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New translation of “King Gesar”

April 10, 2013

Shambhala has announced that it now has for sale the first volume (out of a projected three volumes) of Robin Konrad’s long awaited translation of King Gesar (Gesar of Ling), the great epic classic of Mongolia and Tibet.  

Shambhala is offering the first volume at 30% off with free shipping (with coupon code EGL413) in the US through April 30.   Amazon and other commercial booksellers will not have the volume in stock until July 9.

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I just ordered my copy, so I can not speak to Konrad’s translation, except to say that I’ve heard buzz about it for years.  I am pretty excited.

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Gesar is a vast work.  Wikipedia claims that a Chinese compilation of the Tibetan versions of the epic fills over 120 volumes and a million verses; another source claims that it is twenty-five times the length of the Iliad.  I am not sure that either of these claims are correct, but in any case, the Shambhala publication (which presumably will be between 2,000 and 2,500 pages in length when complete) is of a version that is longer than the Iliad, but not twenty-five times the length of the Iliad

GesarOfLingDance

The Shambhala publication is not the first English adaptation, although previous adaptations in English have been much more abbreviated, and I understand that they are not really translations as much as retellings  (the ones I have seen are Alexander David-Neel’s 1934 version and Douglas Pennick’s three volume [1996-2011] version [volume 1, volume 2, volume 3]; I know that there are other adaptations in English.)

Gesar

Like other length epics (such as the Iliad, Odyssey, Mahabharata, Ramayana) the Mogolian-Tibetan epic King Gesar has its roots in oral recitations.  One difference is that King Gesar continues to be orally recited by singers today.  If you have ever seen the (highly recommended) movie Saltmen of Tibet, you will certainly recall the singer Yumen who sings from the portion of King Gesar known as “The Song of Ma Nene Karmo” (you can read a transcript of the English subtitles here). 

Mircea Eliade, in his study of Shamanism, made a claim that:

Whereas “false stories” can be told anywhere and at any time, myths must not be recited except during a period of sacred time (usually in autumn or winter, and only at night).[…] This custom has survived even among peoples who have passed beyond the archaic stage of culture. Among the Turco-Mongols and the Tibetans the epic songs of the Gesar cycle can be recited only at night and in winter.

(I am not certain that Eliade’s claim is strictly true, but it is certainly evocative!)

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King Gesar has had a tremendous influence on both the arts and folk art of Central Asia (see for example this collection of Tibetan thangkas retelling the King Gesar story) and the Gesar character represents a certain ideal of the magician-warrior-king.  There are a number of Western art works that adapt King Gesar (notably, Peter Lieberson’s composition; which is available as a Sony recording featuring Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and Peter Serkin.

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As I mention above, I have not yet seen the Robin Konrad translation; moreover, I am not in a position to judge it because I only know the King Gesar story from secondary sources.  Still, this version comes with so much anticipation that it could very well be one of the most important translations of 2013.  Here is hoping that it is good!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 14, 2014 10:17 am

    Thanks for this post, which I found while searching for info on Gesar translations. I got excited last year when I saw the Robin Kornman translation was taken up by Penguin Classics. I’d seen a publishing date of April 3, 2014 — unfortunately, the date on Amazon has been shifted back to 2017… bit of a wait. That was a blow to my hopes. At least, I hope these aren’t just rumours, be great to have an easily-gettable, affordable Penguin of this.

    I copy my info from Amazon:

    Series: Penguin Classics
    Paperback: 800 pages
    Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd (March 30, 2017)
    ISBN-10: 0140449361
    ISBN-13: 978-0140449365

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0140449361

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