On Fairytales, Folktales, Wondertales, and… Tales

Vladimir Propp makes clear in his Исторические корни волшебной сказки (Istoricheskie korni volshebnoi skazki) that the subject of his study is indeed the волшебная сказка [volshebnaia skazka] announced in its title. However, in his exposition, he often uses the term сказка [skazka] without any attribute. This term happens to be the word used for “folktale,” “fairy tale,” and simply “tale” in English, which led my colleagues and co-translators Miriam Shrager, Sibelan Forrester, and me to a lot of discussion about how best to render the term in our on-going translation of Propp’s book. Alternate translations for the term volshebnaia might be “fairy,” “magical,” “enchanting,” “bewitching,” or “fantastical.” As “wondertale” has gained currency in translations into English, and as the author’s use is primarily technical rather than poetically descriptive, we have been using it as both the title of the translation and in many of the initial instances of the term skazka in the text, where it is clear he is using it as something of a short-hand for the longer, more descriptive term. But this only helps a bit around the margins and does not provide a definitive strategy for rendering the much more frequently and variously encountered skazka (without attribute) throughout the book. 

Propp’s Morfologiia skazki is known as Morphology of the Folktale in English. It is regularly cited and has come to occupy a central place in global folklore studies as such. This title rests upon an interpretive move that is not often remarked upon, an assumption about what the author intended without noting explicitly, namely, that the word skazka was an abbreviated version of narodnaia skazka (folk tale) and therefore equivalent to “folktale” in English. This is a reasonable assumption and a reasonable interpretation, but it is an interpretation all the same, as the word “folk” is not to be found in the Russian title of that book. 

While such an observation might seem on its face inconsequential to the overall translation of the work, it gathers additional weight when we turn to the translation of the continuation of Propp’s earlier begun study, which is in fact this work, with its more explicit title: Istoricheskie korni volshebnoi skazki (Historical Roots of the Wondertale). Here, in his introductory chapter, the author explicitly notes, “By ‘wondertale’ [volshebnaia skazka] I shall intend those tales whose structure I examined in The Morphology of the Folktale [Morfologiia skazki], a book that sets out the genre of the wondertale [volshebnaia skazka] with adequate precision.” 

Now, it could be assumed that the previous book delineated a variety of folktale categories in equal measure, naming the wondertale as one of them but leaving the specifics of analysis for later. This is not the case. Actually, in fact, the entire book known by the English title Morphology of the Folktale was concerned with the wondertale (or, as rendered by earlier translators, the “fairy tale”), and the issue of the title’s ambiguity was not only known to earlier translators but remarked upon, as in Louis A. Wagner’s preface to his revised version of the book for its second edition: 

The expression narodnaja skazka has been rendered as “folktale,” volšebnaja skazka as “fairy tale,” and the words skazka (noun), skazočnyj (adjective) simply as “tale.” The chief departure from this practice is in regard to the title itself (Morfologija skazki), since a change here might have led to undue confusion. The morphology presented by the author is, of course, a morphology of the fairy tale specifically and he is careful to make note of this fact in the Foreword and in Chapter II. Thus the title of the work is, unfortunately, somewhat unclear. It is evident from the text that the unqualified word skazka is used by Propp both in the sense of tale in general and in the sense of fairy tale, depending upon context. The reader must infer the appropriate meaning in each instance. (Propp 2009: ix, emphasis added) 

In other words, Morphology of the Folktale perhaps should have been called Morphology of the Fairy Tale in its first English translation since that was its subject, and indeed the first edition’s introduction, by Svatava Pirkova-Jakobson, opened with the clear declaration, “The subject of this study, the Russian fairy tale…” (Propp 2009: xix). 

What is not clear is why the first edition’s translator, Laurence Scott, or perhaps that volume’s editor or publisher, chose to specify “folktale” in the title when everyone seems to have understood that the book’s subject was actually narrower and more specific. This strategy, moreover, had a long-term impact on the field, as evidenced by one reader of our text, a prominent folklorist who does not happen to work with Russian sources, emphasized in his comments that “skazka equals folktale.” Well, no it doesn’t, even if it might look that way from the English title of Propp’s earlier book.

The opposite tack was taken in the 1984 translation—by Ariadna Y. Martin and Richard P. Martin—of an excerpt from the Historical Roots of the Wondertale published as part of the book Theory and History of Folklore. Here the translators chose to render every instance of skazka in the source as “wondertale” in their translation, despite Propp’s sometimes more expansive use of the term. Actually, Propp uses the same word (skazka) to refer to the tales collected by Russian nineteenth-century ethnographers as well as the “fairy tales” of the Brothers Grimm, Native American stories collected by Boas, Micronesian, African, and Australian tales, and stories from the Rig Veda and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. By contrast, he uses the full “wondertale” [volshebnaia skazka] relatively infrequently in his book—many times in the first chapter, then not at all from chapters two to nine, then again a few more times in chapter ten—and as we asked ourselves upon encountering each successive instance of the much more commonly used skazka whether he had in mind “wondertale,” “folktale,” or a broader and more general “tale” or even “story,” we found ourselves occasionally hesitating. It is clear that it does not always simply refer to “wondertale,” but it is not always clear from context what he might have had in mind for each instance.  

Essentially, we have found ourselves in the hermeneutic dilemma set out by Friedrich Schleiermacher in the early nineteenth century: namely, whether to bring the text closer to readers in the receiving culture, by interpreting for them (the strategy adopted in the Martin and Martin translation), or bring the readers of the receiving culture closer to the original text, by introducing aspects of the source, including its very ambiguity and polysemy, into the English. Faced with this choice, the Scott translation, in effect compromised by translating skazka as “tale” without differentiation and leaving it to readers to decide based on the context of its usage what Propp might have meant in each case. Except for in its title, that is.

Recent translation practice has favored different interpretive and expressive strategies on the part of translators, who, recognizing the implicit cultural power and expressiveness of particular words, phrases, and other linguistic features, often leave them untranslated in the new text. We considered this idea and even partially revised our version leaving skazka or the plural skazki in the English wherever Propp used those terms without an adjective but then pulled back: it’s already a complicated text with lots of terms in it; did we really need to add another? Do we?

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.