On Imaginary Islands and Real Ones

For many years when they were still trying to map the world, explorers thought there was an island or even something bigger in the northern Pacific between Russia and North America. This was one of the possibilities anyway, between the land being connected (no Bering straight) or there being nothing large out there at all, which they only figured out for certain during Bering’s second expedition. Some of the maps they carried at the time still had the mysterious non-island known as “Da Gama Land” on it, and one of the two vessels, I recall reading, wasted a good deal of valuable time sailing around in the middle of nowhere to verify that the map was indeed wrong. This was the vessel that eventually lost almost all its crew to starvation and disease, including Bering himself.

I thought of this as I was searching for some actual islands (or so we assumed) in our ongoing translation of Propp’s Historical Roots of the Wondertale. After searching and searching for what he refers to as the Острова Согласия (Ostrova Soglasiia), which we had as “Concord Islands” in earlier drafts, sending us on a great exploratory voyage, I found them!

I felt like I was at sea, without access to an appropriately large dictionary that might contain the term, or a specialized one for geographical names, but I knew from his comments that it was somewhere in the South Pacific. He noted, in a second passage later, that these islands were close to the Cook Islands, and he included some quotes about practices there from James Frazer’s The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead, but Frazer didn’t actually name the Ostrova Soglassia in his text, and, it turns out, he was quoting a certain Tyerman and Bennet’s Journal of Voyages and Travels. A bibliographic mystery!

Google Books allowed me to find, first, Frazer’s quote from their book (without a date) but then their text, where they note, still without naming the particular islands, having heard about the practice in question from a local person named Auna with regard to the “Areois,” and these folks finally turn up in a regular old Google search. They are not the Concord Islands but the Society Islands!

A minor bibliographic victory. But also a good example of one of the principles of translation that makes it different from textual explication. In the latter, you can (and in fact, you should) skip the aspects of the text that don’t support your argument. In the former, you have to come to a clear understanding of the entire text, not just those parts you want to focus on. If there is something you don’t understand, you have to go out and discover it, even if it means a brief excursion to Tahiti.

Da Levante

Decided to add Soundcloud to Ba Ren Chi’s outlets.

Composed a new song for the occasion: “Da Levante.” It’s here:

Had quite a ball making this. I hope listening takes you somewhere.

At the same time, I remastered “Oni Daiko” with a slight change in instrumentation that makes a big difference to my ear. Now I feel I can stop tinkering with it.

Aspersion and Aspersions

While translating Propp’s Historical Roots of the Wondertale, my colleague Miriam Shrager and I wondered a bit over the “sprinkling” (окропление) that comes up occasionally in fairy tales, often in the context of crossing between this world and some other, magical one (“she sprinkled the door with water”). This, so claims Propp, is a remnant of the sorts of ritual sprinkling practiced in hunter-gatherer societies, often in connection with ritual sacrifice, rites of initiation, and, later, ceremonies associated with the dead’s passage to the next world, as in Ancient Egypt. It is the same word, and the same basic concept, as when a priest sprinkles holy water during a mass or other ceremony, where the word employed is “aspersion.” So in terms of our translation, this is the word to use.

But then I wondered why aspersion in this context is obviously a good thing to have done to one, while aspersions in the plural, as in the phrase “to cast aspersions upon,” which is the only way I knew the word until discovering its use in ritual sprinkling, is only ever a bad thing to have done to one. It turns out that the word has been rather productive in a linguistic sense, at least until around the latter half of the nineteenth century, when people stopped using it except in the negative casting and plural sense.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the first attestations in English was, appropriately, a translation, from Latin by the “martyrologist” John Foxe, of Archbishop Courtney’s Actes and Monuments: “By the aspersion of the bloud of Iesus Christ” (1570). Shakespeare uses it in his early seventeenth-century Tempest rather loosely and with a positive inflection: “No sweet aspersion shall the heauens let fall To make this contract grow” (Act IV, i, 18), while Francis Bacon employs it in an (according to the OED) obsolete sense of “the sprinkling of an ingredient” in his Advancement of Learning: “Diuinity Morality and Policy, with great aspersion of all other artes.”

The verb “to asperse” appears even earlier, again in a translation from Latin, albeit via French, this one by William Caxton, of Virgil’s Aeneid (or as his 1490 text has it The boke yf Eneydos), while the place one keeps the holy liquid for aspersing has been Englished as an aspersoir (clearly via French again), an aspergillum, an aspersory, and an aspersorium, depending on who was doing the Englishing and when. The person who asperses is an aspersor, who may or may not be aspersive in his manner, engaging in his work aspersively.

How this relates to character is obviously figurative, but the routes by which it figured are not completely clear. Almost from its beginnings in English, the term had an evil twin, which explains William Barriffe’s quip, in a 1639 article on military discipline regarding the “private & frosty nips from aspersionating tongues.” This is the sense with which we are familiar, namely, “a damaging report; a charge that tarnishes the reputation; a calumny, slander, false insinuation.” But for some time still it could be singular, as Henry Fielding has it in his 1749 Tom Jones: “I defy all the World to cast a just Aspersion on my Character” (note the linkage already here to the verb “to cast,” which will make a stalwart pairing over the next several centuries), and it could be a verb, as George Elliot has it in her 1866 Felix Holt: “Has any one been aspersing your husband’s character?”

I have only suspicions about the routes the figuring took, but it is hinted at in this phrase from Bacon’s already quoted Advancement of Learning: “There is to bee found besides the Theologicall sence, much aspersion of Philosophie,” which is echoed more explicitly in a 1781 article on friendship by William Cowper: “Aspersion is the babbler’s trade, To listen is to lend him aid.” Such pronouncements suggest a shared belief that to asperse is somehow to dabble (like a babbler), to dilute (as in to asperse Philosophie), or simply to avoid engaging in something seriously. Such an idea could have arisen from a sense that is implicit in the baptismal usage, where aspersion substitutes for the real thing, as when William Maskell points out in an 1849 history of Anglican rituals, “St. Peter… baptized five thousand on one day; but this must have been by aspersion.”

I wonder too about notions of impurity associated with speckling or besmirching, where something imagined as pure (e.g., a fox’s red coat) is “aspersed” with dark spots, which by extension might apply to the purity of someone’s character, as, for example, when an innocent character is aspersed with experiences, or, to make all this active, when someone, an aspersor (or, more likely in the context of this particular set of words, an aspersor’s pen — “What shall be done to thee thou aspersing Pen?” H. Hickman, 1673) has flung those little blots or spots at someone else, resulting in a visible stain. I find it intriguing that aspersion in the spiritual sense leaves no visible marks, while the plural figurative is almost invariably about having been defiled in the eyes of others.

I wonder too about the action of casting, which like the spreading of rumor or malicious gossip, can look a lot like the evil of contagion. This thought gives a completely surprising turn to William Thackeray’s 1843 observation (from his Irish sketch book): “The people, as they entered, aspersed themselves with all their might.” I suppose Propp might have agreed with this assertion.

Oni Daiko and Too Cool

Ba Ren Chi has two new singles out, both available (for free as always) on Jamendo.

The first is called Oni Daiko, or “Demon Drums,” and is my take on a traditional Japanese summer festival form, in which the performers wear some scary looking oni, or “demon,” masks during part of their performance. I’ve seen such numbers many times in my partner’s home area in the western part of the country. But being who I am, I couldn’t limit myself to traditional Japanese instruments, so while there is a shamisen and some drums that sound like they could be waidaiko, there are also plenty of other sounds that are pure improvisation on my part, at least in terms of the instrumentation. So a pretty prominent marimba, a vibraphone, a xylophone, some concert percussion instruments, pizzicato strings, and why not, a drum and bugle corps drum line. There’s some other stuff, too, but it might be hard to pick them out.

The second, Too Cool, is much more conventional in terms of its form and instruments. Flute, upright bass, drums, conga, and piano are the main ones, but then there’s the punctuation and the opening and closing sections, which feature other kinds of sounds and a very different atmosphere. There’s a riff in the middle section that begins in the piano and then passes to a solo flute, then a flute section. It’s probably the line that sticks with me most.

Both were too much fun to make. If people enjoy listening even a fraction as much, I’ll be very happy.

From Non-Space to Landscape

I am struck by the notion of the absence of space in Vladimir Propp’s account of the wondertale. This is similar to Mikhail Bakhtin’s observation about the absence of the effects of time on the hero and heroine of romance, where they have adventure after adventure but, in the end, don’t seem to have aged or been left psychologically changed by any of their experiences. They remain the same couple “of marriageble age” at the end that they were before the kidnapping, the pirates, the crocodiles, the earthquake, and so on. This, in part at least, is what Voltaire makes fun of at the end of Candide when Cunegonde turns out to be old and ugly from having waited so long.

Propp’s suggestion is that wondertales developed from rituals in set places (the forest hut, the boundary between this world and the next, the animal and human realms) and that the “in-between” spatial elements were added only later. He describes this in an eloquent phrase: “The road is present only in the composition, not in the texture.” By this he means that while there are great spaces traversed, the tales skip over the time of movement itself, often by means of a set formula like “He road for a long or a short time, near or far…,” which, as he puts it, “refuses” to describe the journey itself in any detail.

He contrasts this to epic spatial descriptions, especially those of well-known works like The Odyssey, about which he has this to say:

For us there is no doubt that the Odyssey, for example, is a later phenomenon than the wondertale. In it the journey and its space are elaborated in the style of epic. Hence we conclude that the static elements, the stops of the wondertale, are older than its spatial composition. Space has intruded into something that already existed before. The key elements were created prior to the appearance of spatial representations. We shall see this in greater detail below. All the elements of the stops already existed as ritual. Spatial representations separated into long distances things that were actually the phases of ritual.

(Historical Roots of the Wondertale, Chapter Two; tr. by Miriam Shrager, Sibelan Forrester, and Russell Scott Valentino; in ms.)

Describing the “phases of ritual” from which wondertales emerged constitues the heart of the book, it seems to me.

But I am struck by the contrast between this primordial (in the sense of story telling) absence of space and the sense of landscape that encompasses everything for a writer and thinker like Anne Whiston Spirin, whose work I’ve been exploring. She is not alone, of course, though her work might be the most profound on this score, especially her description of the obstacles she faced in approaching landscape as language (in her The Language of Landscape) and the ways she set out to overcome them. Space here is a conceptual tool, the fundamental texture that makes composition possible.

Propp’s Magic

While his prose might not be scintillating (see previous post), Vladimir Propp’s insights and analyses are of the sort that occasionally help just about everything one has ever read in a certain domain fall into place. This happened today when I worked on this passage:

Sometimes the hero is tested through a contest before the wedding. At first glance, these contests have a purely athletic nature. Frazer [he’s referring to Sir James Frazer of The Golden Bough –RSV], studying this topic, sees only athletic rivalry in them; he attributes an ancient origin to the custom and projects it onto “primitive society.” “The personal qualities which recommended a man for a royal alliance and succession to the throne would naturally vary according to the popular ideas of the time and the character of the king or his substitute, but it is reasonable to suppose that among them in early society physical strength and beauty would hold a prominent place.” (Frazer 1911a: 296) “Sometimes apparently the right to the hand of the princess and to the throne has been determined by a race. The Alitemnian Libyans awarded the kingdom to the fleetest runner. Amongst the old Prussians, candidates for nobility raced on horseback to the king, and the one who reached him first was ennobled” (Frazer 1911a: 299). Fraser finds no reason to support this other than “we can assume.” The issue was decided not by an athletic build and certainly not by beauty, but by completely different qualities. M. G. Tikhaia-Tsereteli, who worked on Georgian folktales senses this though she cannot prove it: “The personal qualities of the hero are also typical: beauty, athletic strength, intelligence, and other qualities that reflect his mythological nature. These qualities are what determine his union with the princess, not his origin” (Tikhaia-Tsereteli 1932: 172, emphasis added). The author here saw correctly what Frazer did not: that athletic strength or dexterity reflects the mythological nature of the hero.

Careful study of the wondertale [what we often call “fairy tales” –RSV] shows that it is not the hero’s strength and dexterity but other qualities that are reflected in the contests. Victory is provided by the magical helper. The hero cannot do anything without him, and his personal strength is not the point.

Let us consider the running contest. “The king’s daughter will run to the well for water, and the man who outruns her will get her in marriage. If someone competes and does not outrun her, his head will be chopped off” (Khudiakov 1862: 33). It is not only the speed of running that is important here; the goal towards which they run is also important. At first glance, the well does not represent anything special. However, comparison of different variants shows that when they compete in running, water is the goal of the race. The Afanas’ev tale shows that this water is not simple. There, one must get “the healing and living water” in the shortest time, “before the king finishes his dinner.” The hero is distraught: even a year would not be enough time to get the water. Having heard the task, “his companion untied his foot from his ear, ran, and instantly got the healing and living water.” On the way back, he lies down to rest, but the Seer or the Insightful One discovers him. The Archer wakes him up with a skillful shot, and Swift-Runner arrives with the water on time (Afanas’ev 144). These examples show that it is not enough to run quickly: the important thing is to run quickly beyond thrice nine lands and return. Later, however, this target was lost, the “living water” transformed into a well, and running fast became the goal in itself.   

(from Chapter Nine of Historical Roots of the Wondertale)

If, as Propp argues, these kinds of stories are much older than those of organized agricultural societies (the Egyptians, the Greeks, and so on), then the rights of initiation that he focuses on make them much more like the stories of other hunter-gatherer societies around the world. In other words, when you ask what Russian fairy tales are like, a better answer than “like Greek myths” is “like Native American, African, Micronesian, (and so on) initiation stories,” which means stories rooted in the rites of passage of the 50,000 generations of human hunter-gatherer societies. This is where they have their origin, while the 500 generations of agricultural societies tried to make sense of them in their own ways after their societies had stopped practicing most of the rituals that previous humans had relied upon. In the process, the farmers often engaged in “re-signifying” (this is how we are choosing to translate переосмысление) them in ways that, by today’s standards, often look bizarre or “magical.”

At other times, like this one, they translate these now bizarre practices into the most mundane of traits and skills, like being bigger, stronger, faster, or more beautiful, which, if Propp is right, was never the point at all.

Lalo Sì

People still seem to be finding my Ba Ren Chi album on Jamendo, with just under 1000 listens and dozens of downloads over its first month of being out. This makes me very happy.

I wrote earlier that one surprise was how many more listens the song “Meaner Than That” had than most of the others, but the big exception is now “Lalo Sì,” which has increased over the last couple of weeks and is now a close second. This is a song I wrote years ago, a tribute to the great Argentine-American pianist, arranger, composer, and conductor Boris Claudio “Lalo” Schifrin.

Making it was so much fun, with all the changes of tempo, the odd time signatures, the driving 7/8 that transitions to 10/8, all the energy it brings out, and the subtle and not so subtle hints at Schifrin’s most famous TV theme, the one from Mission Impossible, which made its way into movies, and is now so pervasive that just about anyone will recognize it after only a few notes.

Schifrin is one of those figures who has shaped the musical scene over several generations without having a name that everyone recognizes (a little like Quincy Jones), and I am a big fan. So very happy that my little tribute seems to be agreeable to some listeners.

Jergović Broadsided

A friend sent me a gift in the mail a while back with a note that said “I took an intensive, week-long letterpress workshop last week, […] and our second assignment was setting and printing a ‘broadside.’ I loved the quote you posted on Facebook […] from your translation of Miljenko Jergović, so I hope it’s ok that I decided to use it for my project…” What a nice surprise and what a lovely gesture! (I haven’t asked her if I can say she did this, so I’m leaving it anonymous for now.)

Here it is pictured to the right. The colophon says “2 of 15, Onyx 24/36/18 pt, printed at … by ….”

And the words, in non-letterpress form, are “Every instance of cleaning, or dusting, or purging of old things is an act of violence on a person’s being and life. Every instance of cleaning is an accounting with one’s own biography and the biographies of those close to us. A moment of our death and a reminder than nothing is lasting and everything will be forgotten. Dusting requires either courage or a complete absence of soul.”

I have to say that the context for the quote is pretty important. When he writes this, the narrator is reflecting on cleaning an old house where multiple generations have lived and died. It is filled with old things covered in dust. I don’t think, for instance, that this quite applies to cleaning out one’s car, unless you’ve been living in it for a couple of generations.

Propp: Brilliant but Boring

I have been translating, with two colleagues, Vladimir Propp’s Historical Roots of the Wondertale (Исторические корни волшебной сказки), a very important book that has for some reason never made it into English. It is a tour de force in many ways and truly a follow-up to his widely known Morphology of the Folktale (Морфология сказки), which has been especially influential for folklorists, historians, anthropologists, and others for decades. This book had its own roots in the final chapter of the author’s dissertation, which was also the source of the Morphology. It helps to fill out the picture of Propp as a scholar and thinker. The previous volume showcased his application of formal categories and structural analysis; the English version was a staple text for budding structuralists of just about any stripe, whether they were interested in folklore or not, in the 1970s and 80s. This book, which is twice the length, allows him to delve into history, particularly the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones, where the wondertale (a.k.a., the fairy tale) finds its deepest roots.

There has been a lot of work on human evolutionary history since Propp’s day, in numerous fields, some of it written for popular audiences, much of it focused on the same transition between what Michael McCarthy in his 2015 The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy refers to as the 50,000 generations (of hunter-gatherers) and the 500 generations (of agriculturalists). But no one to my knowledge has done what Propp does in this book, which is to try to fix the development of specific fairy tale features (e.g., the abducted maiden, the serpent/dragon, the guardian of the underworld) in concrete human social practices, especially those associated with rites of initiation.

It is a fascinating history, and he is extremely good at pulling together research and examples from myth, religion, ethnography, and more, and from regions all across the globe. I have learned a lot by translating his words into English.

What I have not learned by translating his words is anything about effective writing. Translating Propp for me has often taken on strange qualities, where I might feel like rewarding myself for getting through a few sentences by taking a break. This is not usually the way translation works, not for me at least. Generally, I am motivated to start and to continue a translation project by the quality of the writing itself. I am drawn forward by wanting to share the magic of the words — their formal coherence, sound patterns, rhetorical nuances, and more — as much if not more than by any semantic content “in” the words.

This is not just about fiction or poetry either. I feel the same way about the literary nonfiction I have translated, even prose that might be categorized as “scholarly,” such as Carlo Michelstaedter’s Persuasion and Rhetoric, which was a joint project together with Cinzia Sartini Blum and David J. Depew (Yale University Press, 2004). His prose is sometimes turgid, but it is also always quite compelling. Lines like this were what first grabbed me: “Un peso pende ad un gancio, e per pender soffre che non può scendere: non può uscire dal gancio; poiché quant’è peso pende, e quanto pende dipende.” I must have read this sentence aloud a hundred times, and I still love it. The prose made me think, and in fact it was interwoven with the ideas in interpretive and linguistic puzzles that made me want to solve them.

There are almost no puzzles in Propp’s prose. He is clear. He is also somewhat repetitive and rhetorical, as if he were speaking from a lectern, which he probably was (“let me remind you”), and in the royal “we” (“previously we explored…”). He can also be rather lazy, engaging in the sort of sloppy techniques that some graduate students might use in their first couple of years of study before they figure out that, while what they’ve written might be correct, it is not at all enjoyable to read. A colleague of mine once recalled that a favorite professor of his from grad school had given him an A- for exactly this shortcoming. When asked why the grade was not an A, the professor had responded, “You wrote a very thorough paper that no one would ever want to read twice.”

I am capable of translating such prose. But it is also LONG and chock full of references (to the Rigveda, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, collections of folktales, myths, studies from the Americas, Africa, Australia, and more), many of them from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which means they need to be checked for page numbers, existing English translations, etc. Hence the reward of taking a break after every few sentences or so.

I am certainly learning things by focusing in this way on the book, but the process has reinforced in me how much I am motivated as a translator by the compelling aspects of the writing itself. Without that, translating can be quite a slog.

Teaching Ukrainian Culture as if it were Russian

A former public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine explained to me a few years ago how they were trying to help Ukrainian institutions to train Ukrainians to tell Ukraine’s story to the world, “because,” he said, “at this point wherever you look, Russia is telling Ukraine’s story.” I thought of this comment when reading the opening pages of Karl Schlögel’s 2015 Ukraine: A Nation on the Borderland (in Gerrit Jackson’s 2018 translation), where he writes:

For me, and I think for everyone who has studied it, Russia is more than a subject of research; it is deeply woven into our personal lives. And so, the so-called Ukrainian crisis was a moment of truth, challenging us to reconsider deeply held convictions and how we had arrived at them. It called for more than a review of the scholarship of the past and the evolution of the cultural, diplomatic or business relations between the countries. It struck to the core of our dedication to dialogue, and more was at stake than merely a position that might be revised or amended. What was cast in doubt was an undertaking to which we had devoted ourselves with heart and soul, an engagement that could not have remained without consequences, that might almost be called an enchantment or entanglement. In short, this was about Russia as an integral part of our biographies; the events in Ukraine called a major part of our life’s work into question.

(Schlögel 2018: 24)

Schlögel’s sentiment resonates deeply for me and I suspect for other Russian specialists as well. Perhaps that deep personal commitment has made it hard sometimes to change the way we approach our subject, I don’t know. But it is clear to me, as I think about his call for a re-assessment of our professional commitments and “entanglements” that I have tended to teach those aspects of history and culture that Russia and Ukraine share as if they were Russian in an uncomplicated way, without having much to say about the fact that they are also Ukrainian. In effect, I have told Ukraine’s story through a Russian lens.

I suppose it might be easy for some to dismiss the idea of teaching Kievan Rus’ as national in any sense, whether Russian, Ukrainian, or Belorusian. This, after all, would be a rather wooly anachronism since national consciousness in the modern sense is a much later phenomenon. That’s fine and true, of course, but does not explain the much more interesting modern historical phenomena associated with anchoring the identity and overall contours of a country in significant events, places, and personages from the past, especially when it is where one lives. In this context, it is not at all helpful to designate the literature, art, architecture, and cultural figures of Kievan Rus’ as “Old Russian” let alone “Medieval Russian” without specifying that these are all also “Old Ukrainian” and “Old Belorusian” too. And not just specifying but exploring what this means today and has meant historically, in practice for real people every day.

I’m thinking about this now because I’ll be teaching an intro-level Russian culture course again in the coming year after a five-year hiatus. Re-reading the materials I have used many times before is not making me cringe (at least not most of the time) so much as clarifying how much the present influences our views and interpretations of the past and also reenforcing the conviction that one must constantly revisit what one thinks one knows and how one thinks one knows it.