The Khabda Interview
Why did you decide to undertake this translation project?
I met Pema many years ago in Amdo, and I loved his Chinese-language stories and his films. One day we started talking about the fact that so many Western fans of his movies did not know he was a prolific bilingual writer and translator, so the idea of publishing the first English-language anthology of his works, including works written in Tibetan and Chinese, originated from that conversation. He mentioned that Michael Monhart was also interested in translating his Tibetan-language stories, so Michael and I started collaborating on this project.
How did you select the stories?
Michael and I had a list of our favorite stories but we asked Pema to recommend the stories he wanted English-language readers to read first. We were lucky that the stories he chose were also the ones we would have included to begin with. During this process Pema has been very patient with us, answering all our questions and providing bibliographical information. Working with Pema and Michael has been a true pleasure. This has been a work of love since as translators, Michael and I were so keen in conveying Pema's writings as faithfully as possible. Michael and I talked a lot about the differences in styles in between the works originally written in Chinese and in Tibetan, and how to make the book come together with a cohesive voice.
Why did you choose བསླུ་བྲིད། (Enticement) as the title of the book?
It is the title of one of the stories included in this book, with a young protagonist who feels irresistibly attracted to a set of Buddhist scriptures (pecha) that do not belong to him. There is a beautiful image in this story where he sees rays of light looking like bright rainbow-colored ceremonial scarfs (khata) emanating from the pecha, embracing him and pushing to pick up the scriptures. As avid readers of Pema Tseden's stories and as translators, we felt this kind of attraction, appreciation and reverence for the stories we were translating.
How long did it take to complete this translation project?
The translations were completed in a short time, but the whole project took longer than expected due to changing publishing houses and other administrative issues. But we loved working with SUNY Press, and we had the support and help of two wonderful editors there, Christopher Ahn and Aimee Harrison, so finding this ideal team to work with was worth the waiting.
You have been a groundbreaking scholar of contemporary Tibetan literature. What first drew you to Tibetan writing?
I started reading stories and poetry written by Tibetan writers in the Chinese language when I was studying at Beijing University in the early 1990s, and I went to Lhasa in 1994, where I met Tibetan writers and translated some of their short stories from Chinese to Spanish. In 1999 I spent several months in Lhasa as a guest of the Tibetan Writers Association, where I conducted the research for my Ph.D. dissertation. I have gone to Tibetan areas in China almost every year since then, sometimes due to my own research, and sometimes due to the non-profit work I do with TALI (www.talitibet.org) to promote Tibetan-language children literature and Tibetan education.
How, in your view, has Tibetan literature changed in the years you have been working in the field?
When I started working on the field of Sinophone Tibetan Literature in the 1990s, you could count the number of scholars devoted to modern Tibetan literature with the fingers of one hand. There were very few works of modern Tibetan literature to begin with. If a Sinologist encountered a story written by a Tibetan writer in Chinese, it would call it by the Chinese-coined term Xizang Wenxue (literature of Tibet) which also included works by Han writers living in Tibet; what we now call Sinophone Tibetan literature at the time was seen as local manifestations of the Chinese literary movement Xungen xiaoshuo (Search for the Roots). Tibetans were still debating whether or not works written by Tibetans in languages other than Tibetan should be considered 'Tibetan literature.' Sinologists and Tibetologists working on Tibetan issues rarely saw each other since they moved in different academic circles. In the year 2000 or so, I was immensely lucky to meet Dr. Lauran Hartley, a pioneer on the study of Tibetophone Tibetan literature, and we decided to publish a book that could include studies on modern Tibetan literature focusing on Tibetan writers who wrote in Tibetan, Chinese and English. This book was Modern Tibetan Literature and Social Change, the first academic study that settled the debate on what constituted Tibetan literature, and proposed an inclusive and collaborative field of study. Now it is generally accepted that any literary work written by a Tibetan, disregarding where that Tibetan writer is located or in which language he or she writes, should be considered Tibetan literature. But the field has changed also because Tibetan literature in all those languages has flourished tremendously, more so in the case of works written in Tibetan and in English. There are so many works of modern Tibetan literature now that is truly hard to keep up. There are now several studies and translations of modern Tibetan literature into different languages. Besides our anthology of Pema Tseden's short stories, two other wonderful English-language collections of translations of Tibetan literature have been published recently by Tenzin Dickie and Christopher Peacock. This is a great time for readers to explore Tibetan literature in translation, and for scholars to continue studying and translating works by Tibetan writers.
Can you share a few words of advice to an aspiring translator and scholar of Tibetan literature?
Modern Tibetan literature is an extremely rewarding field of study because, even though it is relatively young, it has evolved tremendously in a very short time and it is in a constant flux. It is challenging because it encompasses literary works written in several languages that reflect on the very different experiences of Tibetan writers raised in Tibet and in exile, not to mention the abysmal generational differences within modern Tibetan writers and their literary styles. But the study of modern Tibetan literature is so rewarding precisely for all these challenges. Since this field of inquiry is still young, there are many opportunities for young scholars and translators to publish their works and let more people know about all that modern Tibetan literature has to offer to the world.