Translator brings Tibetan masterpiece to life in Mandarin

Tashi works on his translation of The Epic of King Gesar into Chinese. Provided to China Daily

As the world's longest narrative epic, and an encyclopedia of ancient Tibetan society, Tashi is eager to give the Chinese-speaking world a chance to read King Gesar in its own language.

"Translation of The Epic of King Gesar into Chinese is essential," said Tashi, an assistant at the Ethnic Institute of the Tibet Academy of Social Sciences and one of the translators of the saga that UNESCO listed as a World Intangible Cultural Heritage item.

The project to translate 30 of the epic's books was started in 2014, supported by a 7.66 million yuan ($1.17 million) investment by the Financial Bureau of Tibet. The books are part of the collection recorded by Samdrub, an extraordinary storyteller who recounted the tales on thousands of cassettes before his death in 2011.

More than 30 members of the academy, including 16 translators and other professionals from China's five provinces, were chosen to tackle the project in five years.

Tashi, 37, a tall man with a dark-skinned face, is not only a big fan of King Gesar at the office. Hhe also enjoys singing Atak Lhamo, a King Gesar love song, whenever he attends parties.

Besides Mandarin speakers, the targeted readers of the translated version are Tibetans who cannot read Tibetan, the academy has said.

"It's also seen as a key government move to protect the traditional culture, and the new translation would give Mandarin speakers, at least, a chance to actually read it," Tashi said.

The Tibetan language's various dialects, religious vocabularies and proverbs pose challenges in the translation, said Tsering Dondrup, an experienced translator with a master's degree in the studies of King Gesar from Northwest Nationalities University in Lanzhou, Gansu province.

The translation difficulties explain why the work is being carried out by specialists and scholars who have a profound understanding in this field, Tashi said.

Born in a nomadic family in Pari Tibetan autonomous county of China's Gansu province, Tashi's village had a tradition of telling King Gesar stories when he was a boy. "My grandmother used to tell me stories about King Gesar, and I loved to listen to her," he said.

Spurred on by the beautiful memories of hearing King Gesar stories during his childhood, he enrolled in the Tibetan Language Department at Northwest Nationalities University, and earned a bachelor's degree in the Tibetan language and a graduate degree for his King Gesar studies.

He began his work at the academy in 2004 with Samdrub's King Gesar collection, but has been involving in the studies and translation of the epic for more than 15 years. He has translated four books and one thesis on Gesar, the superhuman warrior of the kingdom of Ling, who was sent from heaven to conquer evil while exhibiting bravery, heroism, loyalty, compassion and more of the best human qualities.

Tashi has promised to translate five books for the project, including one that is expected to be published this year. He has vowed to finish the rest by 2018.

The first book he translated includes the stories of the great Buddhist master Padmasambhava of the 8th century, known as Guru Rinpoche in Tibetan, who headed to heaven to invite the King Gesar to bring peace to the land.

Tashi said his translation skills have improved greatly with hard-won experience, buoyed by linguistic tools such as a Gesar Tibetan-Chinese Dictionary, a Tibetan-Chinese Dictionary and other resources.

"King Gesar is not easy to translate, as many words of the ancient Tibetan Bon religion are especially difficult," Tashi said.

Translating King Gesar into Mandarin can be challenging, as the work goes beyond language. One has to have a profound understanding of both culture and language, said Tashi.