Tuesday, May 5, 2015

FINDING YOUR TRIBE: Dispatches from ALTA 2014

A brief report for the ALTA blog about the American Literary Translators’ Association’s annual conference held at the Milwaukee Hilton last November. It was a brilliant brilliant conference, a lot of learning, meeting tons of really kind and generous people and a ridiculous amount of fun. So I had different ideas for this post. It was going to be a funny piece, starting with my noting that even though the nice man at reception offered to put me in a room with a view, the view was not a view, it was only a view of a view. It was also going to be a longish piece, in which I detailed all the ways in which really talented and established translators took the time to get to know you and make you feel welcomed at ALTA, a part of ALTA.

For instances. A man stopped me just as I getting into the lobby and said, excuse me but are you the Tibetan translator? He was Jonathan Chaves, and later I found that he was there to receive the Lucien Stryk Award for best translations into English of book length texts of Asian poetry or Zen Buddhism. A really warm-hearted professor (and translator, but that’s a given) who was my table mate at a dinner where I flung manners to the wind and recklessly (alright, fine, greedily) filled my plate with tiny dessert pastries, said to me, I’ll follow your career. Just one of the loveliest things anyone has ever said to me.

In the end though, sadly, that was not the piece I wrote. Instead I wrote this short undercooked piece.

FINDING YOUR TRIBE: Dispatches from ALTA 2014

The greatest corpus of literature in Tibetan, the Kangyur and Tengyur, are short-form titles for “The Translated Teachings of the Buddha” and “The Translated Commentaries.” The ‘gyur,’ sewn inseparably into the ‘ka’ and ‘ten’, the Teaching and the Commentaries, explicitly marks the translated. Tibetans cannot talk about the canon without calling it “the translated canon.”
For comparison, imagine always referring to the Bible as “the Translated Bible.” But for Tibetans, the fact that these thousands of texts were translations from the Sanskrit, the original liturgical language of the Indian subcontinent and the Latin of Asia, was in fact what gave them legitimacy.

Translation was the great legitimizer. The translators—Drokmi the Translator, Marpa the Translator, Rinchen Zangpo the Great Translator (Marpa Lotsawa, Drokmi Lotsawa, Lochen Rinchen Zangpo)—have always been heroic figures. Scholars in the most classical sense, they were also great adventurers and travellers. The word “Lotsawa” derives from the Sanskrit “locchava” for one who opens the eyes of the world.

And sure, the image of translators has drifted to a more mundane level in the Tibetan public estimation since the time of those great figurers, but translation is still seen as a noble endeavor. There are still people about whom you might use the word “Lotsawa” without irony. For myself, it’s the humble “yigyurwa” I am trying to earn.

All of which is to say that for me being at ALTA 2014 was like being in a roomful of rock stars. Here was Marian Schwartz, translator of Tolstoy! Susan Bernofsky, translator of Kafka! I listened to the poet Mani Rao recite from her translation of Kalidasa, the great 5th century Indian poet and playwright, in a haze of delight and supreme surprise at seeing Mani Rao recite Kalidasa!

The thing was, even among such luminaries, you seem to belong somehow, by an alchemy of collective kindness and generosity of spirit by ALTA members that marked that entire conference. Older and established translators were genuinely supportive and welcoming to us newcomers, seeking us out to talk to us, sharing their knowledge and experience and inducting us into this family of literary translators.

As Alice Guthrie, my fellow Fellow (yes, the six of us Fellows did spend the entire conference calling each other our “fellow Fellows” and laughing our heads off and no, we don’t get out much) said, “It’s like finding your tribe.”

It was like finding my tribe.



March 13-May 12, 2015
Tibet House, 22 West 15th Street, NY NY 10011

Last Friday night I went to an art opening at Tibet House in Union Square, featuring calligraphic paintings by the artist Tara Lobsang. This sort of thing is always happening to me. I mean to have a quiet weekend holed up in my apartment and before I know it, I have committed not only to a party but also an after party. (I might be a closeted introvert.) But it was a fun and festive opening night, not least because Tenzin Choegyal gave a typically fantastic musical performance.
Now Tibetan calligraphy is a very exacting art with quite rigid and empirical standards of beauty. When I was a child, my Tibetan language teacher spent our daily lessons making us trace his handwriting, which he considered the acme of calligraphic excellence, over and over again. Luckily I have an older brother who taught me that if you trace your Ka, Kha, Gha… really hard the first few times, you can fool your teacher and use the time instead for more important things, such as playing Tic Tac Toe with your desk mate. Older brothers are always full of foolish wisdom like this.
TARA LOBSANG, Mandala of Milarepa, 2014,
acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 in.
Courtesy of Tibet House Gallery, NY
My point is, Tibetan calligraphy is a highly prescriptive art form. Lobsang’s work is a clear departure from this classical calligraphy, and his best pieces demonstrate a celebration of riotous spontaneity and an abundance of energy that is very much like the artist himself. (He happens to be the kind of person who when he looks for apartments in New York just walks off into the streets to look, like a nomad in search of the right tent to rent—and what’s more, he finds them this way.) The gallery calls his work calligraphic paintings but I also like the term abstract calligraphy, because it suggests a newish subgenre, at least in contemporary Tibetan art.
TARA LOBSANG, Milarepa, 2014,
acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 in.
Courtesy of Tibet House Gallery, NY
A Brush With Reality is Lobsang’s first solo exhibition. Two standouts from the solo show are Mandala of Milarepa and Milarepa, both featuring gorgeous calligraphic renderings of the legendary saint Milarepa. The myth of Milarepa, a historical figure who is said to have attained enlightenment in one lifetime, has endured in the Tibetan consciousness for the last thousand years. In the two calligraphic paintings, an apparently simple swish of the paintbrush produces the abstract yet instantly recognizable figure of the saint, his right hand held to his ear to evoke the hundred thousand songs of realization. He sits amid a mandala of colors, or on a blank white canvas, and the pieces are evocative, elegant and just really really cool.
Overall, the flight of calligraphic paintings looked beautiful adorning the walls of Tibet House.  A Brush With Reality is a significant achievement for Tara Lobsang and a very exciting contribution to contemporary Tibetan art.
*Posted on Tibet Art Council in March 2015