Mongolia Monday- Poetry Special, Part 2

For Part 2 of this special post, here is Simon Wickham-Smith sharing how he became involved in things Mongolian, along with a little information on translating literature from one language into another. His comment about the number of precise words that exist in Mongolian for some parts of their world and culture reminds me of hearing that the Inuit have 37 names for snow, but no generic term as occurs in English.

Gandan Monastery, Ulaanbaatar 2006
Gandan Monastery, Ulaanbaatar 2006

Simon Wickham-Smith: My own involvement with Mongolian literature started when I was a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Scotland during the 1990s.  I became interested – obsessed might be a better word – with the life and writings of the 6th Dalai Lama and, during my research, came across a reference to Danzanravjaa, a nineteenth century nationalist, scholar, poet and Buddhist monk.

I had already studied Mongolian for some time during the early nineties, and now I started to read and translate Danzanravjaa’s collected works.  When I finally finished this work, in 2005, I felt that, really as a matter of courtesy,  I should write to someone in Mongolia and let them know what I had done.

Thus it was that I came into contact with Gombojavin Mend-Ooyo, one of Mongolia’s most famous literary figures, who invited me to Ulaanbaatar the following year and for whose Mongolian Academy of Poetry and Culture ( I have now translated ten books, with at least four more in the pipeline.

The act of translation from any language is a subtle and nuanced negotiation, but when dealing with a source culture which is so very different from the target culture, a number of problems appear.  And so it is with Mongolian.

Painting seen at the Mongolian Artists' Union, Ulaanbaatar 2006
Painting seen at the Mongolian Artists' Union gallery, Ulaanbaatar 2006

The number of words used to describe the natural landscape, animals and animal products, and the movement of the heavens are so detailed and precise as to be effectively untranslatable into English, short of adding phrases or entire sentences to the mix.  This, together with the morphology and structure of the language, means that simply recording what is said in the original becomes a restructuring of thought and a reinterpretation of culture.  Once these concerns are settled, then the literary work can begin, and the rhythm, sound and development of the text finessed.

Over the next five years, the Mongolian Academy of Poetry and Culture intends to publish more translations and to encourage scholarship in both Mongolian and English.  As for me, I am soon to embark upon postgraduate work at the University of Washington’s Jackson School, with an emphasis on Mongolian literature.  Moreover, I am also co-director of the Center for Central Asian Literatures in Translation at UW (, which is hoping to increase the profile of literature from across Central Asia.

I’d like to thank Susan for letting me benignly invade her blog.  I hope that the work that she and I, along with many others, are doing, will encourage people to investigate Mongolian culture and, in particular, its literature.

Statue of Chinggis Khan, Government House, Ulaanbaatar 2008
Statue of Chinggis Khan, Government House, Ulaanbaatar 2008

You’re very welcome Simon! It’s a pleasure and a privilege to have you participate here. The following poems are a little on the longer side, but I think that they really show a side of the Mongol people that Westerners, raised on the idea of Chinggis Khan and his Horde cutting a path of destruction across a large chunk of the world, don’t realize exists. If nothing else, it demonstrates our common humanity across time and space. Not a bad thing these days.

Jargalant at sunrise, Khar Us Nur National Park 2006
Jargalant at sunrise, Khar Us Nuur National Park 2006

Khubilai Khann (1215-1294)
(Yes, that Kublai Khan)

One a day blessed by good fortune,
I climbed up a blue bluff.
I stepped carefully on the ground,
So as not to destroy the landscape.
The flowers glowed red,
Like rainbows.
A beryllium light glistened like mist or smoke or blue haze.
The bamboos along the streams grew green from rain fall and spring water.
The wind blew through the mountain pines with a wonderful fluting melody.
I paid my respects
At the sacred temples,
And returned with the aid of Indra.
And controlled the dragons.

Western Mongolia 2006, "expedition" group shot
Western Mongolia 2006,"expedition" group shot; two German graduate students, myself, the American, and the Mongolians who made it happen; Jargalant in the background


Love one another, my people, while you are alive.
Don’t keep from others whatever you find beautiful.
Don’t wound my heart with heedless barbs, and
don’t push anyone into a dark hole.
Don’t mock someone who has gotten drunk,
think how it could even be your own father.
And, if you manage to become famous,
open the door to happiness to others!
They should also not forget your kindness.
To someone who is lacking a single word of kindness,
you should search for it and speak it out.
Whether outside the sun or at home when it’s mild,
don’t spend one moment at rest.
Don’t use harsh words to complain, you women,
about the young man you remember.
Speak lovingly of those who loved you!
Let them remember you as a good lover.
Our lives are similar,
our words constrict our throats the same way,
our tears drop onto our cheeks the same way-
things are much the same as we go along the road.
Wipe away a halt woman’s tears without a word,
talk your lover up when she’s tripped and fallen!
Today you’re smiling, tomorrow you’ll be crying.
Another day you’re sad, and the next you’ll be singing.
We all pass from the cradle to the grave-
if for no other reason , love one another!
People must not lack love on this wide earth!
I grasp happiness with the fire of my human mind,
the golden shines lovingly upon us all the same, and
so I think that loving others is the path of life,
I understand that to be loved is a great joy.

O Dashbalbar (1957-1999)