“He was an indomitable figure,” translator Michael Sweet said about Father Ippolito Desideri, an Italian Jesuit who traveled to Tibet in 1716 and stayed until 1721. “His writing is wonderful. It’s a very accurate description of the land, the customs, the commerce, the people, the religion,” Sweet said. Sweet and Leonard Zwilling are the driving forces behind the translated book, a project they embarked on years ago. “This was something that germinated over many years,” Sweet said. He and Zwilling had been active in the Buddhist studies program at UW-Madison, where they learned of Desideri’s work. “We had a unique vantage point by having Tibetan knowledge and Mike’s Italian language skills. He started translating the work in about 2003 and it took seven years,” Zwilling said. “We joke that it took longer to do this book than Desideri spent in Tibet.” Desideri’s exploits made for fascinating work for the translators.
“It’s this tale of a guy making his way from Italy across the sea to India, over the Himalayas, across the Tibetan plateau in winter,” Sweet said.
Desideri brought no intellectual baggage with him, because he was essentially the first European to learn about Buddhism from Tibetan scholars. “He didn’t have any preconceptions,” Zwilling said. “He had the good fortune, or misfortune perhaps, of being in India at a time of great turmoil. He’s the only Western witness to a very tumultuous time in Tibet. It’s a very important writing historically.” Desideri had such an affinity for languages and such acute perception skills that he was the right man at the right time to encounter Tibetan intellectuals and engage them in dialogue over their own religion, Sweet said. His time spent there produced the first dialogue between a Western thinker and Tibetan Buddhist culture.
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