Monday, October 20, 2014

Translating 'The First Howl'

I thought I would write a small post about the process of translating the Wolf Band's song The First Howl. Yes I realize this will be interesting to exactly no one. Perhaps a year down the line, I'll look at this post again and be interested and that'll be something. Also if I was going to write a process-of-translation blog post, maybe it should have been about something else, a longer work that I wrestled with, like that poem by Ngarma which I think is my favorite piece of translation. But no, maybe this song/poem is better, because shorter is more manageable and because I made a few different choices that are perhaps illustrative.


གང་ལ་འགྲོ། གང་ལ་འགྲོ། 
གང་ལ་འགྲོ གང་ལ་འགྲོ 
ང་ཚོ་ལངས་ནས་འགྲོ མཆོངས་ནས་འགྲོ 

The following is an earlier draft. It's still pretty finished.

The First Howl (earlier draft)

Even the moon wanes and dims
The wind blows over this winter landscape of night
Such a pity
We who are tortured by hunger and thirst
Where do we go where do we go
A long time ago Mother said
Grains fell down from the sky
Maybe so
We who take refuge in the sky
Where do we go where do we go
We who are slaves to food and clothes
The snow is about to melt
The golden spire atop the Potala is about change colors
With the sounds of the letters
And the cries of the wolves
Let us rise let us pounce

The First Howl (final draft)

Even the moon wanes and dims
The wind blows and howls over this winter's landscape of night
What a pity
We who are tortured by hunger and thirst
Where do we go
Where shall we go
A long time ago Mother said
Grains fell down from the sky
Maybe it was so
We who take refuge in the sky
Where do we go
Where shall we go
We who are slaves to food and clothes
Soon to dissolve like snow
The golden spire atop the Potala is about switch colors
With the sounds of the letters
And the cries of the wolves
Let us rise
Let us pounce

I had punctuation at first but it started to look a little rigid. There are some lines that run on, blend into each other: We who take refuge in the sky/ Where do we go where do we go/ We who are slaves to food and clothes. But it's a song and you could say all the lines run into each other, the entire section repeats itself and Tibetan punctuates differently anyway. So I removed the punctuation and freed the lines, so to speak.

The wind blows and howls to get close to the onomatopoeia of the wind roaring in Tibetan (འཁྱག་རླུང་འུར་འུར།) over this wintry landscape of night or winter landscape of night or rather, winter's landscape of night. Such a pity. What a pity. A pity. It's a pity. Tis a pity. (I know. Awful!) I finally decided 'what a pity' has a slightly more sardonic quality. Does it really? I have no idea. I liked the hard consonantal 'ta' of the what.

Where do we go? གང་ལ་འགྲོ གང་ལ་འགྲོ 
Where do we go? Or. Where shall we go? Why not either? It felt like a cheater's move because usually repetition is clearly meant to be so by the author and so you have to be faithful. But I felt like this was a liberty I could take- because the Tibetan could be 'do' as well as 'shall' and now the English refrain- it's still a refrain- carries the double meaning as well.

Now here I made a deeply embarrassing mistake and published it on Tibet Web Digest. ཁ་བ་བཞིན་ཞུ་ལ་ཉེ།  I literally didn't see the བཞིན་ and translated this as 'The snow is about to melt' instead of 'soon to melt/dissolve like snow'. A rookie mistake! Ugh.

Hmm I was tempted to leave the 'sertok' in there, since 'spire' seems very steeply or churchy but then I figured maybe it's close enough. Changing colors felt too indefinite—change is an all-encompassing word. Switching colors, that's not much better honestly. About to-also ugly. And then I had to deal with གསལ་བཤད་ཀྱི་འབྲི་ཀློག་ - the reading and writing of the alphabet. Ugh. I suppose I took enormous liberty here, but 'the reading and writing of the alphabet' threatened to unbalance the poem. How to shape into poetry and still retain the meaning? The sounds and shapes of the alphabet? The sounding and shaping of the letters? I went with just 'the sounds of the letters' because you can hear that 'with the cries of the wolves', whereas the writing and shaping of the letters confused me a little. Ok, I was unfaithful.

Finally, I suppose technically, the wording goes: Let us rise and go, let us leap/jump/whatever gravity defying word of your choice/ and go. But for me, the doubling in English somehow dilutes the action rather than intensifying it, and anyway the act of going, of movement, is imminent (is pregnant hah) in rising and pouncing. ང་ཚོ་ལངས་ནས་འགྲོ མཆོངས་ནས་འགྲོ carries action in a way that 'rise and go' and 'pounce and go' doesn't. And I thought each line should have its own space. Let us rise. Let us pounce. As Lhadruk Tsering foresaw, a beautiful moment to leave the poem, at the moment the energy is just about to turn from potential to kinetic.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Hame Kya Chahiye? What Do We Want?

This is a piece published last year in Seminar Magazine (Delhi) and republished in Apogee Journal (NY) that I thought I would share here. First I was going to put up my thoughts on Dhoom 3 (oh yes) but then I figured maybe the first post of 2014 should be something slightly less...that. So. 

Hame Kya Chahiye? What Do We Want?

Hame kya chahiye? Azar chahiye! What do we want? We want chilli paste!

That was not how the chant actually went, of course. The chant was: What do we want? We want freedom! Except the Hindi word for freedom, azad, was very similar to ‘azar’, a sweet and sour chilli paste that flavoured our daily school lunch of rice and dal. So when the person leading the chants yelled, what do we want, we whispered back, we want chilli paste, and collapsed in a heap of laughter.

The entire Tibetan population of Dharamshala turned out for the march, and the grownups who noticed us pursed their lips, narrowed their eyes. For them, March 10, the Tibetan National Uprising Day, was a sacred political ritual of pain and purification, of remembering, renewing and reclaiming.

For us, teenagers at a Tibetan boarding school, it was a day out of class, a day out in the bazaar. From upper Dharamshala, through Kotwali bazaar to Kachari, the Indian town at the base of the mountain, we marched in long unending lines, with flags and banners. Members of the Tibetan Youth Congress wore headbands saying ‘Rangzen’ and led the chants with bullhorns, and women from the Tibetan Women’s Association wore their signature green chupas and tried to keep order among the people.

Many of our slogans followed in the Indian tradition of sloganeering. We said, Dalai Lama, zindabaad! Jiang Zemin, murdabaad! Long live Dalai Lama. Down with Jiang Zemin. We were all sorry when Li Peng was replaced with Zhu Rongji. Li Peng kutta, maro juta was such a fun slogan; throwing shoes at that dog Zhu Rongji did not scan so well.

There was also, Alu poori tel me, Chini neta jail me! Potatoes and poori in the oil, Chinese leaders in the jail! Did our elders really expect us to shout that slogan with a straight face?

There were others that were more serious, more portentous. Marching through Kotwali bazaar, we shouted, Chini Hindi Bhai Bhai, Yahin Chin ka dhoka hai! Chinese Indian brotherhood, this is China’s betrayal. This was followed with Yaad karo, yaad karo! San unis so basath ko yaad karo! Remember, Remember, Remember the year 1962! When Mao Zedong punctured Nehru’s dreams of a Sino-Indian socialist brotherhood by launching a brief surprise war that ended in a humiliating defeat for India.

The Indians who were our audience – the shopkeepers, tailors, orthodontists, fruit-sellers along the bazaar – did not want to remember. They looked up, distracted, bored, irritated, and then went back to their business. Most people ignored us but some smiled and others scoffed. We glared fiercely at those who scoffed, feeling instantly protective of the adults around us, feeling that the gravity of their pain and sorrow must be acknowledged, if not respected.

Even then, even as we cracked jokes, we understood that it wasn’t comic but tragicomic. We understood that although this ritual could not be undertaken without spectators, its primary audience was not them but ourselves. Looking at the grownups around us – the monks and nuns from their institutions, the shopkeepers and sweater-sellers, the restaurateurs and the travel agents, the activists and the artists – was to see them making vows, affirming to themselves and each other that Yahi hamara naarah hai, Tibbet desh hamara hai! This is our demand, the country of Tibet is ours! Jaan be denge, khoon be denge, Desh ki mitti kabhi na denge! We’ll give our lives, we’ll give our blood, but we’ll never give our land!

How do you not give up something that was already taken? But as I grew up, first in India and then in the United States, I thought I began to see. Edward Said said that exile was the unhealable rift forced between the human being and a native place, between the self and its true home. For an exile, even as this rift can never be bridged, the only possibility of healing remains in trying, always trying to get closer to one’s true home.

One’s true home. My true home. For all the slogans we learned, for all the terms that were handed down to us by our parents’ generation, they were careful to deal in abstractions and not discrete practicalities lest the fracture in our souls gape so wide that we shatter.

But for me, one way of reaching across this rift was precisely to fill in the blanks. Hame kya chahiye? What do we want? What do I want? I want to eat at this shabby little restaurant in Lhasa that only sells alu khatsa; I want His Holiness to be able to rest because he can; I want to go on an ancestral pilgrimage with my parents from Lithang in the East to Kyirong in the West; I want English to actually be my second language; I want to hang out with my brother in the Barkhor bazaar watching people pray or flirt or bargain, and then I want to take a walk along the Kyichu river and write the beginning of a poem.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Acha Tsemo Khar by Dhondup Tashi Rekjong: A Translation

I always hoped that DTR would write more pieces on his childhood in Amdo, Tibet. So I really enjoyed translating this piece, an evocative remembrance centered around his aunt Acha Tsemo Khar, and learning that in Amdo, or in Sedza in Amdo at least, hay sheds are on the terrace and not in the yard. For now at least, writing these pieces are the closest that someone like him can come to going home. 

This piece was originally published in Tibetan on, and then in English translation on Rangzen Alliance.

Acha Tsemo Khar
Dhondup Tashi Rekjong

Until the fifth grade, I studied at Dragmar (Red Cliff) Elementary School in Sogzong in Malho. Then my father moved me to Tornyin Elementary School. Tornyin School was in the middle of three villages called Sedza, Arol and Nyinglo. I was born in Nyin village and from there, if you walked to Tornyin School, it took at least twenty minutes. From Nyin village, first you went down to the heel of a small valley, then you climbed up the face of a slightly steep hill, then after you cut through several fields on the hillside, you eventually came to Tornyin Elementary School.

The first two months after I started Tornyin School, I was very homesick. I missed Dragmar School and all my friends terribly. I was miserable at the thought of continuing in sixth grade at Tornyin School. I made a lot of complaints to my mother. Perhaps she got a little desperate because she called my father and said, “The child doesn’t want to stay there. Take him back to Sokpo.” But my father didn’t respond to this. I did not dare ask my father why he didn’t respond. So as it turned out, I had to stay in Tornyin for the sixth grade.

The village closest to Tornyin School was Sedza village. Acha Tsemo Khar’s house in Sedza village was right at the foot of Tornyin School. Acha Tsemo Khar was the older of my father’s two younger sisters. This meant she was my aunt, but we called her ‘sister’, Acha Tsemo Khar. She was the bride of Tornyin’s Chief. Because she was my father’s sister and because Tornyin school was quite far from my own village, I always ate lunch at their house. Even though they were a poor family, they always ate grand meals. Most afternoons, they had potatoes and some kind of vegetable with their bread. Acha Tsemo Khar was not only very kind to me, she was also quite proud of my results at school. Sometimes she would even say in a small boast to others, “Our family’s child from Nyin does very well at school.”

I don’t remember very clearly but I think this was on a winter morning. The sunlight was bright in the morning and there was a light breeze in the air. After the second period was over, a few of us school friends sat sunning ourselves behind the classroom. Even though the sun was bright, it wasn’t very warm. As we sat there, suddenly a student yelled in the schoolyard, “Uncle Pema Bhum’s house is on fire!” Unable to believe our ears, we looked in the direction of the student who had yelled. A bunch of students were running out the school gate. I also went out of the main gate.

The hay shed on Acha Tsemo Khar’s terrace was on fire. Plumes of smoke rose from the hay shed. Many villagers had already reached there and they were throwing soil on the shed house. Some young men and women were throwing soil over the smoking bales of hay on the terrace. There was smoke but it looked as if the fire hadn’t really been able to catch. As I stood there frozen, my friend Sangye Bhum said, “Dhondup Tashi, aren’t you going to help? Your sister’s house is on fire.” I didn’t say anything in reply. In my heart, I was thinking, should I go or not? If I went, I would miss the next class. If I missed the next class, I’d get a scolding from my teacher. The teacher’s good impression of me will be ruined. If I didn’t go, I would shame myself in front of Acha Tsemo Khar. As I was thinking these thoughts, the bell rang for the next class. I went back to the classroom.

After the afternoon class finished, I went to Acha Tsemo Khar’s house for lunch like any other day. When I entered their gate, I saw that the village people who had come to help were having lunch in the courtyard. With them were my sister, my uncle and my uncle’s wife. They glanced at me but didn’t say anything to me. Acha Tsemo Khar stood by a pillar near the door to the noodle room, holding a thermos in her hands. As soon as she saw me, she put the thermos down on the floor. Her face changed. When I sat on a rug and reached out for a teacup, she came to me and said, “You were able to stand and watch while your sister’s house burned down? Aren’t you ashamed in front of your school friends?” Then she left. I couldn’t look at her face or give her a reply. I couldn’t even look out of the corners of my eyes at the faces of the other villagers around me. Bowing my head and sniffing my nose, I sat there drinking my tea. My face became very hot and I felt as if drops of sweat were rolling down my forehead.

From that day on, I went to Acha Tsemo Khar’s house for lunch less and less often. I had a sense of shame and guilt in my heart. I never told anyone about this shame and guilt. I lacked the courage to even talk about it. Even now, each time I think of Acha Tsemo Khar, I think of this incident that happened sixteen years ago. I have now finished college and just started my job. Whether it is to repay a small slice of my debt to Acha Tsemo Khar or to dispel part of my shame and guilt, I am thinking of spending part of my salary on a gift for Acha Tsemo Khar. I am wondering, what kind of gift should I send to Acha Tsemo Khar?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Prayers Answered, From Baltistan to Ladakh

Thoughts on Geleck Palsang's Prayers Answered

I have an offering:

A short 29 minute documentary about the journey of a group of small Balti children from Turtuk, the very border of India, Pakistan and Tibet, to a Tibetan school in Ladakh, Prayers Answered is a really charming small film with a very appealing hero. The events surrounding the film are thus: in 2005, His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Turtuk and suggested that the villagers could send some of their children for an education at the Tibetan Children’s Village school in Ladakh. The villagers then sent 15 children to Ladakh. The documentary begins with His Holiness’s visit and then follows the children.

I was fascinated from the first frame, when the village headmen of Turtuk talk about the history of Turtuk and its people and their culture. The Turtuk people, who are Baltis, speak Balti—which is an amazing stir fry mix of Ladakhi-Tibetan, Urdu/Hindi, Farsi (I assume it’s Farsi: I don’t know it but it sounds like Farsi and it must be Farsi) and… English. For a Tibetan speaker, it’s truly amazing to hear. It sounds like an invented language—the conjugations are mostly Ladakhi, the base vocabulary and the base grammar is Tibetan, with generous helpings of Urdu-Hindi and Farsi, and then the occasional dash of English. Perhaps some of the grammar is Farsi also. This is all coming from a non-linguist. I can only guess.

Here’s the caption that appears at the beginning of the film, to teach viewers a little about this remote region:
“Turtuk is a little known region located in a remote corner of northern India on the border with Pakistan and Tibet. Turtuk was once part of Baltistan, which is now in Pakistan. The village of Turtuk became part of India after the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. This mountainous village is virtually cut off from rest of the world. Due to its sensitive border location, Turtuk is under the control of Indian army, and access is only possible with a special permit. Very few outsiders have visited Turtuk.”

The Balti people, of Tibetan descent, used to practice Bon (the pre-Buddhist practice of Tibet) before the 8th century, and when Baltistan fell under Tibetan sovereignty during the rule of the Yarlung kings, the Baltis also became Buddhist for several centuries. In the 14th century, Muslim scholars from Persia and Kashmir converted the Balti people to Islam, which they still practice today.

One of the village elders explains that the Balti people of Turtuk were a tribe comprising of people from Iran, Tibet, Dard and Mongolia. They certainly look it, and sound it. He talks about Baltistan’s cultural features, its similarity to western Tibet (eating, dressing, living, language etc) and how they used to use Tibetan script but later they switched to Arabic script.

Here’s a rough transcription of how he said this, rendered one and all in Roman alphabet:

“Dheney Baltistan ki daksai mi uney, dukso, langso, khashes ..…jis tare…..khaskar
meney pura language bi daksang original language pe use… ….. magar script khadam zos ki yaley.”

The ….. are Farsi sounds I couldn’t even catch.
See? It’s all like this and more so: Balti, Tibetan, Ladakhi, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi and English. It’s amazing.

Hearing Balti is like listening to a radio that keeps changing its frequency—I”ll understand some snatches of the speech and be able to break it down to its component parts and then there’ll be other long parts that I just don’t understand. There’s snatches and whole long clauses which are in Ladakhi Tibetan and then there’ll be some Urdu-Hindi vocab, some of which I know and some of which I don’t, and then there’ll be phrases that I think I have understood but when I think about it and try to break it down, I haven’t, and they may or may not have been Ladakhi and then there’s other sounds that I just don’t understand but assume must be Farsi, and then there’s the occasional English word thrown in.

For Tibetan speakers, just the sound of Balti is an auditory treat. For non-speakers, however, the film still has its merits. The film is made skillfully, with restraint and mature confidence and deep sympathy for the kids.

It was only about halfway through the film that I realized its hero was the little boy named Ata-ul Rehman, a plucky little chubby cheeked fellow, sweetly shy and passionately intense. It does feel a little bit as if Geleck Palsang himself recognized only halfway into filming that Ataul was his hero—in the latter half of the film, we stay closely with him, to the film’s benefit, and I was really sorry when the film ended.

I would have liked to see more of the children settling in—the film shows the children at Namaz, learning Arabic from their dorm mother and teacher Zenab who came with them, and learning Tibetan and English, and playing with classmates, and then that last scene, of the circle of them at a table singing the popular Phurbu T Namgyal song “Bhoejong ngatsoe phayul, Bhoerig ngayi phunda! / (Tibet is my homeland, the Tibetans are my people)” at the top of their voices. It’s a moving and bittersweet scene to end with. I remembered Ataul’s mother who cried at the thought of sending him away but said that education was important and hoped that he wouldn’t be hungry at the school, and the man who sang a Balti folk song to welcome His Holiness to Turtuk.

These children are bridging a thousand years and the Karakoram mountains and the Himalayas. I know that bridges are important, and there are rewards…but there are also costs.  I just hope that they’ll continue to sing Balti folk songs along with Tibetan pop.

There’s a really funny little scene of Ataul and his classmates in English class. They are reciting a passage in tandem from their textbook, with little gestures and actions that their teacher had taught them to pepper their recitation with. It’s just such an incongruous little scene, and hilariously funny when you watch it, because the little gestures the children make are so cute, and they have so clearly memorized this passage and because they are chanting so seriously and earnestly.

A score of children’s voices, high, with the volume tuned up, and attendant motions:

Everybody says I look like my father!
Everybody says I look like my mother!
Everybody says my nose is like my father’s!
Everybody says my lips are like my mother’s!
Everybody says I am the image of somebody!
But if you really want to know,
I want to look like me!
I want to look like me!
Thank you!

Ataul Rehman hasn’t caught up to the rest of his classmates yet. He says the first two lines and then he moves his mouth to approximate the shapes but it’s clear that he’s lost for now.

Everybody says I am the image of somebody
But if you really want to know
I want to look like me!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Your Happiness and My Suffering: A Song by Khoten (translation)

Dhondup Tashi Rekjong and I translated this song about a year ago and sent it to High Peaks (, the best site for news, issues & commentary coming out of Tibet. Dechen Pemba really liked it and wanted to put it up, and asked us if we could get an introduction on Khoten. There wasn’t any information available online, in Tibetan or English, so Dhondup Tashi asked people he knew inside Tibet to get some information on Khoten. This is how he gets the info on most of the people that Tibet Web Digest translates and publishes online.

Finally we got a brief biographical sketch and then that information just slept in our inboxes (ok, fine, my inbox) for a very very long time until someone on the web put up a translation of this song, which was interesting but a little libertarian, (for instance: instead of ‘the snow is not white’, I believe they had ‘it was not the white snow’) and so we got out the intro and dusted it off, edited it and sent to Hpeaks. We have to thank Dechen, who was so patient with us, and does such a wonderful and necessary job with High Peaks.

You can simply read the song lyrics, but I really suggest watching the video (the lyrics are also embedded). It's an entirely different experience. Of course, the Tibetan audience is uncooperative as always. Maybe another time, I'll share my memories of Phurbu T Namgyal desperately trying to get the Boston Tibetans grooving to Jampa Dolma. They watched him like a documentary. Clearly, the Amdo audience is not much better. 

Anyway, Khoten punched me in the heart with this song. I hope we have done justice to his lyrics. Do watch.