Textualization of Oral Epics. Edited by Lauri Honko. (Trends in Linguistics, Studies and Monographs, 128.) Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2000. viii + 392 pp.
Hard (ISBN 3-11-016928-2), 128 €
One of the more reflexive topics in folklore studies to have emerged over the last few years is an awareness of the process by which oral performances have been rendered into print for various audiences. Textualization of Oral Epics, edited by the esteemed Finnish folklorist, Lauri Honko, is a collection of essays by an incredible international gathering of some of the most accomplished scholars in the study of oral epic and folklore in the West. As John Miles Foley writes in his contribution on the textualization of South Slavic epic and its implication for oral-derived epic (beginning with Homer), the collection is one of stories – stories of how “epics-become-books”, in terms of cultural contexts, roles of informants and collectors, the acts of intersemiotic translation from performance to final printed product, and many other issues raised and discussed in numerous ways throughout the chapters.
Theory and practice in the making of oral epics
The volume begins with an introductory essay by Lauri Honko on text as process and practice in terms of oral epics, including a discussion of the term “text” in regards to orality and writing. Much of the material is a refinement of ideas formed over a long career of examining oral epic and tempered in the process of textualizing a Tulu epic (discussed in his own chapter) in his landmark work, Textualising the Siri Epic (1998). Of especial value are the precise definitions and concise discussions of concepts that resonate through many essays in the volume, sometimes in different terminological guise. These include “pool of tradition”, “epic register”, “multiforms”, “epic idiolect”, “mode of performance”, and less obvious yet important ones such as “tradition-orientation”– a singer’s stance towards the tradition – and the process of “mental editing” between (and maybe during) performances. He also offers opinion on other phases of the process, including transcription, translation, editing, publishing, and a short discussion on copyright and oral material. Epic studies in particular are seen as ideal for interdisciplinary studies, inviting participation from a variety of fields and approaches, many reflected in the subsequent pages. As seems characteristic of much of Honko’s work, theory is grounded in practice – and often the practical, sometimes delivered in pithy, knowing statements such as, “The accuracy of translation automatically increases when the translator knows that the original text will be available to the reader” (p. 31).
The essays offer a variety of descriptions of the textualization process from different cultural areas and historical eras, the authors providing candid testaments to how they or others did it. The range of tales of textualization suggest that the process is in fact a bundle of processes that tend to unfold in a similar direction, through a range of differing means. The venerable Arthur T. Hatto presents accounts of textualization, particularly on thorny questions of phonemic transcription, for a whole corpus of epics from Siberia and certain contiguous regions, including Ainu, Altaic, Buryat, Evenk, Jakut, and Ob-Ugrian. The processes described at times reveal rather complex agendas of different collecting agents and organs, as well as the spirited determination of many collectors and scholars to re-visit their own written and/or recorded efforts or the earlier efforts of others in order to insure the preservation of the materials. In some instances, the vagaries of working with living traditions on the brink are all too apparent, as in the story of the prolonged and tortuous collection efforts made to set down the Khanty oral epics, which seems to have involved layers of collector-transcribers (and at times singers), all with only part of the requisite skills to produce accurate textualizations. Hatto also includes information on a nineteenth century Arabic version of a Kirghiz epic and adds a few thoughtful paragraphs on the value of versions of “mental texts” in otherwise less than desirable transcriptions, giving Kroeber’s textualization of Inyo-kutavêre’s Mohave epic as an example.
Juha Pentikäinen provides a glimpse into the process of making written texts to complement videotape. In his work on various Siberian groups (specifically the Nanaj of the Amur River region), it becomes clear that the textualization process is not simply one of converting words and gestures to representations in print. Knowledge of the cultural context was key to even accessing the material briefly made available after the death of a particular clan shaman. With only a nine-day window (determined by local custom), Pentikäinen had to depart Moscow and arrive on the scene in hopes of shooting some ritual footage, and begin negotiations for a drum and other ritual materials that the shaman had verbally willed to him. After reading Pentikäinen’s account of the textualized ritual honoring the shaman that he subsequently videotaped, the words seem like pale ghosts on the page, emphasizing once more that they are merely a scholar’s hard-wrought props for grasping at ephemeral phenomena.
Empirical approaches to oral epics
John William Johnson takes on the question of authenticy and textualizations of oral epics made in Western languages primarily for educated Western readers. He discusses the appearance of electronic collecting devices, fluency in language and use of native speakers, fieldwork and ethnographic understanding, accuracy in the actual publications, and how the use of digital technology may enhance cooperation among specialists in a number of fields (literary folklorists, musicologists, computer experts, etc.). Thus, conceptions of authenticity are recognized as emerging processes, subject to dynamic change just as the oral epics to be textualized. He also notes the recurring realization that epic traditions tend to be performed in parts rather than in linear wholes, a concern voiced by others in the volume.
In his essay, “Silencing the Voice of the Singer”, Karl Reichl offers a concise treatment of his experiences in the textualization of Turkic (Uzbek, Karakalpak, Kazakh, Kirghiz) oral poetry and epic, focusing on the question of documenting a single performance, versus the creation of representative master text for a given story, and the strategies of “total documentation” versus the textualization of a given performance into what he calls a “critical edition”. He suggests that creating an “edition” (a textualized version of a specific performance) is more in line with the current direction of epic studies than attempts to create an all-encompassing master text, and his advice on textualization is geared in that direction. Aside from contextual and linguistics concerns, he reflects on the inclusion of paralinguistic features, particularly music, and phenomena such as pauses for tea drinking during a performance.
Textualization of ancient epics
Several of the papers deal with the textualization of ancient traditions from various cultures around the world. Joseph Harris attempts to recover the textualization processes from families of ancient Old Norse elegy traditions, and compares them (not greatly to his satisfaction) with other traditions in contiguous parts of northern Europe. John Brockington, writing on the textualization of Sanskrit epics reviews the “oral” elements of major Sanskrit epic traditions, provides comparative textual histories, and suggests that the merging of certain stylistic features in the Ramayana and Mahabharata stories may have something to do with the “Indian concept of oral transmission rather than writing as the agency for fixing a text” (p. 211).
Minna Skafte Jensen traces questions on the writing of the Iliad and Odyssey back to F. A. Wolf’s Prolegomena ad Homerum, written in 1795. That early scholar noted that “oral transmitters tend to change their texts all the time” and suggested that it would be impossible ever to “establish the original form of the two Greek epics” (p. 57) – concepts still under discussion by modern scholars. Reviewing the ensuing attempts to deal with the “Homeric questions”, is exacerbated by a further question – why were the texts recorded at all (and offering an intriguing model in which winners of epic singing contests were rewarded with opportunities to have their mostly fully informed performances written down by teams of scribes), leading in a way to the question of why recent scholars have found it desirable to compose long, coherent poems based on oral performances, leading further to questions of interest and choice on the part of Western scholars working in non-Western areas during the Imperial age and the culture-based choices they made. She also raises the question of the influence of scribe/collectors on the organization of performance of oral material in the non-typical context of performances for collectors.
Working with the singer of epics
In “The Textualization of Swahili Epics”, Jan Knappert item by item relates experiences and advice gained from collecting Swahili epics (an appendix lists 75) since the early 1960s. Many insights are made into the art of human relationships in the collecting and translation process, with sections devoted to poets, local scholars (who may have expertise in local knowledge such as housebuilding, boatbuilding, fishing and hunting, etc.), and the oral singers. One exemplary anecdote deals with the author being “tested” by a local poet who listened to him read part of an epic cycle he had brought for him to examine, the test resulting in the opening of many doors in the community.
Dwight Reynolds is one of the several participants in the volume who wrote at some length on the choices he personally made in preparing his textualization of “The Epic of the Banî Hilâl Bedouin Tribe” (Sîrat Banî Hilâl), which he collected from a knowledgeable singer in the last years of a tradition now seemingly on its last legs. He describes his experiences as an apprentice performer, and his strategies in taping, transcription, and preparing a “definitive” text for publication, aided by two young local men. He also details his interaction with the poet Shaykh Tâhâ, with whom he cooperated in editing the poet’s performances, which years later would be prepared for publication. In negotiating the compromises inherent in preparing a published text (what to do with asides, audience input, musical notation, original language transcription, etc.), he identified four major levels of audience, each with their own needs and agendas of reception. The text was designed to meet to some extent the needs of locals, epic scholars, more general scholars, and an educated reading public.
American folklorist Dan Ben-Amos describes in frank detail his decades long encounter with the “deep Edo” epic register in his experience in textualizing the “Agboghidi” in Benin, a process interrupted by a ten year hiatus from the field, and incorporating the patience to become fluent enough in the epic register (a fluency not shared even by the average audience members) to carry out the tortuous translation process in concert with native helpers. What is striking is his persistence in pursuing the elusive meaning of the epic teller Iditua’s phrasing in an epic register combining prose narration, measured speech, and songs, a search which involved interviewing many other singers, as well as the singer himself, to reconcile the lacunae in meaning in the national epic.
A major voice in the ethnopoetics movement in the United States, Dell Hymes, presents a concise overview of his thoughts on Native American oral art, focusing in part on forms that combine the modalities of singing and speaking, sometimes in a cante fable form that may be included in a discussion of epic, and in comparison with Slavic and Finnish traditions. The chapter includes many sample passages of Native American texts in various transcription and translation formats that in their penultimate form are designed to aid in the “recovery of performance”.
In the final essay in the collection, Anna-Leena Siikala approaches the textualization process from a post-modern perspective, discussing discourses of myth, history, and geneaology in the oral tradition known as korero in the Southern Cook Islands in Central Polynesia. Describing the korero as “superstories” (following Honko), she traces the historical contexts and processes in which the mytho-historical discourses of korero, marked by generic intertextuality in a multidimensional “superdiscourse” of power, were communicated in acts of creative reconstruction and entextualization in writing.
Past testimonies and future methodologies
Textualization of Oral Epics includes a well-balanced set of perspectives and experiences on the theory and craft of creating textualizations of oral epics. It is valuable not only in bringing questions of the textualization process to the forefront, but by providing real and practical testimony about how the process may or has been carried out in different historical eras. While strategies and goals may differ, the fact that we are more aware of what has happened in the past and among contemporaries will allow for the making of more informed choices for those wishing to engage in the complex task of providing a print (or digital) referent for living oral traditions. The collection also allows for the developing of perspective on certain types of textualizations that otherwise might be discounted. With clearer information on exactly what processes were followed in moving from the oral to print, the range of choices and expectations on such acts are clarified and widened.
This seems especially so in the case of what Honko has called “tradition-oriented” epics, those highly edited works, often made from a pastiche of versions to create a complete, polished, linear narrative often used to represent the oral life of a particular group. These texts have been created in relation to many oral traditions worldwide, the best-known being the Finnish Kalevala. They would also include the dozens (if not hundreds) of epic texts from ethnic minority groups in China (such as the Miao,Yao, Yi, Dai, Hani, and Zhuang in the southwest), an area somewhat underrepresented in this volume. Such texts, in a variety of formats, have been made since 1949 by teams of collectors and editors at local and national level cultural bureaus and published in Chinese translation for both scholarly and more general audiences, sometimes in bi-lingual editions.
With more information available on just what has happened to oral material in the move from momentary voice to more physically stable representations in print, scholars and others can better assess concerns such as accuracy, fullness of content, input of local collaborators and editors, etc., as well a whole host of questions involving politics of representation. The accounts of the individual authors concerning their own experiences in collecting and editing often amount to frank revelations of personal triumphs and pitfalls, compromises in collecting, transcribing, translating, and editing – a process succinctly summarized in Foley’s essay as “what gets recorded, what gets published, what gets received?” – as well as practical experience in building rapport, which often determines whether the projects will even take place. What is unanswered (at least fully) in the stories of how texts became, are the impulses that propel the collector/translators to dedicate rather large portions of their lives – years or even decades – to a task so difficult. I have no answer, but can only gratefully thank the authors for their efforts.
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio, U. S. A.