Translation and the Poetry Traditions of China and Tibet

February 7–8, 2019. Wesleyan University

Public talk by Ian Boyden

February 7, 2019. 4:30 pm. Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies Seminar Room, Wesleyan University. 343 Washington Terrace. Middletown, CT 06549

“Flames of My Homeland: Translating the Poetry of Tsering Woeser”

Photo courtesy of Tsering Woeser

Over the last three decades, Tsering Woeser has emerged as one of the most prolific Tibetan writers and one of the most followed Tibetan voices in the world. Her writing takes a deep plunge into the contemporary realities of Tibet, bearing witness to the pervasive and systematic assault on all facets of Tibetan culture over the last 60 years. As a consequence of her activism, she has been stripped of her passport and her internal ID card, and she and her husband are often placed under house arrest in Beijing.

Although Woeser is a prolific poet, very little of her poetry has been translated into English. Ian Boyden was awarded a 2019 NEA Literature Translation Fellowship to translate her poetry.  In this talk, Boyden will discuss Woeser’s poetry and address some of the challenges of translating her work, including the following: how to translate poly-linguistic wordplay, the constantly evolving online code words, and the politics of transliteration of specific Tibetan terms; how to translate and integrate Buddhist vocabulary into the translations; how to maintain the deep humanism and universal themes of her poetry while also conveying the specific details of the atrocities she is addressing; and perhaps most importantly, how to convey the incredible urgency from which she writes.

Courtesy of Tsering Woeser

My Jowo Buddha sat 
cross-legged in the seething
and ardent chaos of fire.

Tsering Woeser, February 18, 2018. Translated by Ian Boyden


Workshop on the Translation and Poetry Traditions of China and Tibet

Friday February 2019. 10:00 am – 12:15 pm. Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies Seminar Room, Wesleyan University. 343 Washington Terrace. Middletown, CT 06547

A workshop focused on the problems and prospects of translating premodern and contemporary poetry from the Chinese and Tibetan. Presentations and conversations will cover the processes of literary and cultural translation. Examples will draw upon classical and contemporary expressions of religious, cultural, and political thought and commentary across multiple traditions. Presentations consider translations as readings, interpretations, and arguments about the source text, its author, its time and place, and about its reception in new spaces.

10:00–10:15 Introductions by Ao Wang (CEAS) & Andrew Quintman (Religion)

10:15–10:45 Eleanor Goodman, “Working with Words: Reading and Translating Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry”

10:45–11:15 Ian Boyden, “Bearing Witness: Translating the Poetry of Tsering Woeser”

11:15–11:45 Kurtis R. Schaeffer, “Tibetan Buddhist Poetry: Playing with Translations”

11:45–12:15 Discussion


Ian Boyden is a visual artist, poet, and translator. Consistent across his productions are an intense interest in material relevance, place-based thought, and ecology, with a deep awareness of East Asian aesthetics. He studied for several years in China and Japan, and ultimately received degrees in the History of Art from Wesleyan University and Yale University. His work is interdisciplinary, and collaborations have involved a variety of scientists, poets, composers, and other visual artists. He has collaborated with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and recently received a NEA Literature Translation Fellowship to translate the collected work of Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser.

Eleanor Goodman is an American poet, writer, and translator of Chinese. Her 2014 translation of the poems of Wang Xiaoni, Something Crosses My Mind was an international finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize and a winner of the Lucien Stryk American Literary Translators Association Prize for excellence in translation. She is a research associate at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and writes frequently for the Paris Review, Best American Poetry, and ChinaFile.

Kurtis R. Schaeffer is the Frances Myers Ball Professor of Religion and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He is a scholar of Buddhist history and culture, with a special interest in the spiritual literature of Tibet and the Himalayas. He is the author or editor of nine books, including the largest anthology of Tibetan literature in English and, most recently, a translation of the life of the Buddha.

Tsering Woeser is a Tibetan activist, blogger, poet, and essayist based in Beijing. Woeser’s Chinese-language blog is here. English translations of her work can be found on High Peaks Pure Earth.

Sponsored by the College of East Asian Studies, the Department of Religion, the Fries Center for Global Studies, and the Office of the Deans of Humanities and Social Sciences.