Finding Your Tribe: Dispatches from ALTA 2014 from Fellow Tenzin Dickie

Each year 4-6 emerging translators are awarded $1000 each to travel to the ALTA conference, where they participate in panels, workshops, and readings. Applications to be an ALTA fellow are open until June 1. More information here.

The greatest corpus of literature in Tibetan, the Kangyur and Tengyur, are short-form titles for “The Translated Teachings of the Buddha” and “The Translated Commentaries.” The ‘gyur,’ sewn inseparably into the ‘ka’ and ‘ten’, the Teaching and the Commentaries, explicitly marks the translated. Tibetans cannot talk about the canon without calling it “the translated canon.”

For comparison, imagine always referring to the Bible as “the Translated Bible.” But for Tibetans, the fact that these thousands of texts were translations from the Sanskrit, the original liturgical language of the Indian subcontinent and the Latin of Asia, was in fact what gave them legitimacy.

Translation was the great legitimizer. The translators—Drokmi the Translator, Marpa the Translator, Rinchen Zangpo the Great Translator (Marpa Lotsawa, Drokmi Lotsawa, Lochen Rinchen Zangpo)—have always been heroic figures. Scholars in the most classical sense, they were also great adventurers and travellers. The word “Lotsawa” derives from the Sanskrit “locchava” for one who opens the eyes of the world.

And sure, the image of translators has drifted to a more mundane level in the Tibetan public estimation since the time of those great figurers, but translation is still seen as a noble endeavor. There are still people about whom you might use the word “Lotsawa” without irony. For myself, it’s the humble “yigyurwa” I am trying to earn.

All of which is to say that for me being at ALTA 2014 was like being in a roomful of rock stars. Here was Marian Schwartz, translator of Tolstoy! Susan Bernofsky, translator of Kafka! I listened to the poet Mani Rao recite from her translation of Kalidasa, the great 5th century Indian poet and playwright, in a haze of delight and supreme surprise at seeing Mani Rao recite Kalidasa!

The thing was, even among such luminaries, you seem to belong somehow, by an alchemy of collective kindness and generosity of spirit by ALTA members that marked that entire conference. Older and established translators were genuinely supportive and welcoming to us newcomers, seeking us out to talk to us, sharing their knowledge and experience and inducting us into this family of literary translators.

As Alice Guthrie, my fellow Fellow (yes, the six of us Fellows did spend the entire conference calling each other our “fellow Fellows” and laughing our heads off and no, we don’t get out much) said, “It’s like finding your tribe.”

It was like finding my tribe.


About Erica Mena

Erica Mena is a Puerto Rican poet, translator, and book artist. Pronouns: they/them.
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