Academic journal article Narrative Culture

Against Untranslatability

Academic journal article Narrative Culture

Against Untranslatability

Article excerpt

Repeating," says Gertrude Stein, "is the whole of living and by repeating comes understanding" (Stein 221). Had she ever been presented with a book containing twenty tellings? Her magnum opus, The Making of Americans, which portrays the whole of a family's history, was often ridiculed for repeating words: "It is quite common to be quite happy sometime in being loving. It is quite common to be happy in loving one and to be happy in loving another one. This is quite common" (Stein 699).

In her day, indeed at any time before the days of open access, even the illustrious Sylvia Beach, the publisher of Ulysses, would have rejected a literary book telling the same story twenty times. Such a book once came to my hand from France. The same plot was narrated over and over, with few significant differences and no surprising ones. Perhaps I should have expected that. This was a book of folklore, and folklore, we are often told, "is characterized by the repetition of the same story" (Todorov 73). A literary author like Raymond Queneau can narrate a trivial incident many times without repeating (Queneau). Knowing that no American publisher would print the same story twenty times, I enviously remembered Laurence Sterne's line: "They order, said I, this matter better in France." Then on examining the book, I saw parallels between the study of folklore (folkloristics) and translation studies. The oral transmission of such a story is a kind of translation, recording it is another kind, and transcribing it a third. Moving it into French is the process that is usually understood to be translation. Yet all these processes assume translatability as inherent in all narratives. Folkloristics draws continually on translation practices, which in our time are coming under interrogation and clarification. There is a productive confluence of folkloristics and translation studies, revealing that translation is inherent in scholarly analysis and in situated performances of folk narrative.

The Difficult Girl's Story

I also recognized this story. It had a Bluebeard sort of plot, in which a disobedient young woman refuses eligible suitors in favor of a handsome, unknown husband; he then turns out to be a monster in disguise, and she must escape or be rescued. The tale warns young women against the dangers of marriage-at least marriage to the wrong man, if not any marriage. In Kenya in 1968 it was new to me; in 1990 I recorded it in the southwest Indian Ocean island of Mauritius (Haring, Stars 147-55), and it began to be familiar. It is a tale often repeated in many African languages: Peul, Bambara, Bulsa, Digo, Kikuyu, and Malagasy. The texts in the book came from Mayotte, another southwest Indian Ocean island; they were recorded in the version of Malagasy spoken in many villages there (so close is Mayotte to Madagascar). So many performances in so many languages presume a continual activity of translating. Repeated performances are the essence of verbal art; by repeated hearings the audience gains understanding. The repetitiousness of the translations in the book echoed the tradition of repeated oral performances in Mayotte. Fortunately for me, who know little Malagasy, the book presented the twenty transcribed performances in both Malagasy and French. Thus the editor-collector gave that disobedient young woman an even wider audience than she already had.

The scholar's way of seeing this or any oft-repeated tale is to define it as a single narrative in multiple versions. Scholars use analytic concepts as a target language into which to render the story and abstract a repeated plot from multiple performances. Wise Africanists of Paris seem to see the story's protagonist through her parents' eyes: in their detailed study they call her lafille difficile (Görög-Karady and Seydou). In oral performance, her story is presumably heard as an old favorite, not a tedious repetition; why else would it be so often told? Only in print does it seem repetitious. …

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