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.
“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