent in Tibet and producing a documentary film that premiered in Oslo at the Human Rights Human Wrongs Film Festival in February 2014. You can read all about the events that took place that week in Oslo in a previous blogpost of mine.

So… all that brings me to London and Banned Expression as I’m finally putting on an event here on 20 June 2015 at the stunning venue Kings Place. It’s going to be a great night as our team have managed to put together a varied programme that will include live music, spoken word and short talks. The evening will also showcase the best in UK-based Tibetan talent such as Bristol-based Ugyen Choephell who is an artist, musician and poet.

Myself and Kunsang Kelden, co-founder of one of the best exile youth blogs Lhakar Diaries, will be the hosts for the evening and we’ll introduce performers and guests who will perform songs from Tibet and read poetry, both in Tibetan and in translation. Among the stifled Tibetan voices that we will highlight are those of prominent Tibetan writer and poet Woeser, imprisoned singer Lolo, writer and poet Tashi Rabten and Shokjang, writer and currently detained.

Tickets for Banned Expression are available from the Kings Place website here for £9.50: http://www.kingsplace.co.uk/whats-on-book-tickets/spoken-word/renaissance-series-banned-expression-in-tibet 

Social media links:

Banned Expression Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/freespeechtibet

Facebook Event Page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1436153880019797/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/BannedXpression


I do hope that many of you will join us next weekend in London. Any proceeds from the night will go to the performers to support their creative work for Tibet.

Finally, I’m going to end with a powerful message of support for Banned Expression from FreeMuse and I’d like to thank everyone at FreeMuse for their solidarity with Tibetan artists. See you on 20 June at Kings Place!


My Profile in Radio Free Asia’s e-Book “It’s Not OK: Women Struggling for Human Rights”

RFA Its Not OK Portrait

Illustration by Steve Fuchs

Happy International Womens Day! I’m thrilled to be able to post today about an exciting new e-Book that has been compiled by Radio Free Asia called “It’s Not OK: Women Struggling for Human Rights”.

The e-Book is the second edition of “It’s Not OK”, profiling the lives, work, and sacrifice of women from Asian countries and regions under authoritarian rule taking up the fight for human rights on their families’ and communities’ behalf. I am honoured to have been included in the profiles, here is the link to mine which is titled “Stars On A Sunny Day”: http://www.womensrights.asia/rfa_dechen_pemba.html

Thank yous go to Tenzin Tethong la and Dan Southerland at RFA and an extra big thank you to Catherine Antoine, Managing Editor at RFA Online, for interviewing me and for all her work on this project.

The e-Book is actually a whole multi-media project with a great website, videos, illustrations and fascinating, even if tough, stories from all over Asia, well worth checking out all of it! The book is available for free on the iTunes Store and Google Play.

My Second Article on Music Censorship in Tibet Published

2014-10-12 Freemuse Techung Woeser

Last week, Freemuse, the leading defender of musicians worldwide, published my second article about music censorship in Tibet. It was also cross-posted on Global Voices. These articles have been commissioned by Freemuse and Global Voices for Artsfreedom.org.

My first article was about music censorship in Tibet in general but for the second article I decided to focus on an unusual collaboration between a Tibetan inside Tibet/PRC, prominent writer and blogger Woeser, and an exile Tibetan musician, Techung. I’m really happy with how the article turned out, I interviewed both Techung and Woeser separately and they were both incredibly gracious and accommodating with their time.

Read the article here: http://freemuse.org/archives/8250

Follow this link to listen to Woeser and Techung’s collaboration Lam La Che (On The Road): http://techung.bandcamp.com/track/lam-la-che-on-the-road-with-keb-mo