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 Golden Hill 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 Golden Hill so extraordinary.

Golden Hill 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.

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.

Simon Wickham-Smith
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
May 9th 2007