THT 496 (B 496) is the catalogue number assigned to a fragment of a scroll excavated in Kucha, or Qizil Miŋ-Öy, on the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert, in what is now the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The manuscript is housed in the Berlin Turfan Collection. The language of the poem is Tocharian B, likely the oldest of the Tocharian languages that represent the easternmost edge of the Indo-European languages of late antiquity. The oldest Tocharian records date roughly to the fifth century CE.
On the scroll fragment there are roughly eight lines of text in what appear to be at least two hands. Although written continuously, the text is clearly metrical—adopting a common structure of four strophes with 25 syllables each. The text I print is extrapolated from discussions of its prosody in the work of Douglas Q. Adams.1 I decided to include individual word stresses to emphasize poetic patterns of alliteration, stress, and word order within the original.
Nearly all surviving literary texts in Tocharian are sacred, Buddhist works—except, it would seem, for this very poem, which appears to be a secular love poem. Its meter has been much discussed, as well as its other prosodic characteristics, like alliteration and stress. Given its uniqueness, it has attracted considerable attention compared to the rest of the corpus, which remains for the most part accessible only to specialists.
My decision to offer a new translation of this poem is as part of a preliminary effort to produce an anthology of Tocharian literature in translation. Since a few relatively technical translations of this poem already exist in German, English, and French, I have here taken several liberties in the direction of “advocacy”—in the hope it may inspire others to take a first, tentative look at the original and the rest of the corpus—and with an eye to translating the poem as a poem.
Accordingly, I have not held back from inserting several idiosyncratic interpretive turns of thought into the translation, making use of slashes to signal my more heavy-handed interventions. I determined it important to open up spaces in which the ancient meanings and my modern interests aligned, mixing elements of the original with my own feelings regarding what might be termed the suprasegmental and suggestive meaning of the text today—i.e., in a world where poetry operates in a different ontological space, is differently disseminated, and so forth. The gaps are perhaps foreshortened because this is a secular poem. However, as scholars have noted, this only raises further questions about indigenous or pre-Buddhist poetics—questions engaged with deciphering a horizon even more remote than that already attested in the difficult Tocharian corpus.
Whether or not this poem properly represents a moment of such transition, its survival as the only secular poem in the corpus remains intriguing. For one, while the scroll is fragmentary, the poem is somewhat unlike a “fragment” as we know it. While fragments survive somewhat by chance, before this poem became a fragment there appears to have been a very intentional effort to preserve it in a context in which documents like it appear to not have been preserved so readily. It may be that it was copied down alongside many other monastic exercises in copying and redaction—or it may be that this is a personal document, a keepsake jotted down on an already discarded piece of paper. In whichever direction we choose to speculate, the matter of its translation seems to me complicated by the kinds of decisions that led to its intentional survival across an ancient cultural divide in which the only other literary texts that seem to have been preserved are explicitly Buddhist ones.
There are many things that might be said about the poem and my translation, but I’ll limit myself to a single interpretive observation so as to let the reader make up their own mind about the whole. I found working with this text particularly interesting on the level of what I’d term a heavily pronominal and prepositional idiom that enmeshes the speaker and his lover at the level of syntax and poetic diction. In other words, the formal language of the poem seems to trace in outline the various ways in which the “I” of the poem is placed in relation to the “you,” in degrees of proximity and intimacy (but also distance) that are expressed very cleanly through the syntax of chosen verbal phrases and their complements. The poem seems to me to hang onto this framework, expanding on devices of comparison (“dearer to me,” “lovelier to me,”) and possession (“/y/our story,” “my heart /that was your heart/”), moving in the direction of narrative without ever suspending its negotiation of relationality (“....precluded that I be consoled in you”). In this capacity the text raises questions about its status as a “lyric” poem in more than a merely metrical sense—and about the transhistorical potential of that category.
1 Adams, “More Thoughts on Tocharian B Prosody,” in Tocharian and Indo-European Studies 14, 2013: 3-30.