Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Regalia Untranslatable - Part Three

To start at the beginning, go here.

Look back at the frontispiece of Part Two, the first-listed of the nine regalia, the གསེར་ཁྲི་ཆུ་དར་ཅན་, “golden throne with/having chu-dar” — that term chu-dar that we will prefer to translate very literally as water silkNotice what was said just above about it being a blue material resembling water. (Feather clothing is an interesting side issue we won’t enter into now, although it was possible to use feathers as fiber source for making a fabric...)

Notice now that it is no longer blue but has a golden finish (I would rather interpret as having a golden luster). Remember this, it may prove significant.

As you read here, knowledge of ‘sea wool’ or ‘silk’ goes back to the earlier centuries of first millennium China. Here is what the Mediterranean mollusk Pinna nobilis mentioned here looks like.

And here is what it looks like under water:

The fibers that anchor the mollusk to the rock are semi-translucent, with a smooth tube-like structure — the color changes depending on light, but ranges from brown to orange to golden, with other colors refracting in light. It can be treated to make it even more translucent and shiney. Carded, spun and woven, the fabric is extremely lightweight (and they say a pair of gloves made of it can fit inside a walnut shell). It is said to be difficult if not impossible to make it take dye; if so a blue color would be unlikely. Moths love it, so few medieval examples survive, and those that do had to be carefully stored. It is quite inflammable.

There is a class of icons venerated in Greek Orthodox Christianity called acheiropoieton, ‘not handmade.’ In English they are usually called “Icons not made by hand” (words that may be useful for an internet search). But unlike rang byung images in Tibet, which can take shape on their own, these Christian icons result from direct contact of the body with a cloth or other medium.

It may still be true that few people know about the existence of sea silk, but it’s become better known early in the 21th century largely due to attention paid this icon and because of a 2004 exhibit in a museum in Switzerland that gathered together the rare objects made of it from all over Europe.

So, to sum up, water silk was known in early days at both ends of the Eurasian continent, although it occurs in nature in no other place than the Mediterranean Sea. Chu-dar is known from other contexts in Tibetan literary history where it is often associated with water sheep (chu-lug) and water wool (chu-bal), just as it had been in the Mediterranean region and in early China. And, being a substance of such extreme luxury, it was connected with royalty. I am now convinced it was this very substance that was used to upholster the golden throne of the early Tibetan emperors.

The Tibetan letters fail to stack properly (I apologize)

But we are not quite finished yet. There is a closely related but distinct issue that merits a few words. In a different listing of regalia found in the very same Khepa Deyu history (p. 234), we find as the first listed item “ri-sdzi mgon-bu.”

In this other list of regalia, full of its own obstacles to interpretation, we find objects that came down from the sky with the first Tibetan emperor (Nyatri Tsenpo), most of the objects later on are magical implements of household, hunt and battlefield, tools that do their jobs automatically without the need to expend human energy. These very much resemble the wellknown magical weapons of Indian mythology, in particular the Vajra, a weapon that throws itself, hits the target, and returns to the owner's hand.

With ri-sdzi drawing a complete blank, and unsure what to do with the mgon-bu, I eventually decided that mgon-bu probably had the intended spelling mgron-bu ( མགོན་བུ་ ~ མགྲོན་བུ་). Mgron-bu (also spelled 'gron-bu) is the word for the cowrie shell, well known in ancient India as an object of exchange, a kind of currency (even after coins were introduced they continued to be called by the name karshapani, that was translated into Tibetan as mgron-bu).

I imagined that the entire expression might refer to a particular kind of cowrie shell, so I started looking around for it, and finally by searching for "riji cowrie," something popped up on the internet that astounded me:

Etched Pearl Shells were items of both bodily decoration and of exchange just as the cowrie was in early Africa and India*, and there is an emphasis in the literature on how they work as ‘power tokens’ in exchanges between men, that accumulating them leads to being regarded as Big Men. They are used not only in NW Australia where they have the name riji, but under other names with similar usages in New Guinea and further out into Polynesian island cultures. Within that region, at least, they served as currency for international exchange.
(*I hope to learn more about this, but I believe that since ancient times the Maldive Islands were the main suppliers of cowrie currency to both Africa and India, and it seems entirely possible that the designs were added to the pearl shells to make them resemble cowries, so that they, too, could be used for currency. Evidently the people who make the riji understand these to be water patterns. In his long entry on "Cowries" Paul Pelliot, in his Notes on Marco Polo, gives a lot of evidence that cowries and other shells were used as currency in China from early times, and in some areas such as Yunnan, continued to be so used until recently.)

Why were the two terms riji and cowrie juxtaposed like this? Because the riji is less familiar, and the word cowrie explains its function as currency.  The more familiar explains the less. Or it could be a conjunctive compound, "riji and cowries."

Is it possible that the landlocked Tibetan kings were passing down through the generations two symbols of their royal power that derived from far distant shellfish? Can two different ‘untranslatable’ regalia have conchological explanations? The first of the two I feel quite sure about  (given widespread knowledge of it in medieval Eurasia), and will certainly go with it, translating chu-dar literally as sea silk and adding an explanation in a footnote. The pearl shell I’m still unsure how to proceed. I may just let it go and forget about it. Is an Australian connection too difficult to accept? Will I lose credibility if I pursue it? Will tough-love reviewers say it’s idiotic? What do you think?

So, in conclusion...

There are times I think impossible passages are there to push in front of our noses the unwelcome truth that even our translations of the passably possible passages are not necessarily on the mark, either. The big and glaring failure points to smaller failures, very likely invisible ones. It is hard to discern the hope in this... and I did want to offer some hope.

My history translation experience made me more than ever a big believer in parallel texts. As I mentioned before, there are texts incorporated into the Lde'u history that may no longer exist in any other form (some smaller bits are quoted or summarized in other early histories), but the largest part of it by far is copied out from some existing text, one that simply must be consulted. Often it is the only way to find justifications for emending difficult passages. The parallel texts supply alternative readings, and these help to sharpen your mind to find the solution even when they don’t serve up solutions on a silver platter.

The Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center has just released online their searchable eText repository. As of now, this is the place to go to locate unusually difficult vocabulary items in various contexts. One may also with extreme ease locate parallel passages there that can prove to be essential aides in the overall understanding of difficult passages.

Of course, experts of various sorts need to be consulted, ideally the more the better. They, too, don’t always have immediate or ultimate solutions to offer, but they do very often have ideas that turn you in a different direction where the answer may be found if you persevere. And when this still doesn’t get you anywhere, at least you have the satisfaction of reassuring yourself that since experts X, Y and Z who know so much in this field didn’t offer a conclusive solution to the problem, it’s OK for me not to be able to explain it. At the end of my first two years of translating, I was left with a list of about 200 of what I called ‘double question marks,’ and even after much consultation during the last two years (both in person and by email), I think there are about 100 of these that are to my mind still less than satisfactorily resolved.

Impossible passages demand emendations. These fix-ups might be applied to the text from a variety of angles, but they do need to be justifiable, with the alteration minimal. We try tinkering with a spelling or toy with inserting or removing a  punctuation mark. But in the end, when all our efforts fail us, we may have to admit defeat. And when this happens, it is so much more honest to present the reader with a blank _____ (perhaps in the form of a phoneticized representation of the original wording) rather than slipping in a vague and careless conjecture just to smooth over the difficulty. The text demands too much respect to allow us to take the easy way out, at least not before it drives us crazy. Translators have responsibilities in two directions, both back in time to the composer as well as forward in time to the readers. We can't give up on either one.

So the simple and not very enlightening suggestion I have is this: Translators need to do everything they possibly can to come to an understanding of difficult vocabulary items and phrases. They may have to look very far and wide for the solutions, they may be forced to leave their comfortable positions, to get out from between the covers of the book they’re  translating, and this might lead them to look in some rather unexpected directions even as far away as the distant oceans.

— Continued here —

§  §  §

Listing of some significant writings on sea silk and pearl shells

John H. Appleby, The Royal Society and the Tartar Lamb, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, vol. 51, no. 1 (January 1997), pp. 23-34.

Brendan Burke, Looking for Sea-Silk in the Bronze Age Aegean. Follow the link.

Berthold Laufer, The Story of the Pinna and the Syrian Lamb, Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 38 (1915), pp. 103-128.  I also recommend Paul Pelliot's entry "Cotton" (the last several pages of the entry) in his Notes on Marco Polo.  You can get to it page-by-page at this website from Japan.  Try vol. 1, pp. 522-532, and note, too, the lengthy entry "Cowries" immediately following it.

There was a museum exhibition on sea silk in Basel in 2004, that brought together pieces from other parts of Europe.  Look here. A catalog was published: Felicitas Maeder, Ambros Hänggi, and Dominik Wunderlin, eds. Bisso marino: Fili d’oro dal fondo del mare / Muschelseide: Goldene Fäden vom Meeresgrund. Naturhistoriches Museum and Museum der Kulturen, Basel, (2004), bilingual Italian and German. I haven't seen it, have you?

There have been some more or less popular books written about the Manoppello icon coming out in Europe in recent years. See for some examples Das Muschelseidentuch: Auf der Suche nach dem wahren Antlitz Jesu (2005), by Paul Badde; Das Göttliche Gesicht: im Muschelseidentuch von Manoppello, also by Paul Badde; Von der Angesicht: Betrachtungen und Erfahrungen vor dem Muschelseidenbild in Manoppello (2007), by Cornelia Schrader; Der Manoppello-Code: Veronica Manipuli (2013), by von Markus van den Hövel. I see that the Paul Badde books are also available in English. For a dedicated Blogspot, see "Holy Face of Manoppello."

Just last month the icon made a personal visit to the Philippines, meaning I can’t tell you where to find it right now. So I recommend traveling to Sardinia instead of Italy right now, that is, if you dream of dropping in on the last remaining master of sea silk weaving. Look here or here. She has her own website, here. She has a small museum, too.

For a collection of scientific data on the Pinna nobilis, look here.  

For a discussion we once had back in 2009 about ocean products in Tibet with C.C., the author of Sitahu blog, look here. Although originally about a Tibetan word for shagreen, the ray skin grips used on knife or sword handles, Turkic original of the English word chagrin, it turned out to be about sea silk and other matters, and is worth revisiting. Shagreen is yet another sea product Tibetans made use of. (I’ll just mention conch shells, so as not to leave them unmentioned.)

And for pearl shell pendants:

Try searching the net and Googlebooks (or JSTOR, if you have institutional access) for riji and pearl shell. Don’t miss Cloth and Shell: Revealing the Luminous; not only aesthetically pleasing, informative and accessible, it gives inspiration to find out more.

Added Note (July 18, 2015):  

I just finished reading an article by Egami Namio, “Migration of the Cowrie-Shell Culture in East Asia,” Acta Asiatica, vol. 26 (1974), pp. 1-52.  One thing could prove especially relevant for understanding the ri-dzi 'g[r]on-bu of our text.  It is known from excavations of quite early sites in China that cowries were dug up together with other items that often included pang shells. Here pang shells are defined as freshwater bivalves.  However, I've found that  when pang shells are mentioned it can mean either one of two types of shells, one a type of native bivalve (some kind of clam or mollusk), and the other a [likely imported] pearl oyster shell.  I will have to try and find out more before using this to make conclusions about anything. Meanwhile, I ought to read this as well.


  1. These days I'm imagining that the Tibetan emperor's pearl shell (if that's what it was!) regalia may have resembled the Fijian breastplate called Civavonovono (try searching the web for that word and see what pops up).

  2. Fascinating link between east and west suggested here. I wish I would have seen this article sooner. Gser-mdangs as 'golden luster' rather than 'golden finish' is merited. I remember going back and forth on how to translate the word from indications I received from Bonpo scholars and your gloss fits nicely. If your premise in this article is valid, it opens onto a Eurasian world of manifold cultural connections, and from what I better know now, it is.


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