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AFS Review: Essays

Time for a Dialogue?

Monday, September 17, 2012   (1 Comments)
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 folklore.

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 Narrative?

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 allies?

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 translation.


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, 1992.

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)


Elizabeth Fine says...
Posted Friday, October 5, 2012
I couldn't agree more, Lee, about the centrality of translation to folkloristics. Thanks for foregrounding the connections. I found the notion of intersemiotic translation and translation theory to be critical in developing better methods of translating oral performances into the print medium (see The Folklore Text: From Performance to Print, Indiana University Press, 1984, 1994).

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