Altan Ovoo

Altan Ovoo

1       The name “Altan Ovoo”


The lovely hill named Altan Ovoo is located in the wilderness on the south-eastern border of Mongolia. The local inhabitants have come, for many centuries, to pray and make offerings there. Altan Ovoo is supreme among the hills and the waters of this area and it unites them at the place where story meets with the natural world. The local people offer prayers to, and compose stories and poems about, Altan Ovoo, they take stones to place in the place of honor in their ger, and so the spirit of Altan Ovoo sinks its teeth into their neck. Altan Ovoo is a symbol of the wisdom and cultural history of Dariganga. Writers have spoken with love of how the land has granted to the world the culture, history, traditions and intuition of the nomadic community on the wild steppe. The name of the book Altan Ovoo, however, reveals not only the name of the mountain but also the wisdom enclosed within the stupa of enlightenment. This is the reason why Mongols use a hill to represent a stupa.


2       The nature of Altan Ovoo


While it is very hard to categorise Altan Ovoo, we might say that it is a synthesis of all literary forms. Altan Ovoo constitutes a continuous text, but it is a text created from many literary styles and forms. Mongol critics have used various terms to describe it – scripture, epic, novel – but the book in fact contains examples of many different genres: myth, story, folktale, fantasy, meditation, belle lettres, poetry and memoir. It has been pointed out how Altan Ovoo weaves all of these together, as on a rosary, and it could be said to replicate the ancient Mongol forms of scripture or verse.



3 The history of the composition and publication of Altan Ovoo


The writing of Altan Ovoo was completed in 1989. This was the time when Mongolia was moving away from communist influence, onto the path of democracy.


1993 – first printing

2002 – second printing

2007 – third printing

2007 – English translation

2008 – fourth printing

2009 – the 93rd book in the “Best of Mongolian Literature” series

2010 – fifth printing, with added material
2012 - second printing of English translation


In 2002, the Mongol government brought the book for free distribution to academic libraries.



4 The English translation of Altan Ovoo


In 2007, Altan Ovoo was published for the first time in English translation, prepared by Simon Wickham-Smith. The publication of this English translation brought a great deal of positive criticism from its readers.   The following is the translator’s introduction.



Altan Ovoo represents Mongolian poet G Mend-Ooyo’s greatest literary achievement to date. He refers to it as an almanac, relating his own experience growing up in the Dariganga region of Mongolia, presenting the history and customs of his homeland through the focus of the topographical Altan Ovoo of the title.


   Mongolian critics have expressed their difficulty in understanding precisely what Mend-Ooyo’s text is offering the reader. It is true that his use of language is sometimes complex and rather opaque, that his images are visionary rather than literal, that his metaphors reflect more his own inner life than the apparent reality of the world he inhabits, but it is precisely this personal and intimate approach which makes Altan Ovoo so extraordinary.



   Altan Ovoo stretches across time, but it is not a history; it speaks of Mongolian culture, but it is not a cultural guidebook: rather it reveals an individual’s feeling for, understanding of and closeness to the worlds of dream and magic, the power of language, the closeness of family and the hardships and joys of nomadic life. Mend-Ooyo’s vision presents us with a world of flying horses, musicians, highway robbery, nomadic travel, astrology, hills and mountains, steppes and weather, lovers and words, a world through which the story of humanity gradually unfolds, both implicitly and explicitly, carried on the back both of metaphor and story.



   The text will speak for itself, or not at all. As translator, however, I have had to battle against the lack of direct mapping, not between the English and Mongolian languages, but between the English and Mongolian cultures. I have been greatly aided by direct discussions with Mend-Ooyo, whose enthusiasm and terpsichorean method of illustration has seen him miming out his childhood games for me and firing imaginary arrows across his office, the latter in an attempt to relate an arcane piece of Mongolian astrological lore.



   Mend-Ooyo’s assistant Mugi has been invaluable in explicating and interpreting the more complicated pirouettes of Mend-Ooyo’s mind; she has also been a source of coffee, biscuits and laughter. In fact, laughter has been a major feature of my work translating this book, it has kept us all relatively sane.



   I should like to thank the following people, who have provided a place in which I might work on this translation: Kisha Boyles and Henrietta Derania, Lyn Coffin, Anu and Iiris Kumpulainen, Tiina Mielonen and Vesa Vehviläinen, Katharine Norris, Dave Renham and Katy Austin, Virginia Walker and Joanne Young. 



   My father, Frank, has also watched me working slowly through this text. As ever, his material, emotional and spiritual support has made possible my continual and mysterious walk along this strange path which I have chosen for my life.



   And finally, there is Beth Myhr, without whose love I would not be the person I am now. This book is for her.



Simon Wickham-Smith

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

May 9th 2007



5 National and international criticism for Altan Ovoo


“…G.Mend-Ooyo has renouced superfluous language in his work, it is his special concern to take light so as to shine it upon the intellect. Altan Ovoo is a true song of home. I do not know of another work of such pure, imaginative power…”

S Erdene, Mongol writer


“Thinking about Altan Ovoo in these gloomy times with its shadowy books, it is a truly exceptional book. Altan Ovoo towers at the very center of my mind. A book like this comes up again and again, its intense sparks flaming upwards, casting its light undeniably upon the present. A brilliant book, however, is written by a brilliant man. From Altan Ovoo, I stand and look out over the mountains, over the whole world… “

Sh Uyanga, Mongol poet, in Ulaanbaatar, 1 July 1994


“…a book grows from a single stone on the Mongol steppe and takes its life in this world’s soil and waters, in its hills and stars and planets, and in the sun and moon, it wakes you up, it clearly opens your eyes to joys and sorrows...”

Professor S Jambaldorj, Mongol cultural scholar


“Altan Ovoo stretches across time, but it is not a history; it speaks of Mongolian culture, but it is not a cultural guidebook: rather it reveals an individual’s feeling for, understanding of and closeness to the worlds of dream and magic, the power of language, the closeness of family and the hardships and joys of nomadic life.” 

Simon Wickham-Smith, English translator and scholar of Mongol literature


“In particular, his work Altan Ovoo is a sincere, transparent poem of the true nomads and a magical poetic work expressing the aspiration for the safeguard of the natural essence and spiritual immunity of humankind and of the Mongols, who are being polluted and drowned amid urbanized social civilization..”

Ya Baatar, Mongol poet and literary scholar


“It is wonderful how one can sense the words of Altan Ovoo when reading the love of so true a heart for the landscape.”

Imre P.Zsoldos, Hungarian poet and scholar


“G.Mend-Ooyo has suggested that “the causes of all things in this world seem linked together upon a single thread.” In Altan Ovoo he is in search of this thread, sewn into everything, and he finds it, “a magic power of the mind, founded in the very land.”

D Urianhai, Mongol writer and literary scholar


“I am happy for my young literary colleagues, who will read and study this book Altan Ovoo.”

T Ochirhüü, Mongol poet