National Endowment for the Arts awards Ian Boyden of Friday Harbor

Submitted by the National Endowment for the Arts

Ian Boyden of Friday Harbor will receive a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship for $12,500. The fellowship is being awarded to support the translation from Chinese into English in the poetry collection “Minority” by Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser.

Woeser is considered one of China’s most respected living Tibetan writers. Her Tibetan heritage is central to her work, which has themes that include alienation due to the ongoing and often violent erosion of Tibetan culture. “Minority” is a 120-page collection comprising roughly 35 poems. The translation is particularly complex, as Woeser is conveying the Tibetan experience using the Chinese language. As a young girl in the Cultural Revolution, Woeser was “re-educated,” meaning Chinese was taught in schools to replace the mother tongue.

Her poems confront sensitive topics, such as the wave of self-immolation that has swept through Tibetan society in the last decade, and the destruction by the Chinese government of Larung Gar, the largest Buddhist academy in the world. John Kerry of the U.S. State Department gave Woeser the International Women of Courage Award in 2013. In 2010, she was also was honored with a Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation. A human rights advocate, Woeser has been under intermittent house arrest for the past several years and was only recently allowed to return to her Tibetan homeland for a limited time.

Boyden is a translator, writer, artist and curator. His translations of Woeser’s work have been published on leading human rights and Tibetan cultural websites, including Radio Free Asia, Invisible Tibet and High Peaks Pure Earth. His translation of her poem “The Spider of Yabzhi Taktser” was declared the most readable translation of a Tibetan poem in 2017. Boyden studied for many years in China and Japan and holds degrees in the History of Art from Wesleyan University and Yale University. View poem translations at

“My friendship with Woeser started in an unusual way,” said Boyden. “Several years ago, I carved a huge self-portrait out of wood, and when I was finished carving it, I lit it on fire, thinking I was making a statement about forest fires here in the Pacific Northwest. Instead what I saw burning before me was a statement about self-immolation. So I wrote to Woeser, who had written a book titled ‘Tibet on Fire’ about the huge number of self-immolations that have occurred across Tibet in recent years in protest against the Chinese occupation of that country. To my amazement, she wrote back to me.” That conversation continued, and they still write to each other several times a week.

“Woeser’s voice is incredibly important, unique, prescient,” said Boyden. “There is an urgency in translating her work. As a poet and humanist, I take great pleasure in translating Woeser’s complex poetry and making her spirit and voice come alive in another language. I have been doing this work uncompensated at the edges of my days whenever I can find a slice of time. Receiving an NEA fellowship affirms of the significance of this effort. I am very grateful for the time, support, and recognition the award will provide, as well as the opportunity to share Woeser’s poems with an English-speaking audience.”

Boyden is one of 25 Literature Translation Fellows for the fiscal year 2019. In total, the NEA is recommending $325,000 in grants this round to support the new translation of poetry and prose from 17 countries into English.

“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support these 25 new projects, building on more than 35 years of funding literature translation,” said NEA Acting Chairman Mary Anne Carter. “Translation not only provides American readers with access to many of the world’s most talented and respected writers but through the skill and creativity of the authors and translators, readers can explore new and often unique perspectives and experiences.”

Since 1981, the NEA has awarded 480 fellowships to 425 literary translators, with translations representing 69 languages and 83 countries. The review criteria for these projects consist not only of the translators’ skill but also the importance of a particular work to English-speaking audiences, including those authors and languages that are often underrepresented.

Established by Congress in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts is the independent federal agency whose funding and support give Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America.

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