Time for a Dialogue?
Monday, September 17, 2012
Posted by: Lorraine Cashman
by Lee Haring --
Folklore studies and translation studies are two fields that have grown and
matured in recent years, without noticing each other. They have expanded in
tandem, far beyond what a great translator like Richmond Lattimore or our own
Richard Dorson could have foreseen in the 1950s. Growth in these fields has
meant an enlargement of their boundaries. Unfortunately, fixing those
boundaries entailed a mutual ignorance. It is time to rectify that ignorance.
Their intertwining is obvious.
When we castigate the Grimm brothers for their editorial and metadiscursive
practices, we are debating the translation issues of fidelity and "natural”
language. When we learn of Franz Boas’s reliance on George Hunt as interpreter,
we see translation at the foundation of folklore studies in the United States.
In West Africa, Kwesi Yankah in Speaking for the Chief has shown the
royal spokesman, as both the mouth and ear of the chief, to be an emblem of the
translator. As soon as a folktale or proverb is written down from oral performance,
its transcription is a kind of translation. If it is taken into another
language by the investigator, he or she becomes a translator.
Given that language, and every other signifying system, is a system of
differences, the techniques of coping with the differences are techniques of
translation. And isn’t the transmission of folklore itself a sort of
translation? Blind to each other, folklore and translation are dealing with difference.
And difference is essential to the two disciplines. The poet Charles Bernstein
once observed that seeing differences "is the source of our social power to
intervene, to agitate, to provoke, to rethink, to take sides--using all the
formal and cultural rhetorics at our command” (97). What we do with, or about,
the differences in one scholarly discourse is translation, in another it’s
These two fields—both threatened, both marginal in every university—can
make common cause both strategically and intellectually. They share so much.
Under the cloud of their reputation as weak academic disciplines, their
distinguished achievements should bring them more respect. They share the
cliché about being neglected: as translation is neglected or ignored in the
study of literature, so folklore’s generous provision of materials and styles
to literature, art, and music are most often neglected in those fields, except
in cases of what Albert B. Friedman, at AFS meetings, used to call the "little
folklore, big literature” assumption.
Yet the theoretical advances in both fields position them to contribute to
better understandings of cultures that are much needed elsewhere in the
academy. Folklore studies has significantly increased the attention paid to
intersemiotic processes within the philological enterprise, while at the same
time translation studies have revealed just how much those intersemiotic
processes can leave on the proverbial cutting room floor. My own research in
the Southwest Indian Ocean has shown that for each word of an imported folktale
like Cinderella, the creole storyteller remodels the image and the hearer
interprets it according to the emphases of creole culture (265-271). Further
work in creolization studies has made it clear that the renegotiation of culture,
which we call creolization, is itself a variety of translation.
Another sort of difference, which folklorists and translators could
examine, is between newer and older work in the two fields. As a folklorist
interested in reconstructing performances of the past, I would like old
published monographs to be transparent, so that I can discern the strategies of
long-silent informants. But they aren’t. Texts left behind by Boas, Edward
Sapir, and Melville Jacobs require restudy and retranslation by Dell Hymes, to
bring out, as he once said, "what they are really like.” In anthropology, there
has been a parallel development. "Classic ethnographies,” writes Michael M. J.
Fischer, "need and are receiving historical recontextualization through restudy
and archival work” (3). A few classic folklore studies, like Albert Lord’s
The Singer of Tales and Arnold van Gennep’s manual for French folklore,
have been so restudied (Foley; Belmont). Dell Hymes’s restudy and retranslation
of his predecessors’ work raises the question what other documents are
available for historical recontextualization and retranslation. Which classic
folklore studies should be restudied in future? Perhaps Alexander Haggerty
Krappe’s The Science of Folklore or Melville Herskovits’s Dahomean
Translation studies and folkloristics might think together how to resolve
differences. For example, after accumulating the enormous inheritance of
literary translations, translation studies have now, through audacious
theorizing by Lawrence Venuti and others, emerged into enough visibility as a
discipline to occupy the major share of an annual meeting of the Modern
Language Association (2009). Shall folkloristics follow suit and seek
visibility in the halls of its more illustrious neighbor disciplines? Will
folklorists continue to concentrate on building empirical research and
cultivating new audiences for traditional artists, or is it time to look for
The American conception of folkloristics is inherently interdisciplinary.
It takes in anthropology, literary studies, psychology, and other fields,
although the conception seldom demands that the folklorist display much mastery
of them. Such interdisciplinarity requires, however, that concepts and methods
of folkloristics be continually translated for our colleagues. Folklore through
its history and theories offers many usable approaches to the variant forms of
Baron, Robert and Cara, Ana C. ed. Creolization as Cultural Creativity.
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.
Belmont, Nicole. Arnold van Gennep, the Creator of French Ethnography.
Trans. Derek Coltman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Bernstein, Charles. A Poetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
Fischer, Michael M. J. Anthropological
Futures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.
Foley, John Miles. The Singer of Tales in Performance. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1995.
Haring, Lee. Stars and Keys:
Folktales and Creolization in the Indian Ocean. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 2007.
Yankah, Kwesi. Speaking for the Chief: Okyeame and the Politics of Akan
Royal Oratory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
-- Lee Haring
Brooklyn College (Emeritus)