Place: Tibet

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.

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What’s New in Translation: February 2019

Find the latest in world literature here, presented by members of the Asymptote team.

Curious about new titles in translation from around the world? We’ve got you covered here, in this edition of What’s New in Translation.

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Woman of the Ashes by Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, World Editions, 2019

Review by Lindsay Semel, Assistant Editor

Mia Couto’s Woman of the Ashes, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, is the first book of a trilogy called As Areias do Imperador (The Sands of the Emperor). It tells of the fall of the Gaza Empire in Mozambique at the hands of the Portuguese. Brookshaw’s translation successfully elaborates on the original’s rich images and themes while maintaining the ambiguity and contradiction that characterize the disordered world of war between cultures. Through its two narrators, the novel weaves together the threads of two archetypal narratives. The warp is a story of empire and war. The weft is a story of storytelling itself.

The year is 1894–5, the confused and bloody moment in which the Portuguese Empire replaces the Nguni as the leading force in a region full of once independent peoples. Alternating chapters consist of a series of letters from the Portuguese Sergeant Germano de Melo, ostensibly to his supervisor. The voice of the interceding chapters belongs to Imani, a girl from a tribe that’s tentatively aligned itself with the Portuguese in the hopes of resisting the Nguni invaders. Having learned fluent Portuguese, she is appointed by her father to attend Sergeant Germano, himself a convict exiled for the crime of political action against the monarchy. These complementary characters find themselves dislocated from their people and sense of identity, stuck serving the very forces that sentence them to their own demise.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The latest literary news from Tibet, North America, and South Africa.

Friday, as you well know, is world literature news day here at Asymptote. This week, we delve into news from three continents. In Asia, Social Media Manager Sohini Basak has been following the Tibetan literary discussion, while in North America, Blog Editor Nina Sparling is keeping a close eye on post-election developments. Finally, we go to South Africa where Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs has plenty of awards news. 

Social Media Manager Sohini Basak sends us this fascinating report on the Tibetan literary scene:

Some very interesting work on Tibetan literature is in the pipelines, as we found out from writer and researcher Shelly Bhoil Sood. Sood is co-editing two anthologies of academic essays (forthcoming from Lexington Books in 2018) on Tibetan narratives in exile with Enrique Galvan Alvarez. These books will offer a comprehensive study of different cultural and socio-political narratives crafted by the Tibetan diaspora since the 1950s, and will cover the literary works of writers such as Jamyang Norbu, Tsewang Pemba, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Tenzin Tsundue as well as look at the cinematographic image of Tibet in the West and the music and dance of exile Tibet.

Speaking to Asymptote, Shelly expressed concern for indigenous Tibetan languages: ‘It is unfortunate that the condition of exile for Tibetans, while enabling secular education in English and Hindi, has been detrimental to the Tibetan language literacy among them.’ She also pointed towards important work being done by young translators of Tibetans like Tenzin Dickie and Riga Shakya and UK-based Dechen Pemba, who is dedicated to making available in English several resistance and banned writings from Tibet, including the blog posts of the Sinophone Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser (who is prohibited from travelling outside Tibet), on highpeakspureearth.com.

At Himal magazine, which Asymptote reported in an earlier column will suspend operations from November due to “non-cooperation of regulatory state agencies in Nepal”, writer and scholar Bhuchung D Sonam has pointed to another facet of Tibetan literature, in what could be one of the last issues of the magazine. In his essay, Sonam looks at the trend in Tibetan fiction to often use religion and religious metaphors as somewhat formulaic devices which ‘leaves little space for exploration and intellectual manoeuvring’. He sees this trend being adopted by several writers as a challenge to locate themselves ‘between the need to earn his bread and desire to write without fear, and between the need to tell a story and an urge to be vocal about political issues and faithful to religious beliefs.’ READ MORE…