Alai’s “The Song of Gesar”: Abridged, Prose-driven Text and Lack of Annotations Disappoint

Here’s one of the first reviews that I’ve seen of Howard Goldblatt’s and Sylvia Li-chun Lin’s rendering of Alai’s The Song of Gesar, and one that I particularly enjoyed because reviewer Jim Murdoch is a Scottish writer who does his research, takes a stand and makes no claim to being a China hand:

When this book arrived from Canongate I got the wrong end of the stick completely. I assumed it was an English translation because it says on the back:

THE FIRST ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THE TIBETAN HEROIC EPIC

which it is not. Alexandra David-Néel translated the epic into French in 1931: this was subsequently translated into English as The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling in 1933 and on checking Amazon I found several other English translations; Douglas J. Penick, for example, has recently completed a three-volume version. There’s nothing on the dust jacket of The Song of Gesar to suggest this is actually a part of Canongate’s long-running Myth Series in which ancient myths from various cultures are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors which is, in fact, what it is. As far as I was aware there are eighteen of these so I did wonder why on the book’s spine there was a ‘XV’ but I let that pass; they’re planning a hundred in total. It would’ve probably helped, too, if I had known who Alai was, but I didn’t and just dived into the book without checking anything as I tend to do if I can get away with it assuming that the less I know beforehand the better.

Most of the books in the Myths Series are short—that was part of the deal—but when you’re starting off with a text that fills some 120 volumes concessions have to be made. That Alai managed to compress the epic into a single volume is commendable in itself although to be fair what we have here is an abridged version of Alai’s book. Alai wrote his original in Chinese and was agreeable to the work being shortened further following the translation process. But at what cost?