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Essay: The Role of English in Poetry by Tibetans

June 14, 2008

Tsoltim Ngima Shakabpa

June 10, 2008

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
its 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 56 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 English, 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, it is better for Tibetan poets, who posses a
facility in Mandarin, to write in Mandarin to make the Chinese
reading public aware of the Tibetan political and human rights
plight. Though Mandarin is not a universal language, it is admittedly
spoken and read by over a billion people who are regularly
brain-washed by Chinese government propaganda.

Since poetry comes from the heart, the words and 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. The
safest way to overcome this problem is to first write down what the
heart feels in whatever language the writer feels most comfortable
with and then use the English language to interpret that feeling.

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.

Brave is the Tibetan poet
Who ventures to write in English
But a poet he is not
If he writes not from his heart

*Tsoltim Ngima Shakabpa's tantalizing new book, DEAD PEOPLE TALKING,
will be released very soon by Paljor Publications in New Delhi. To
inquire about ordering the book, you should write to:
manager@paljorpublications.com
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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