Writing Matters: In conversation with Bhuchung D. Sonam
By Shelly Bhoil
Photo credit: Tenzin Sangmo – Dharamsala
Poet, translator Bhuchung D. Sonam is the author of four books, including Yak Horns: Notes on Contemporary Tibetan Writing, Music, Film & Politics and Songs of the Arrow. He has edited Muses in Exile: An Anthology of Tibetan Poetry, and compiled and translated Burning the Sun’s Braids: New Poetry from Tibet. His writings are published in the Journal of Indian Literature, HIMAL Southasian, Hindustan Times and Tibetan Review among others.
Burning the Sun’s Braids is Bhuchung Sonam’s most recent work, perhaps the first collection in English of new poetry from Tibet. This book provides an alternative view of Tibet where creative artists play a crucial role to assert their voice as well as to inspire the ordinary people to carry out resistance against an outside force.
Bhuchung Sonam’s permanent address was stolen.
Shelly: What a violent yet necessary, audacious yet logical, and unusual imagery of the burning of the pigtailed-sunrays in the title of your poetry anthology Burning the Sun’s Braids: New Poetry from Tibet! Can you throw some light on the title and also the intriguing cover of the book?
Bhuchung: The title of the book Burning the Sun’s Braids comes from the poem ‘Farewell Prostrations’ by Khawa Nyingchak who died at the age of twenty-six in 2015 while preventing Chinese poachers from killing endangered golden fishes from Kokonor Lake in eastern Tibet. The cover image is a painting titled ‘Two Spirits’ by Tsering Sherpa, a contemporary Tibetan artist based in California. I put them together to indicate the reality in Tibet today. Readers need to make their own interpretations and conclusions.
Shelly: As a bi-lingual book, Burning the Sun’s Braids accomplishes many things; not only does it cater to the Tibetan and English speaking readers but also reinforces the idea of rooting one’s identity in one’s home language, especially for the exile-born generation of Tibetans who have circumstantially drifted away from the Tibetan language. What was your idea behind translating poems into English from Tibetan?
Bhuchung: In an ideal world, I think, a work of art should not have any agenda or aim. But the world, as it is, is far from our dreams. This is even more so for people such as Tibetans living under occupation and as refugees away from their homes. For the third and fourth generation of Tibetans in exile who are growing far from their culture and language, I hope this bi-lingual book introduces what writers in Tibet are writing about and also inspires them to learn their language and strengthen their sense of identity.
The other goal is to get a wider audience for the poets from Tibet who have been suffering harassment, arrests and jail terms under China. I have immense respect for their courage and the least that I can do is to translate their work into a language that has, by and large, a global audience.
Shelly: The Tibetan language has undergone massive changes in the last few decades inside Tibet where a socialist ideology was introduced into it. In exile too, the Tibetan language had to be standardized in the schools for refugees who spoke different regional dialects. As I am told, the newcomer refugees (those who have come from Tibet in the last decade or so) and the born-refugees (those who were born in India to exiled parents) speak in a language which is mutually intelligible but not necessarily the same. Did you confront any issues of variations in the Tibetan language of the poems from what is standardized in the exile community, and the problem of the un-translatability of certain Tibetan nuances into English? If yes, how did you deal with these? Could you illustrate with an example or two?
Bhuchung: Translation by its nature involves adjustment, compromise, interpretation, and finding common ground between languages. In the process, there are losses and gains. My approach was to have the first draft as close to the original as possible and then work in the new language, which in this case is English. If I keep going back to the original, the process will never end.
While translating the poems, I came across several terms and phrases in Tibetan that will make no sense if rendered directly into English. One such phrase is “shen-den nangtruk” in Theurang’s poem ‘Raise the Warrior’s Sword, My Fellow Tibetans’. This phrase literally means “infighting between Shenma and Denma” – the two generals in the army of the legendary Tibetan hero Ling Gesar. In cases like this one, I have used a suitable term in English and given a translator’s note at the end of the poem. You will find that some of these notes are far longer than the poems themselves. But I think this is one of the ways for readers to make sense of the depth of the original language, and the socio-cultural or political connotations in the poem that the poets might have intended.
Shelly: China has an immense military and media control over Tibet. Every publication has to be approved by the censor board of China. It’s common to hear of writers getting jailed and even disappearing after privately circulating their works. How did you gain access to the poems that you have translated and what criterion did you employ while selecting the poets?
Bhuchung: China’s censorship apparatus is reported widely in the international media. It’s dystopian algorithmic data collection and the scale of repression is unprecedented in history. Artists and intellectuals all over China suffer to a great degree for their dissenting views. Crackdown on intellectuals in Tibet is even harsher. Shokjang, author of For Liberty, I Have No Regret, was released a few days ago after spending three years in jail. Theurang was jailed for four years for his book Written in Blood, and Gartse Jigme – who was released earlier this year – spent five years in jail for his two books. Many of the poems in Burning the Sun’s Braids come from such self-published and covertly-distributed books. Others come from websites, personal blogs and other social media.
Shelly: Could you tell us if the Tibetan poets in Tibet are following a certain trend of poetry?
Bhuchung: All the poets in this book belong to a writers’ collective in Tibet known as the Third Generation of Tibetan Poets, writing in a free verse style that was revolutionized in Tibet by Dhondup Gyal (1953-1985) through his poem ‘Torrent of Youth’ published in 1983. This new form of poetry, or “nyen.ngaksarpa” as it is called in Tibetan, is a free-flowing form with the focus primarily on human emotion and feeling. It breaks away from the Dandin-styled poetic device favoured in traditional Tibetan poetry.
Shelly: Where do you see the future of translation in Tibetan literary field?
Bhuchung: I don’t know really where the future of translation of Tibetan literature is going. Sadly, there is not much support coming from the exile government or major funding agencies. Some institutions such as Latse Library in New York and Amnye Machen Institute in Dharamsala and some individuals like Tenzin Dickie are doing wonderful work in the area of translating Tibetan literature. Some of the short stories Dickie translated are included in her book Old Demons New Deities: 21 Short Stories from Tibet.
It is quite ironic that while the secular literature of Tibet receives little attention, our religious literature is doing exceedingly well. A lot of resources, both human and monetary, are invested into making available the Tibetan Buddhist texts in foreign languages, all for the betterment of the entire sentient beings! But the translation of secular literature back into the Tibetan language is in the ICU!
Shelly: Tsering Wangmo Dhompa writes in her introduction to Burning the Sun’s Braids that this book “asks to be read against the history of colonial rule”. Tenzin Dorjee, alias Tendor, too emphasizes in the afterword that “in a political tinderbox like Tibet… the desire for freedom becomes one’s greatest obsession”. How do you think your translated poets have variously explored or expressed the theme of anti-colonial resistance in their verses?
Bhuchung: As a translator, I do not have any authority or special ownership over the interpretation of these poems. I also do not have any intellectual depth to expound on their deeper meanings. This is why I requested Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, author of A Home in Tibet, and Tenzin Dorjee, author of Tibetan Nonviolent Struggle, to write the introduction and the afterword respectively. They have given wonderful contexts – both in terms of colonialism and resistance against it – to the poems in the book. The only thing I want to say is, to repeat Tsering, these poems must “be read against the history of colonial rule”. Each reader, with his or her cultural and political backgrounds and experience of occupation or freedom, should have the full liberty to interpret these poems.
Shelly: What do you think is the role of new Tibetan poetry or fiction in protecting and perpetuating the cultural memory of a colonized nation?
Bhuchung: The act of writing is an action against being forgotten. Artists and intellectuals are the creators and keepers of memories. This is particularly necessary for colonized nations because the colonizers stamp out the language, culture, tradition and identities of their victims. In Tibet’s case, it is pertinent; the Chinese propaganda machinery negates Tibetan history and its very existence as an independent country. Writers on the Tibetan plateau are recording experiences of how their land, language, and the way of life are being systematically obliterated. What they write today becomes history tomorrow. This must continue because without stories, we will have no memory and history, and without history we will have no struggle.
Shelly: If you allow me a personal question to end the interview – you are a resistance poet and a refugee who fled from Tibet at a tender age, suffering the pain of separation from your parents whom you could never see again. The act of translating these poems must have been an intensely emotional engagement for you. How did the translation process affect you?
Bhuchung: Exile is cruel. It is terrible. But I do not have the luxury to be overwhelmed and depressed by the harsh reality of dislocation. How wonderful it would be if I could just write poems about making love on a gently rocking boat floating down Yarlung River or about heavenly beings soaring into the infinite blue sky! How wonderful if I could spend my days translating hundred thousand songs of enlightenment! But, of course, reality tears such dreams asunder. I have to do the painful and yet the necessary work of translating these heart-rending poems coming from Tibet today. Each strikes my conscience and leaves a mark. I am wounded, but I may have found more of myself in these verses than I possibly can in years of meditation.
Shelly Bhoil is a Brazil-based writer. She has a Ph.D in Tibetan English literature.