The Snow Lion Storytelling Initiative focuses on preserving indigenous languages by increasing access to translated publications to children. The project began in 2012 in Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Tibetan refugee community of India. We originally planned to distribute 2,000 freshly printed children’s books translated into Tibetan to nine private schools throughout North India free-of-charge. Spending the summer in the refugee community and meeting with officials of Tibet’s government in exile enabled us to expand the scope of our work to include public schools and centers that act as homes for orphans and children who cannot live with their families: in partnership with the Tibetan Department of Education, Snow Lion has successfully distributed the books to all fifty public and private Tibetan schools across India, Nepal and Bhutan.
After consulting about the choice of books with members of the refugee community like Montreal-based Jinpa Langri, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s principal translator, Snow Lion hired Tibetan students from a community center in Dharamsala to translate children’s books from other cultures into Tibetan. Hailing from Africa to the Arctic, and Asia to America, these stories are spark interest in the world and its possibilities while promoting literacy in the children’s native language.
Project Description and Pursuit of Funding
In 2012, Snow Lion director and founder Eléonore Buchet-Deák was awarded the Dalai Lama Fellowship, a highly competitive global program that grants up to $10,000 to students at select universities to design and launch ambitious projects in communities of their choice. The product of McGill University’s 2012-2013 Dalai Lama Fellowship, the Snow Lion Storytelling Initiative promotes literacy and the preservation of Tibetan language via cross-cultural exchange. By promoting literacy and multilingualism, Snow Lion is a creative project that empowers the 190,000 Tibetan refugees that live throughout India, Nepal and Bhutan.
Results and Relevance: Why Translate Children’s Books?
Tibetan refugee children do not have the privilege of reading storybooks beloved by children around the world. Because of the shortage of children’s literature available in Tibetan, the culture of reading as an extra-curricular activity does not exist. Snow Lion looks to bring the world’s favorite children’s books to Tibetan refugee children, so as to both promote proficiency in the Tibetan language from an early age and inspire curiosity in other cultures.
Tenzin Tethong, president of the Dalai Lama Foundation, has noted that the experience of reading a book about a different culture encourages Tibetan children to consider the world outside, an opportunity that does not come easily from within the refugee community.
With the goal of avoiding the loss of yet another language and culture, Snow Lion encourages literacy and language use through the creative intercultural exchange that translated children’s books facilitate. In collaboration with the Indian publisher Full Circle Publishing and the Tibetan Cultural & Religious Publication Centre, the 2,000 books were printed and distributed from Delhi, rather than shipped across oceans unnecessarily.
Educational Impact and Influence: Why Translate English-language books?
Given that English is the most learned language in the refugee community, translating books from English allowed for a greater number of Tibetan students the chance to participate in the translation project. This summer, Snow Lion provided employment opportunities for Tibetan students learning English, introducing new career paths in the translation, publishing and distribution of five titles. Snow Lion afforded exposure to these aspiring translators: earlier this month, Radio Free Asia invited Snow Lion translators to speak about this formative experience.
The illustrations in the books play an equally important role as the words. The Tibetan Department of Education’s Kunga Gyatsen, Snow Lion advisor and editor of a children’s magazine distributed to refugee schools across India, Nepal and Bhutan, explained that the art in translated books is invaluable to the Tibetan community—at least at this point in time. “Finding high quality illustrations is a challenge for us,” Mr. Gyatsen said. “Through these illustrations, our children gain access to new dimensions.”
As Namgyal Yemphel, headmaster of Sambhota Tibetan School Shillong wrote:
“The big picture story book in Tibetan is one of its kind that I have seen so far. As I have two kids who are 9 and 6 respectively, I can tell you that they both loved the story books. Since we are on holidays these days, they both have already read the story books and loved it immensely. I am sure when our students come back to the school after the winter break they would also enjoy reading these story books. Thank you very much for your hard work and effort to promote reading habits among our children. As a teacher and an administrator I have always felt the dearth of quality story books in Tibetan. The ones that are available are too cumbersome and boring for the children to read as they lack colourful illustrations. I appreciate your effort and thank you and your team on behalf of all the staff and students of our school. Hope to see many more books in the future.”
Geshe Lhakdor, the director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, said that the Tibetan community has a dire need for imaginative illustrations in children’s books because the art that is learned in the community is mostly traditional and does not stimulate the children’s imaginations as it could. “The children read the pictures,” he said, “and the art of Tibetan illustrators does not capture this magic yet.” The magic of triggering wonder is invaluable to a child’s intellectual development: the art and story take on a life of their own in a young mind and stretch the child’s imaginative faculties, the foundation of creative thought.
Like poetry or art for the seasoned adult, children’s books play a foundational role in the development of human intelligence. The art in these children’s books does not simply complement the stories: the illustrations are essential in facilitating the children’s comprehension of cultural-specific vocabulary that the diverse stories introduce. Learning to recognize Mukluks as boots that the Inuit mother and daughter wear in one of the books not only broadens the child’s awareness, but also actualizes and expands the Tibetan language itself.
An Innovative Approach to a Complex Issue
Snow Lion proposes a realistic approach to conserving Tibetan culture by not only preserving Tibetan language but also adapting it to new contexts. In an environment where English, the official languages of India, and those of neighboring China are the dominant tongues, Tibetan language faces a considerable threat as the incentives for young people to learn it diminish. Snow Lion promotes literacy and the celebration of Tibetan language directly by demonstrating the Tibetan language to be just as viable and important as these regional and national languages, doing so because the chosen books are already available in those languages.
The chosen titles were selected because they are internationally successful children’s picture books already available in India in these dominant languages, so that students can learn their native Tibetan by comparing the different versions of the books. This multicultural approach to education has caught the attention of the children’s book community. Snow Lion was invited to present at the International Seminar on “Multiculturalism in Children’s Books: Difference in Translation” at the 50th anniversary of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the largest conference on children’s literature. We look forward to presenting this year at the 2014 conference.
The project thus has two specific areas of focus. The first is to provide translating experience to students at the Dharamsala-based community centre, and to give them the opportunity to use their recently learned skills to benefit their community by helping to preserve Tibetan language. The second is to equip Tibetan children (and interested adults) with a resource that both encourages them to learn their native language and promotes literacy in a broad sense. Snow Lion thus participates in the nonviolent movement to preserve cultural diversity by promoting Tibetan language through the peaceful medium of children’s literature.
The two missions of Snow Lion came together beautifully when we received a letter of acknowledgement from SOS Tibetan Children’s Village Gopalpur where our Snow Lion translator Khawabu Lobsang Tgupten graduated from years ago.
With a board of advisors hailing from over five countries and three continents, Snow Lion’s paws extend far and wide. While we are very proud to be working with the Tibetan community, we look forward to collaborating with other communities in the future!