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.