Teaching Russian Short Fiction

I’ll be teaching what is called a “second 8-week” class this semester. This is a special format that my university came up with to address two problems. The first one is that sometimes a professor offers a class that doesn’t get enough students to sign up, such that it has to be canceled. The second is that some students find that the classes they signed up for at the beginning of the term are not for them, so they need another class to take (often in order to maintain their full-time student status, which is important for such things as financial aid, scholarships, and so on). I was hoping to teach a graduate seminar, but I didn’t get enough students, so instead I’ll be teaching “Russian Short Fiction,” an intro-level course that I taught once before. The title sounds like an oxymoron to some, but there’s actually quite a bit to choose from, and I’m looking forward to it.

As part of my preparation for the course, I began George Saunders’ new book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which just happens to include four of the stories I use in the class: Chekhov’s “In the Cart” and “Gooseberries,” Turgenev’s “The Singers,” and Gogol’s “The Nose.” The book is based on a course he has taught for over twenty years in the MFA program at Syracuse, which means it is perfect for the sorts of students who are likely to take my course: interested in a general way, probably without Russian language or at least not enough to read the stories in the original Russian, and likely to respond to a practical approach that asks questions about what Saunders calls “the physics of the form (‘How does this thing work, anyway?'”

I have been surprised in the past by how a new book can come out just at the moment when you can use it in one of your classes, and this one has me really excited. While I know the material from having studied and taught it for many years, and from having written about it in a scholarly vein, I anticipate learning things from Saunders, who comes at it from a different perspective. I also anticipate sharing more here as I find little gems of concise, effective writing like this:

“This is a resistance literature, written by progressive reformers in a repressive culture, under constant threat of censorship, in a time when a writer’s politics could lead to exile, imprisonment, and execution. The resistance in the stories is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind” (p. 4).

Black History Month and Beyond

I served for a number of years as an associate dean for diversity and inclusion, and one of the things we struggled with was the culture of demographic sameness that academia often creates. Faculty tend to have contacts in their circles for long periods of time, which can be a good thing in terms of stability, of course, but if you’re trying to innovate and diversify, this virtue of stability can be a major impediment, leading to stagnation. It can also result in an institution’s loosing touch with its students and the community within which it exists: undergraduate students cycle through fairly quickly, while faculty stay for long periods of time, so as the country changes and the students change, the institution can get stuck in the past.

One of the things we tried was to mandate that all new job applicants provide a statement on diversity and inclusion as part of their job application materials. This was as much about encouraging a new, more “in-touch” cohort of incoming faculty as it was about getting those faculty already in place to consider their own assumptions and behavior more carefully.

Our idea was to give departments a lot of leeway in exactly what they ask for and how they evaluate what they get. They could, for instance, focus on inclusion in the classroom or lab, or on research, or just ask about a candidate’s plans for the future. The main thing is that they should discuss this among themselves and come to a shared understanding of (a) their own internal values, which includes as a discipline (e.g., anthropology is going to be very different from dance), and (b) how they will evaluate the statements they receive (not simply, “I think this looks good,” or “the person says nothing about hierarchy so it’s not a good statement”). These sorts of statements have become common at a number of institutions, not just in higher ed: just do an internet search for “how to write a diversity statement,” and you’ll find many examples.

But there has been occasional pushback. A former Harvard dean tweeted this some time ago, which people are still talking about:

As a dean of a major academic institution, I could not have said this. But I will now. Requiring such statements in applications for appointments and promotions is an affront to academic freedom, and diminishes the true value of diversity, equity of inclusion by trivializing it.

Jeffrey Flier (@jflier)

I am not positive what Flier means by trivializing in this case. Perhaps he has in mind a kind of lip service. If so, then I can’t help but agree with that part of his criticism, by which I mean if an institution doesn’t really mean it and is only creating such a policy out of a perceived need to appear to be doing something, then that is indeed trivial. That is not why we instituted our policy, and I hope not why others have done so either. But ensuring the seriousness and effectiveness of whatever one does also has to be part of the process, or else you’re liable to get exactly the opposite of the result you hoped for, as people see you didn’t really mean it and check out one by one.

The “affront to academic freedom” part is more complicated and has to do with how one defines the institutional mission. It strikes me that the main question is whether fostering inclusivity via diversity of various kinds is understood as core to the mission or not. I could imagine a Quaker or other religious institution, or one founded as part of a broad social infrastructure for addressing social inequality, defining itself and its mission with a central social justice aspect. In such a case, it would be natural to ask candidates to tell you about their teaching, their research, and also how they foster appreciation for others’ perspectives and backgrounds, which could be thought of as a community imperative, a national (democratic) one, or one that encourages healthy social mobility for everyone. Some might also see this as a moral question that has to do with redressing past wrongs. These reasons are not mutually exclusive and can certainly co-exist and reinforce one another.

But something else is assumed when one pulls out the “academic freedom” card. In such cases, diversity, equity, and inclusion are clearly imagined as outside of the core mission of the institution. They might be thought of as peripheral to it, maybe even a positive byproduct, a potential social good that comes from people learning together. There’s a good deal of research on the benefits of fostering diversity in higher ed (as well as in business and the military for that matter), but that is about how one best educates, not the desired outcomes. An analogy with the military might help, where the core mission (defense), questions of effectiveness, and potential byproducts have slightly sharper outlines: it would be unusual to expect those who join the army to state their commitments to diversity as a condition of service, but in achieving their mission, they need to be able to form cohesive internal units, work together, and so on, which is about effectiveness. Beyond this, there’s good research to indicate that such service has had a positive effect on helping nations to create a cohesive social fabric, as people learn about other areas of the country, other people’s experiences and backgrounds, ways of expressing themselves (a national language), and so on, which is about a positive byproduct.

Separating the commitment to diversity and respect for the experiences and perspectives of others from the mission of the institution is the only way I can see getting to this “academic freedom” argument, which allows someone to think that when an institution expects such a commitment from its employees, it is somehow infringing on such freedom. But what a silly distinction to make if you are thinking of the health of the institution! Do you really want to hire people who are not committed to such values? Or, what might be worse, to hire people who refuse to tell you that they are committed to such values? Why in the world would you? Personnel issues are already among the most difficult an administrator faces. Why would you hire jerks (this is a technical term among administrators) to make your work even harder?

Whether or not a commitment to diversity is part of the core mission is a decision the institution has to make. At some places, like Harvard, which was not constructed with such ideas in mind (probably the opposite, in fact), the possibility of seeing it like Flier does seems more likely to me. It’s a school that arose from elite culture for the training of elites. Obviously, times have changed, and many people from outside such circles have both studied and taught at Harvard in recent decades. But institutions have weight, and institutions of higher ed are famously unchanging, as I noted above. There are other kinds of institutions, some of which arose in the U.S. with a core mission at least partly, and sometimes more than partly, rooted in the desire to effect democratic principles, fair treatment, and social mobility.

I suspect that the sorts of hiring and training regimes that encourage such values to thrive and be reflected in people’s behavior in all their interactions, not just with those above them in the hierarchy and not just on certain special days of the year (e.g., Black History Month, which starts in the U.S. tomorrow) will continue to be important for students as they choose the schools they want to attend, and for faculty as they choose what sorts of institutions they want to be part of and what sorts of values they want to live by.

2000 listens

I’m very pleased that Ba Ren Chi’s music on Jamendo has close to 2,100 listens at this point, only a few months after the first release back in October of 2020. By far the favorite piece so far, according to the stats, is Lalo Sí with a little over 700 listens on its own. That’s great, and I’m pleased the song has resonated with so many people.

But I’m not as pleased when I re-listen to it now, some fifteen years after first creating it. I hear too prominently what one music blogger reminded me of: it sounds like a midi track. Well, that’s because it IS a midi track, but that’s also only part of the reason the sound sticks out today. It’s also because I made it fifteen years ago, and a lot has changed since then in terms of playback. By comparison, more recent pieces, such as Da Levante or Oni Daiko, which are in fact no less midi than Lalo Sí, sound so much better, so much more natural, that they almost don’t even appear to have come from the same place.

Unfortunately, I no longer have access to the original Finale files I used to create Lalo Sí. They are too old for me to update, it seems. Either I’ll have to re-compose the whole piece, or I’ll need to re-mix it using updated sections and an overall re-mastered score. This is possible, I know, but it’s not something I’ve spent enough time with to really do well, at least not yet. At this point, I’m re-composing individual sections and using Soundtrap to mix them in. Landr is also helping me with mastering and, as of a week ago, distribution (one can now find Ba Ren Chi’s music on iTunes, Tidal, Deezer, Spotify, and occasionally elsewhere). This process is slow but not unenjoyable. The tech has changed so much over the years. It is still fun because every little thing is about learning something new.

How Loving Your Source Can Make Your English Translation Into Doggerel

I think that some translators must have a terribly sad streak inside, but let me start with doggerel since it’s lighter. By doggerel I don’t only mean the unintentionally funny or the inventive and exploratory. To get a sense of these, for the funny end of the spectrum, try William McGonagall’s “The Tay Bridge Disaster”: 

It must have been an awful sight, 
To witness in the dusky moonlight, 
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray, 
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay, 
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay, 
I must now conclude my lay 
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay, 
That your central girders would not have given way, 
At least many sensible men do say, 
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses, 
At least many sensible men confesses, 
For the stronger we our houses do build, 
The less chance we have of being killed.

Then, for the exploratory and inventive end, imagine a bass and drums background and a rap artist delivering, “I must now conclude my lay by telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay….”

But it’s hard to salvage much else (beyond those two lines) for serious purposes from the overwrought rhetoric, uneven meter, poorly matched lexical registers, grammatical and syntactical stretches, triteness, logical lapses, and willful rhyme scheme (which can be called a scheme only because of its humorous effect). This is one of two ways to make doggerel. It is characterized by errors so obvious that they make us laugh and the juxtaposition of the seriousness of the form with a degree of perceived narrative buffoonery. (This can also be intentional — imagine a holiday party where one makes up verses for one’s co-workers….)

The other is by doing almost the opposite, taking a poem from another language and time period, and translating it so regularly into English — matching exact rhymes to exact rhymes, and regular meter to regular meter — that nothing ever varies, making it into something that sounds like a sing-song ditty. This is of course fine if it’s a sing-song ditty in the source culture. But it’s likely to become doggerel if it was anything other than that, an epic, say, or a love lyric. This way of making doggerel is much harder to provide examples for, or rather, it is hard to say why this way of translating might come across as doggerel to a listener or reader, probably because it is not “over the top” in the manner that McGonagall masters in his oh so ill-fated bridge. It also results from cultural assumptions about equivalencies of meter, rhyme, punctuation, and form in general that are difficult to name explicitly.

About the closest to an explanation for this phenomenon that I have encountered is something that W. S. Merwin describes in one of the prefaces to his Selected Translations (published by Copper Canyon in 2013). He seems to have begun his approach to practice with Pound, who once spoke to him “of the value of translation as a means of continually sharpening a writer’s awareness of his own language” (12). He then struggled over the next fifteen years to free himself from the idea, advanced by Pound among many others, that “fidelity in translating a poem should include an ambition to reproduce the original verse form” (168). By the end of this struggle, he notes, “I had come to consider the verse conventions of original poems as part of the original language, in which they had a history of associations like that of individual words—something impossible to suggest in English simply by repeating the forms” (169).

On the one hand, such a statement suggests that translators look for something deeper than formal equivalency or what is sometimes loosely called equivalency of effect. This is about meaning primarily, semantic translation, what Merwin touches on as “fidelity” and what some translator colleagues have referred to as “unpacking,” before they turn to the “repacking,” which is making the poem in English. That re-made poem, if it is to be effective as an English-language poem, may or may not share the same formal features as the source version. On the other, embedded in the statement is the question of effect, how an audience receives the English version, how they hear it. This is where my poet-translator friends will note that, unless there is some sort of a formal challenge that poets have knowingly set for themselves (a sestina, a ghazal) motivating it, much of the most interesting poetry published today does not exhibit the sort of regularity of, say, nineteenth-century rhymed verse, and if one tries to write such verse today, it tends to sound uncannily like, well, the nineteenth century.

Getting beyond the first kind of doggerel, the kind characterized by unintentional errors that make your readers laugh, is mostly a question of understanding the source and having a good sense of English prosody. Avoiding the second kind, which comes from sounding dull if not trite in the receiving culture, is a challenge of a higher order, largely because the more you study the source, the better you know it, the closer you get to it, and the more you tend to love it.

At this point, as a translator you are faced with a terrible truth, which is where that sadness I started with lurks. Loving your source as you do, you want to share, convey it in all its beauty, integrity, and meaning — the meaning it has had for you, the way it has moved you, been a part of your life — to others who might not have access to it. But the only way to do this is, first, to take it apart, this thing you love, word by word, sound by sound; and second, to change it, this thing you love, into something else.

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 strait) 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.