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ON THE SUBJECT OF LANGUAGES: The Role of English in Poetry by Tibetans

November 15, 2010

By Tsoltim Ngima Shakabpa
Languages become universal because of the power of the people who speak those languages. English is one such language as exhibited by the British in the 17th to the early 20th centuries when historically their power and language spread far and wide across the globe. Languages remain alive because of the spirit of the people who speak those languages. The Tibetan language is one such language as exhibited by the Tibetans in their unique culture and quest to maintain their great heritage. To bring the ideas of a people struggling to keep their language alive into a universal language is in itself a difficult task; but to put it in poetry is an even more formidable task. Yet Tibetans are doing exactly that. 
 
Tibetans are generally philosophically inclined by the very nature of their upbringing. Buddhism and the philosophy of Buddhism have deeply affected the Tibetan mentality, and by its very power the hearts of the Tibetan people. Bearing this in mind, it is easy to see why generally Tibetans are natural poets. Additionally, the pristine natural environment could have only aesthetically enhanced the philosophical Tibetan mind. 
 
In the past, Tibetans used to write poetry in Tibetan with religious themes only. These poems were deep in thought and classic in their genius. They were the pulse of a nation steeped in religion and struggling to find the meaning of life. These poems were much more difficult to translate precisely into English unless one had an impeccable knowledge of the complex mechanisms of the Tibetan religion. Today, the pulse and emphasis are different. Tibetans are suffering immeasurably under the illegal occupation of Tibet by China. They are being persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and murdered. Their voices stifled; their places of worship demolished; and their true leader, the Dalai Lama, demonized. They are struggling for freedom from 60 gruelling years of brutal and tyrannical Chinese rule; and writing poems in Tibetan alone is not enough. They need to reach a world-wide audience in their fight for liberation and for that they have to use a universal language. 
 
In the 1940s and 1950s, only a few Tibetans were fortunate enough to receive an education in English. Today, with thousands of Tibetans forced to live outside Tibet, many are fortunately learning English, some even good enough to write poetry in sterling English--and they are using their poetic gifts to reach out, in a universal language, to the world at large about their struggle for freedom. But there also are Tibetan poets who write, in English, about spirituality, family, illness, nature, love and life, in addition to the plight of their country, that adds abundant dimension to poetry by Tibetans. These Tibetan poets are presently few and far between, but their pioneering labour and leadership will inspire more Tibetans to expand their poetic capabilities. 
 
Poetic ability is an inborn gift, and the language of poetry is best employed in the language one is most accustomed to. If Tibetan poets think in Tibetan and translate their poetry into English, there may arise problems in precise translation. But if Tibetan poets think in English, those problems may be surmounted though it may possibly cloud their Tibetan heart. The ideal situation is the ability to think both in English and in Tibetan. That way, the evolution of the two languages inter-mingling with one another in a translucent manner with the heart brings about the best attributes of the poetry in mind. 
 
Yet, frankly speaking, there are times when English has no role in poetry by Tibetans as when a Tibetan writer tries to emulate a western thought. In such instances, the Tibetan mind distorts the western thought and jeopardizes the English verse. They become inundated and perplexed with a false perception of the truth, rather than the truth itself. The expression of thought must first come from the heart and then the language can be used as a tool to express what the heart feels. Rather than emulate a foreign thought, it is better for a Tibetan poet to express his thoughts and feelings in a foreign language, even if it be in Mandarin. At least the Chinese will know what is in the Tibetan writer's mind and heart, such as his diatribe on tyranny and icy disdain of Chinese rule. 
 
Since poetry comes from the heart, the manner in which the words are expressed are often not easily comprehensible. Thus, the reader too must read into the heart of the poet in order to understand the language of the poet. The Tibetan poet, therefore, has the added task of expressing in precise English what his Tibetan heart feels. This is a difficult task, if not an impossible one - so long as the Tibetan poet has an excellent comprehension of the English language and an empathic realization of what his heart feels. 
 
To summarize, the English language has an enormous universal role to play in poetry authored by Tibetans, but that role must be entwined with the untainted heart of the Tibetan poet as well as the precision and excellence of the language. Poetry by Tibetans in an universal language has an even more crucial role to play now that the Chinese are forcefully suppressing the Tibetan language.  
 
Brave is the Tibetan poet
Who ventures to pen in English
But write he must from his heart
For readers his poetry to cherish
 
* Tsoltim N. Shakabpa is the author of eight inspiring books of poems, the last one of which is BEING TIBETAN published by Publish America. He is popularly known as "T.N.", which he says stands for his initials as well as Tibetan National.
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