[Last week, Dhondup Tashi Rekjong from Khabdha.org asked me a few questions about my experience translating A Tibetan Revolutionary: The Political Life and Times of Bapa Phüntso Wangye. He will publish a Tibetan version of the interview on Khabdha. Below is the original.]
Dhondup: Can you tell our readers a little bit about your background?
Xiaoxiao: I was born in Chongqing and lived there until I graduated from high school in 2002. I studied at Trinity Western University in Canada for my B.A. in communications, and then at Simon Fraser University to train as an interpreter and translator. I just finished my master’s studies at Columbia University in modern Chinese history.
I first became interested in Tibet because of a book I read in junior high school by the Chinese explorer Yu Chunshun. It was a collection of his diaries documenting his several solo trips to Tibet, all on foot. In 2005, I backpacked to Tibet with friends.
Dhondup: What inspired you to translate this book from English?
Xiaoxiao: I grew up like many Chinese, having a “right” view of history and no access to other versions of it. The years spent in Canada naturally fuelled my desire to know and to share. Several years ago, I came across a letter online written by a former Tibetan official to Hu Jintao in 2004. He had a series of impressive titles and he participated in some of the crucial events happened in Tibet in the 1950s. I was surprised that I had never heard of him before, given my long-time interest in Tibetan history. What’s even more surprising was the frank manner in which he discussed the Tibet issue in the letter. The image of a Tibetan communist advancing views about Tibet that do not conform to the official stance of the Chinese government stuck in my head, it’s simply not something that I get to see a lot, or ever.
Then in my first semester at Columbia University, I registered for a course on 20th century Tibetan history taught by Gray Tuttle (who later became my advisor). Among the assigned readings, I found “A Tibetan Revolutionary,” and recognized the protagonist: Phuntsok Wangyal was the Tibetan whose letter I had read and admired. We were only asked to read one chapter for that week, but I couldn’t put the book down and finished the whole book. This book is certainly an important challenge to the one-sided understanding of Sino-Tibetan history that I and many of my Chinese friends grew up with. A lot of people have criticized China’s Tibet policy, but we rarely get that from a Tibetan who is still living in China. At the time I read the book, the memory of March 2008 was still fresh, and I thought it would be so helpful if this book was available in Chinese. Instead of waiting and praying for someone to take up this job, I realized that I could do it myself. So I contacted Professor Melvyn Goldstein, who liked the idea and began looking for a publisher right away.
Dhondup: Tell us about your experience translating this book. What were some of the difficulties you had while you were translating this book?
Xiaoxiao: One difficulty was that I did not know any Tibetan at that time, when I saw a Tibetan name or word in the text, I had to treat it like a research question and try to find answer for it. Since then I have studied one year of Tibetan with Gen Tenzin Norbu at Columbia.
But there was a more serious challenge. Phuntsok Wangyal is fluent in both Tibetan and Chinese. Goldstein interviewed him in Tibetan, and wrote this book (with the help of his colleague William Siebenschuh and scholar Dawei Sherap) in English. I then translated this book from English to Chinese. By the time Phuntsok Wangyal’s life story went from Tibetan to Chinese via English, it just can’t be in the exact same language that he would actually use, had the original interviews were done in Chinese. In the highly politicized Chinese language on such a sensitive topic, where choice of words may have political consequences, this presented a problem. Luckily for the translation (and me), Phuntsok Wangyal reviewed the manuscript before it was submitted. And with the consent of Goldstein, the key terms were adjusted to conform to his preferences.
Dhondup: How relevant is this book for Tibetan and Chinese readers?
Xiaoxiao: I recognize that the exile Tibetan community has known Phuntsok Wangyal for a long time and viewed his life story with mixed feelings. For Tibetan readers, this book provides an opportunity to see his life through his own perspective.
For Chinese readers who are interested in Tibet, this book challenges the one-sided understanding of Tibet that many of us are used to hear. To be sure, there are a number of Tibetan autobiographies available in English, and every single one of them is a unique testimony, but I think Chinese readers may find some of them easier to relate to than others. My observation is that criticisms from inside of China are more likely to get ears than outside ones. Oftentimes, criticisms from outside were dismissed for “they don’t know the real Tibet/China” or “they’re hostile to Communism/China.” But none of these remotely applies to Phuntsok Wangyal. He is a Tibetan as well as a member of the Chinese Communist Party, who participated in critical historical events and is now living in Beijing. To Chinese readers, his opinions may carry more weight than many others.
Dhondup: In what way did the story of Baba Phuntsok Wangyal transform your understanding of Tibet and China?
Xiaoxiao: Before I read the story of Phuntsok Wangyal, I had been mostly exposed to two polarizing views on the relations between Tibet and China in the 20th century. One says that all Tibetan people, except a few “reactionaries,” willingly embraced communism and “liberation.” The other says that none did, at least not the patriotic ones. For me, Phuntsok Wangyal’s story (and that of Tashi Tsering’s, for that matter) revealed an often neglected layer of history and reminded me that history is never black and white. I consider this good news, as it’s always in the middle that we find common ground.
Dhondup: Do you have anything to say to Tibetan readers?
Xiaoxiao: Reach out to Chinese around you, especially the students who may go back one day. Maybe negotiations at the top level did not work out, but at the grass-root level, there is plenty of room to communicate and to reach mutual understanding. Public opinion in China may one day affect policy change, if it’s not already happening.