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The Sixth Dalai Lama (1683-1706) was in something of an odd position, as the death of his predecessor had been concealed for political reasons and he was raised in a secular environment until the age of thirteen. Consequently he started religious study very late and it never really took-- he was famous for his taste for women and alcohol. And he left a body of erotic poetry in the oral tradition which is considered one of the great literary treasures of Tibet.

This translation is very good at explaining the political situation, the whys and the wherefores, the possible veiled political allusions in the poetry, the place names, the notes from Buddhist folktales. There's a good bibliography of other translations and monographs on the subject, with a cross-edition numbering concordance, and, though short, the book is clearly designed to be a reasonable jumping-off point for the scholar. I respect that.

What it isn't is good English poetry. The poems in Tibetan are mostly four unrhymed lines with six syllables each, a bit like a cross between haiku and tanka but without the content specifications of those forms, and the translator has basically stuck to that. Unfortunately, he has succumbed to the temptation to, well, occasionally rhyme. Or near-rhyme. It is not readily forgivable. The strength of this sort of poem in English is the strength of the internal image (each poem will be a single strong image, or else a juxtaposition of two images in a punning way that gives them force); also the uniqueness, clarity, and simplicity of the language that expresses the image. Rhyming, by introducing an element into the poem that was not present, complicates and obscures the sense of the original language without using any of the poetic elements that actually were there. I can understand the temptation to try to use some linguistic marker for the complexities of rhythm, alliteration, pun, and so on that may exist, but rhyme is not the device with which to do it, and it sticks out in these poems and trips them up. In addition, Waters just does not have a memorable turn of phrase, and his words aren't strong enough to give the emotional and in fact erotic force that ought to exist here.

His translation does not explain why these poems survived, in the oral tradition and in multiple manuscripts, for three hundred years. I know that that may be an ineffable and untranslatable quality, but I'd like to at least be able to extrapolate.

In short, this is fascinating material, and I'm really glad to learn more about it, and I mean it, this book is a good quick scholarly introduction with a lot of places to start looking at it more. But I am going to have to find another translation because this was not, actually, the experience of reading poetry. It was the experience of reading translationese by a determined amateur.


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March 2017

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