The Khabda Interview
Enticement Translator Michael Monhart
How did you get started translating Tibetan literature?
I suppose it was in my very first Tibetan language class back in 1983. I had the great fortune to study with Geshe Nawang Nornang at the University of Washington. The UW was one of the first universities to establish a Tibetan language department (which unfortunately no longer exists). Geshe Nornang was very learned and, thankfully for me, very patient! In our reading class he started us reading the biography of Milarepa, no introduction to grammar, no language texts, just learning from the text of the biography itself.
Over the years I’ve done a lot of reading and some translation of historical and religious material, but Pema’s writings were my first in-depth translation of literature. I had the welcome opportunity to study with Lauren Hartley, Pati’s co-author of the most extensive English language overview of Tibetan literature. She and Pema Bhum have really been my guides into my still quite limited awareness of the contemporary literary scene.
How does translating contemporary Tibetan literature compare to translating classical text?
In some ways contemporary Tibetan literature is easier in that one doesn’t encounter as many of the long sentence lengths that you see sometimes in the classical texts. Also, while we think of the classical texts as presenting a standardized grammar, if fact, there is variation in style. Reading texts from the 11thcentury is different than the more complex writing styles that I see in say 18th century texts. On the other hand, with contemporary literature one is more likely to come across difficulties with different dialects, local figures and styles of speech, and emerging uses of new language that can quickly perplex one.
What drew you to the writing of Pema Tseden?
I was drawn to Pema’s writing by meeting Pema himself. Years ago, the Trace Foundation brought Pema to New York City, where I live, so that he could study English so as to help him develop his international career. I have experience teaching English as a Second Language and volunteered to tutor him, actually without really knowing who he was! As we got to know each other, he said, ‘oh, I make movies’ and I watched them. Then, ‘oh, I also write short stories’ and I asked to read them. I was quickly drawn into the worlds of the stories, the true creative genius that he has of being able to picture a world that the reader can enter into and explore.
How does translating Pema’s writing compare to translating those of other contemporary Tibetan writers whose work you’ve translated?
I haven’t done any close translation of other contemporary writers so I can’t make a good comparison at this point. Pema’s style is at times sparse, he doesn’t for example give a lot of description, for example, of character’s interior states. Similar to his movies, he sets a scene and lets the reader, or the movie viewer enter the world with their own imagination. So, I wanted to try and convey the style without making the stories sound simplistic in English.
Who are some of your other favorite Tibetan writers? Why?
I like history quite a lot and for the past few years have been reading the works of the 18th century Nyingma lama Kah thog rig 'dzin tshe dbang nor bu. He is one of the most interesting figures in Tibetan history for me – a teacher, historian and mediator with a very eclectic mind, he was also a sharp observer of the tumultuous events of the early 18th century.
What work of Tibetan writing are you looking forward to reading?
I’m looking forward to reading two books by Lha byams rgyal – “lam gyi nyi 'od” and “bod kyi gces phrug.’ I’ve just quickly looked through them and it is some very beautiful writing. Presently I’m reading a long story from Sbrang Char 2013: I called “Gsum mchog gi skyid sdug” which is fascinating. The author’s detailed attention and evocation of both the physical world of the characters and their psychological feeling is really keen and marvelously crafted.
If you could take only three Tibetan books with you to deserted island, which would they be?
Well, at least one of them would have to be a dictionary! And I’d want to take the songs of Milarepa to help me deal with the existential dilemma of being stuck on a deserted island. I think the third would be a book that I’m not sure exists yet and that would be a large anthology of contemporary literature. Maybe I’d take a complete set of Sbrang Char and that would probably last me the entire time.
Can you share a few words of advice to an aspiring translator and scholar of Tibetan literature?
Read every day. As with many disciplines, it is better to do a little every day rather than bigger chunks every few days or every week or two.
Seek out mentors. I can’t foresee a day when I’ll be able to get through a text without asking for assistance. Even if the words and grammar are all understandable, still one is always going to have blind spots. Having someone to turn to with questions helps one get through the inevitable sheer blocks in the road one meets in a text. In that way also, I’d say find a partner to translate with if you can. Working jointly is more fun and it forces one into thinking of various ways to render passages. At some point in the process, translation becomes a kind of ‘re-writing’ in that going from Tibetan to English you have to choose between a range of words similar in meaning but all with various shades of nuance. Trying out different ways of translating a sentence with a partner can expand one’s own style.
Finally, find the joy in it. Translating can be a lonely, frustrating process that is ultimately a labor of love. But there is a joy in entering the life and culture of the author and living for a while in the setting of a story or a novel in the very intimate way that translation engenders.