Academic journal article Western Folklore

Introduction: From Word to Print-And Beyond

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Introduction: From Word to Print-And Beyond

Article excerpt

In his 1932 essay "Las versiones homéricas," Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), one of the giants of twentieth century letters, famously remarked that "no problem is as consubstantial to literature and its modest mystery as the one posed by translation" (1999:69). He was referring not just to translation in the narrow sense of the word (though that was of sharp interest to him), but also to the transmission of knowledge and culture over time and across the boundaries of space.

Borges was aware that culture does not transmit itself. Rather, it has to be refashioned through creative acts of the imagination at every stage of its existence, if it is to continue to exist at all. When Borges alluded to the "modest mystery" of literature, it was apparently not the content of books he had in mind, nor the formal properties of literary genres, but rather the process of renewal by which literature comes into being. In any event, a similar point about the significance of translation is made by Tom DuBois in his article in the present collection. There he demonstrates to what extent the translation of a seminal book of Sámi lore into contemporary English is an act of cultural renewal-and a gesture of homage and devotion, one might add-though at first glance it may look like no more than a straightforward linguistic exercise.

The related argument can be made that there is no problem of greater magnitude for folklorists than that of the transmutation of oral art forms into the medium of the visible page, as well as into the various emergent forms of electronic media. Like translation, this problem too has a transhistorical dimension, seeing that the crossover from speech into script is as old as the invention of alphabetical writing itself-a technology that arguably was devised by the ancient Greeks for the specific purpose of recording the poems of Homer in a more durable medium than singers or rhapsodes could provide (Powell 1990).

Regardless of that last debatable surmise, it is unarguable that any number of the earliest recorded works of world literature draw on oral art forms that are of still greater antiquity. Whether as performed for listeners or as transmuted into writing, such works were composed, refashioned, and preserved because they were felt to embody an integrated system of knowledge, one that was both crucial to a people's sense of their collective identity and essential to the workings of society (Havelock 1963). This is true whether one thinks of ancient Greece, with its Iliad and Odyssey and other oral-based poems that were prized elements of a panhellenic heritage; of ancient Sumeria, with its Gilgamesh epic, its hymns in praise of Inanna, and other culturally central works; or of ancient Egypt, Persia, India, China, and many other regions of the world, each of which can lay claim to a large body of archaic literature that is a prime source of our knowledge about ancient myths, religion, language, customs, and mentalities. And the same generalization applies to the Central Asian epic poems that Karl Reichl discusses in his contribution to the present issue, poems that embody culturally central knowledge and that have continued to be sung up to the present day.

In view of the age-old importance of literature that is dependent on oral tradition, it is curious that the processes of text-making by which works of this type come into being are still only partially understood. Often these collaborative processes are simply ignored, perhaps because of the dominance of content-oriented studies or, in recent years, of performance studies. When those processes attract attention, this is often in a haphazard manner, whether by folklorists or specialists in literary studies. I know of just two critical anthologies that address the textualization of oral art forms in a sustained way (Honko 2000; Mundal and Wellendorf 2008), and each of these books, though valuable, is necessarily spotty as regards the topics and traditions it addresses and the manner in which it treats them. …

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