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.

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.