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Tibetan-English translator brings Bard to the Himalayas
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W. Tailing, or Dreling Wangdo in Tibetan, fears his ailing heart and a cataract in his right eye might prevent him from translating Macbeth into Tibetan.

Five years ago, at 70, he finished translating two of Shakespeare's other works, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. At 73, he began translating into English The Love Songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706), which remain popular in Tibet to this day.

Despite deteriorating health, he is also translating 1,001 Tibetan idioms into English.

A legendary scholar, Tailing is proficient in Tibetan, English and Mandarin Chinese. He spent his teenage years in India and returned to Tibet in 1953 to work as a teacher, football player, government employee and eventually, a translator and writer.

In his two-story, Tibetan-style house in western Lhasa Tuesday, Tailing told his life story, how he witnessed the fall of the old Tibet and the rise of the new.


Tailing was born in 1934 to a noble family in Gyantse, 260 km from Lhasa, and the third largest city in Tibet at that time. He was the second son of the family, which owned four manors "ranging from the mountain top to the valley" and more than 200 serfs.

The serfs "worked awfully hard and struggled to make a living," Tailing said.

In his younger days, Tailing never teased the serfs the way many other aristocrats did. Instead, he enjoyed having fun with the serfs' children.

He still remembers with affection the two young serfs who accompanied him all the way on horseback to India in 1946. For seven years running, they brought him home from St. Joseph's College in Darjeeling for the winter vacation.

Tailing was one of 10 teenage boys, all from noble families, who were sent by Gaxia, the local government of old Tibet, to attend high school and learn English in India. They were expected to get further education in London after graduation.

At St. Joseph's, he learned for the first time that Tibet was much larger than Britain. Yet he felt ashamed when he learned how "unenlightened" the officials and lamas from Gaxia were.

It was at St. Joseph's that he first read Shakespeare and heard of the industrial revolution.

Tailing came back to Tibet in 1953, two years after the People's Liberation Army (PLA) entered the region, but six years before feudal serfdom was to end there.

Against his parents' wishes that he secure a job in Gaxia, he chose to teach arithmetic at a new primary school in Lhasa. Nearly all arithmetic terms and formulas were foreign to the Tibetans back then, and Tailing was one of the few people who could teach in the local dialect.


Tailing went back home to Gyantse in 1954, when three of his family's four manors were destroyed by floods.

The family's fall left the 200 serfs in a plight. Tailing offered them enough tsampa -- a Tibetan staple food made of roasted barley flour -- to sustain them for three days and told them to find new jobs in other manors.

This impressed the PLA work team in Gyantse, which offered Tailing a teaching job at a local primary school.

In April 1956, Tailing was invited to play a national football match in Qingdao, in east China's Shandong Province. "Back then, everyone who studied abroad was thought to be good at football," he said.

He participated in several other matches that year, in cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou and was amazed by the milder climate and better infrastructure.

Tailing and the other Tibetan players also studied football at a Beijing university for six months, with the approval of He Long, a PLA marshal who headed the central government's sports authority.

Upon his return from Beijing in 1957, Tailing joined the Gyantse Commission of the Chinese Communist Youth League to help organize football matches in Gyantse.

He was attending a football-training program in Chengdu, capital of the neighboring Sichuan Province, when riots broke out in Tibet in March 1959. "We stayed in Chengdu and flew to Beijing in May for that year's national games," he said.

When Tailing set foot on home soil again, democratic reform had started and his family's land had been shared among former serfs.

"In general, change is good. More schools were set up and more roads were built," he said.

Tailing became a Tibetan-Chinese interpreter for officials from inland provinces and began to teach Tibetan language and accounting at the Xigaze Cadre Training School in 1964.

Because of his family background, Tailing suffered tremendously during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

His grievances were redressed in 1978, after which he spent seven years leading the translation of Chinese textbooks into Tibetan at Tibet's regional education commission.

After Tibet opened to tourists, Tailing joined the regional tourism bureau in 1985 and was deputy general manager of China Tibet Qomolangma (Everest) Travelways in Hong Kong for two years.

His literary career began after he retired in 1992.


"I just felt I needed to do something based on my language proficiency and life experience," said Tailing.

He started with The Secret Tale of Tesur House, a novel based on life in old Tibet and his own study in India. He wrote the book in Tibetan in 1993 and in English in 1995.

Out of love for Shakespeare, he decided to bring some of The Bard's masterpieces to Tibetan readers.

He read all the major British novels from Geoffrey Chaucer to Charles Dickens before he finally translated Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet into Tibetan in 2004.

Tailing received thanks from the Shakespeare Association of America and the BBC even asked him to narrate sections of Hamlet in Tibetan by phone.

Tailing has just finished translating 74 love songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso into English. The Pilgrims Book House is expected to publish the book soon.

Meanwhile, he is translating Tibetan idioms, many of which involve wisdom, into English. "As the Tibetan idiom goes, 'short talks are good for understanding, short stirrups are good for riding'," he said.

"Time is so limited. I should've retired earlier," he said. "There are so many good books that should be translated into Tibetan, and so many Tibetan works to share with our foreign readers."

(Xinhua News Agency March 25, 2009)

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