EVERY SHAMAN IN MONGOLIA has their own translator.
My colleague and translator, Erdene, tells me that every shaman speaks their own private language:
Part ancient Mongolian.
Part something else that’s indescribable, untranslatable.
The translator has to know them intimately. They not only know the shaman, but also every ancestor the shaman becomes.
“As soon as the shaman sits (after their trance), I know from the first word spoken who they are,” says Deegii, translator to a shaman. “Then I know the specific language that the ancestor is speaking. The different ancestor spirits speak a different kind of language in a way. It is something that I have learned only by observing and being a translator to this shaman for many years.”
I learn early on in my experiences of visiting Mongolia that I could never hope to fully understand everything. There will always be a part that remains inaccessible.
THE SHAMANS THEMSELVES ARE a kind of translator. Tomorkhuu, the lead shaman in the troupe, explains to me that, in the process of trance, shamans leave their bodies, which then become inhabited by an ancestor. “The ancestors come to our body to speak to the present moment, but they are of the past. We are, in a way, translators of the past.”
On this cool spring afternoon I am sitting on the dry brown grass of a mountain range on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, known as valley of the yellow flowers. I am wedged between a line of translators. The shaman, Tomorkhuu (in trance), translates the ancestor, his translator translates him, my translator translates her, and I—at the end of the line—try my best to translate what it all might mean.
When I feel the ground
I feel the roots of something that runs so far back
it doesn’t have a name
LHAMSUREN IS THERE TO see the shaman about a problem she is having.
Usually a feisty, sharp-tongued seventy-year-old who has the room in hysterics with her embellished stories, today she is unusually somber as she sits on the dusty ground in front of Tomorkhuu.
They met several years ago. Lhamsuren spends her weekends driving around the hills in her small car, making sure people “aren’t getting into any trouble.” She often finds herself in yelling matches with people illegally cutting down trees or using the valley as a dumpsite. Lhamsuren found Tomorkhuu and his traveling shaman troupe this way. They were carrying out a land ritual in the valley when she stopped to tell them to leave and stop “stirring up black magic.” Tomorkhuu invited her to sit and talk, and it was then that Lhamsuren had her first session with a shaman. In the years since, Lhamsuren has built them a ger (yurt) on her land where they store their shamanic paraphernalia.
Lhamsuren clears her throat and begins:
“I have lived in this valley for thirty years. Back then there was no one else around. But the cities and ger districts have grown and grown, and now they reach my valley. The other day the social worker delivered me a letter: You are now counted as being in the city. You must discard of all your animals. No animals to be kept in the city. Immediate eviction!”
The shaman listens and takes small sips of milk under his mask.
Lhamsuren is wiping back tears. She describes her relationship to her animals as symbiotic. As intimate. She once told me that she speaks to her animals every day and that, in a way, they speak back to her.
The shaman shakily puts down the milk and takes Lhamsuren’s hand. His voice is gravelly. As he speaks, there is a feeling of stillness, as though everyone is holding their breath. When he finishes what he is saying, he sits back, his head collapsing. All the energy from him has gone.
His translator starts relaying the message back to Lhamsuren. And as she listens, she is nodding and wiping back tears.
Something like relief flashes across her face.
I wait patiently for the line to reach me. I look at Erdene and he leans forward slightly and whispers in my ear: It can’t be translated. It doesn’t have a translation.
I get my analog photos back a few days later. As the young man hands them to me, he tells me that there has been damage to the images. He tried to work out what could have happened, but it isn’t clear.
I open the photos at home. At first they seem intact but as I keep looking through the images, I see the beginnings of light blurs, small flares singeing the frame. The last image is a flurry of light damage, like a small explosion of speckled fireworks.
They are imperfect images.
An imperfect translation.
The word photograph derives from the Greek phos (light) and graphê (drawing or writing). It was initially one of several curious names for the technology along with photogene, heliograph, photogram, and sun print.