Translating Contemporary Tibet: In Conversation with Christopher Peacock

We could say that there isn’t a demand to undermine or challenge our preconceptions of Tibet.

Publishing since the 1980s, Tsering Döndrup’s novels and short stories have been honored with Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese literary prizes. He’s among the most prominent Tibetan writers working today, but as with the great majority of Tibetan fiction, translations of his work remain scarce. This winter, Columbia University Press released the first collection of Döndrup’s work in English, with a suite of stories selected and translated by Christopher Peacock. 

Populated by a dizzying cast of characters—from corrupt lamas and venal deities to the incorrigible Ralo and the souls of the recently deceased—the collection The Handsome Monk and Other Stories presents us with both the diversity of subject matter that only decades of craft and experience can bring, and the discernible unity of vision we expect of a great artist. Peacock’s translation lucidly animates the stories, even as their author arranges separate realities for the action of each to unfold inside. Also preserved is the author’s humor: at times profoundly bleak, but always incisive. In this conversation, we discuss the challenges of translating Tsering Döndrup’s fiction, as well as the position of Tibetan fiction outside Tibet.

Max Berwald (MB): How did you first come to the work of Tsering Döndrup?

Christopher Peacock (CP): I first came to Döndrup through my academic work on contemporary Tibetan literature. I specialize in modern Chinese literature, and I am interested in the ways in which Tibetan writing does and doesn’t fit into the context of literature in modern China as a whole. Tibetan critics have interpreted Tsering Döndrup’s story “Ralo” as an equivalent of Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q, one of the most famous works of modern Chinese fiction. I went to interview the author to get his thoughts on the matter (he doesn’t exactly agree), and while I was writing on the subject I decided to translate “Ralo” for my own use.

I kept on reading his work, and the more I read the more I felt it was essential that such a unique and fascinating writer should be accessible to English readers, especially given the extreme scarcity of modern Tibetan literature available in English. I kept on translating, choosing some stories that I liked personally and some that the author recommended, and eventually we had a collection.

MB: Are there specific challenges you associate with translating his work?

CP: Yes, there are several. One issue is that Tibetan-English dictionaries are very strong in religious and philosophical terminology, but can be very light on vocabulary for modern, everyday life, as well as the “local” and nomadic terminology that Tsering Döndrup often uses. Tsering Döndrup also stages linguistic confrontations between the Tibetan and Chinese languages, and he finds a lot of humour in the misunderstandings and mistranslations that ensue. Tackling these moments was one of the most enjoyable challenges of translating his work.

There are a number of instances of this in the story “Black Fox Valley.” The protagonist is required to ask for directions to his new home, known only by its Chinese name Xingfu Shengtai Yimincun—“Happy Ecological Resettlement Village.” Since he doesn’t know Chinese, he turns xingfu, meaning happy, into shimpo, the Tibetan for delicious. I spent many hours trying to think of a funny word that might sound like how an English reader would (mis)pronounce xingfu. The story’s French translator rendered it as chien fou—mad dog—which I really liked. I opted for shampoo, something suitably ridiculous that also sounds a bit like the Tibetan shimpo. I think some of his funniest and most incisive moments come when Döndrup takes on the impact of the Chinese language on Tibetan life, and working with three languages at once to bring out that humour, and that important critique was definitely one of the most exciting aspects of the translation.

MB: To what extent was crafting a voice, for narrators such as the narrator of the “Ralo” stories, a conscious concern? Is this voice we’re getting, clear as it is, the result of an approach, or the sum total of thousands of decisions about diction?

CP: When I first read the original Tibetan of Tsering Döndrup’s stories, the narrative voice was one of the aspects of his fiction that most stood out to me. He is often described in terms of his irony, his satire, and those are elements that frequently come through by way of the narrator—how a certain narrator frames his characters and the events of a story, the manner in which he comments on or presents the characters’ hypocrisy, folly, and so on. I knew from the outset that trying to recreate a strong narrative voice, and to create this sense of irony in English, was crucial. It was certainly conscious, but the voice you end up getting is indeed the sum total of many subtle decisions about wording and diction.

There is a compelling argument about Lu Xun’s The True Story of Ah Q—to which “Ralo” has been compared—that suggests that the narrator of that story presents us with a real problem. Ah Q, the character, has been read as representative of the national flaws of the Chinese people. But how can this be the case when we have an educated, witty narrator (also assumed to be Chinese) who is capable of dissecting that character and presenting his defects to us so poignantly?

“Ralo” has also been read as national allegory, and I think the narrator of Tsering Döndrup’s story poses similar problems for such a reading. The narrator of “Ralo” is one of Ralo’s classmates, who has done much better in life, and the only reason we’re hearing Ralo’s story is because this person has put it together for us. His voice is sharp, self-aware, and wry: not qualities we associate with Ralo, the character he is describing. There is even a moment where the narrator reveals himself to be potentially unreliable, informing the reader that he has added to and subtracted from the story. When a narrator makes such a direct intervention in the text, we know that we have to pay close attention to their role, and as a translator this also creates the challenge of crafting a distinct voice for that narrator.

MB: For all the interest in Tibetan culture in the Anglophone world, there seems to be something of a dearth of translated fiction. How do you think the stories collected here fit into or work against the Western understanding of Tibet and its culture?

CP: The stories fit into a Western image of Tibet in the sense that Tsering Döndrup talks about many aspects of Tibet with which people are familiar: monks, lamas, monasteries, beautiful mountainous landscapes, the politics of Chinese rule. But that’s where the sense of familiarity will likely end, as he writes about contemporary Tibetan society in a way that always challenges people’s understanding of what Tibet is. There is the romanticized view of Tibet in the West as a gentle, enlightened religious paradise, one now cruelly oppressed under Chinese rule. There is also the opposite view, formerly held by Western imperialists, that Tibet is a backwards, savage place ruled by a corrupt religion. This also overlaps with the official historiographical line in China: that Tibet before Chinese “liberation” was an oppressive feudal society. Tsering Döndrup’s vision works against all of these distorted narratives. We certainly can’t see a romantic or idealized Tibet here (the Western tourists in “Ralo” who hold such views are ridiculed), but nor is it a nightmarish, backward society. It has its (many) problems, to be sure, but his exploration of them is thoughtful and concerned, not polemical.

As for the dearth of translated literature, there are a number of reasons. For one, modern Tibetan literature is a relatively recent phenomenon (largely beginning from the 1980s onwards) and there isn’t a huge body of work compared to other modern literary traditions. But we also have to look at the leanings of the academic world, which is where many potential translators would be found. For the most part, Tibetan studies in the West is engaged with religious studies, or if not, then with subjects such as history and anthropology. There are not many people interested in modern Tibetan literature as literature. This means that, of the already small pool of people who could translate works of modern literature, few of them are inclined to do so. This isn’t always the case—there are a number of people doing great translations of modern Tibetan writing—but generally people in the West who learn the Tibetan language are not doing so because they want to read Tibetan novels. Of course, there are others outside academia who can and do translate, particularly Tibetans in exile. But translation doesn’t really pay, so if people undertake it, it is usually as a labour of love.

MB: Can you talk a little bit about the pressures exerted by Western audiences for the “authentic” Tibet, and what kind of effect you see this having on the fiction that reaches a foreign audience? 

CP: Stereotypes have an unfortunate persistence. It seems that there will always be people who opt for the familiarity of Orientalized depictions, whether they’re producing them or consuming them.

In the case of Tibet, one of the biggest problems is that access to the kinds of cultural work that might make people question their preconceptions has been (and remains) extraordinarily difficult. There is contemporary Tibetan music, film, television, and literature, but it is hard to seek out, and that’s without taking the language barrier into consideration. This is perhaps one of the reasons that there has been a disproportionate influence of non-Tibetans in creating images of Tibet. In the West, that has come in many forms, particularly in film. This is also the case in China. Often, a Chinese reader’s image of Tibet is more likely to come from a Han Chinese writer than a Tibetan writer, whether they are reading fiction or non-fiction.

We could say that there isn’t a demand to undermine or challenge our preconceptions of Tibet. Stereotypes and fantastical imaginings are hard to shake; even now in TV shows and movies you see these same Orientalized depictions of Tibet. It’s easier to give the viewer a wise Tibetan lama than a corrupt Tibetan businessman, as it fits with what people “know.” But it’s hard to hold any alternative view when you have nothing to base it on. This is why writers like Tsering Döndrup are so important: we can actually read the work of a contemporary Tibetan author, presenting his own vision of Tibetan society. Not until more work like his is available to a Western audience will we really have concrete tools with which to challenge these preconceptions and notions of “authenticity.”

MB: Also along those lines, what kind of differences do you see in the fiction that reaches readers in the West and the fiction that reaches readers in Tibet or in the rest of China?

CP: Tibetans would read global literature in Tibetan if it were available, but so far very little translation has been done. For this reason, knowledge of Chinese plays an important role, as it brings with it access to a whole world of translated writing. I think that almost all Tibetan authors engage with literature from around the globe to some extent. The beginning of modern Tibetan literature in the 1980s was in fact partly spurred on by all of the new translations available in Chinese after the Cultural Revolution. Döndrup Gyel, the most renowned of modern Tibetan writers, was a big fan of Mayakovsky, for example. Tsering Döndrup is most fond of European novels (particularly Orwell and Russian writers such as Lermontov and Goncharov), and he keeps up with contemporary trends (he recommended HHhH (by Laurent Binet), which I enjoyed enormously). In the past, Tibetan tastes in translated literature to some extent reflected Chinese tastes, due to what was popular and available in Chinese (Latin American magical realism, for instance). But now, with the wealth of material available, I think people have much more eclectic and individuated interests. I’ve had conversations with Tibetan writers about modern Japanese fiction, about Roberto Bolaño—all sorts of things. Translation or a writer’s origin is no barrier to the preferences of Tibetan writers and readers; a big contrast to the US, where translated literature is often a hard sell.

MB: How do Tibetan writers deal with PRC censorship? How successful has power, has the PRC, been in controlling Tibetan fiction? Obviously it’s impossible to factor in the effect just of the aura, of the threat, to discourage would-be authors from setting pen to paper, but as far as what we have access to, is subversive work published?

CP: Censorship certainly has an impact on what authors can write, or what they choose to write. But this does not mean that Tibetan writers don’t take on sensitive topics, or that authors decline to write things they know will be controversial or could get them into trouble. Literary and intellectual works that cross the invisible lines of state censorship may not get published, but they can still have a readership. In 2009, for example, the writer Zhokdung penned an extraordinary political tract on the 2008 Tibetan uprisings, titled The Division of Heaven and Earth. The book circulated among Tibetan readers for several months before the authorities became aware of its content, pulled the book, and arrested the author. The poets and social critics Zhokjang and Theurang have both written highly political works that have incurred the wrath of the government. There is also the case of Naktsang Nulo’s memoir My Tibetan Childhood, which was enormously popular among Tibetan readers. The author wrote about the politically taboo subject of the 1958 Amdo uprising, but he wrote from the perspective of a child, which lent the work a semblance of apolitical innocence and allowed it to be widely read. These writers have reached a significant audience in Tibet (at least until access to their work became difficult). Moreover, all of these works have been translated into English. Translation adds another dimension to the visibility of such work, as one Tibet-related subject that Western audiences are indeed interested in is political repression.

Tsering Döndrup is actually an excellent case study of the vagaries of censorship in Tibetan literature (and literature in China as a whole). The “system” is much more opaque and ad-hoc than people perhaps think, and it often relies on a series of micro-decisions made by authors, editors, publishers, and so on before a work even reaches any government “censor.” Much of Tsering Döndrup’s work is enormously critical of social trends in Tibet. “Black Fox Valley,” for instance, paints a deeply unflattering portrait of the Chinese government’s policy of relocating and settling Tibetan nomads. Tsering Döndrup actually wrote an article on the subject, which essentially made the same points as the story but in a “non-fiction” format, and the editors would not publish it because it was too sensitive. And yet the story remains published. Censorship requires actual readers, people who engage with literary texts, interpret them, decide their meanings or significations. In Tsering Döndrup’s case, this is one way in which his humour and satirical tone might actually help to mask some of the serious critique his fiction contains. But he has not always avoided trouble. His most important novel, The Red Wind Howls, which also dealt with the 1958 Amdo uprising, has never been published, and as a result of writing it he lost his job and had his passport revoked. As with the examples I mentioned above, though, Tibetans have still been able to read the novel: self-printed copies circulate on the underground market, and the author has even pleaded with people not to charge so much for them.

Christopher Peacock is completing his PhD in Chinese Literature at Columbia University. He translates from Chinese and Tibetan. The Handsome Monk and Other Stories, published by Columbia University Press, collects the short fiction of Tsering Döndrup in English for the first time.

Max Berwald is a writer from San Diego, California. He is currently pursuing an MA in film and media studies at the University of Southern California. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Potluck, Spittoon Magazine, the Anthill, Third Point Press, Blackbird, the Shanghai Literary Review, the Massachusetts Review, Chicago Quarterly, as a part of Tin House‘s online flash fiction series and elsewhere.


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