Self-Translating Fairy Tales.

Another highly LH-relevant passage from Canetti’s The Tongue Set Free (see this post); he’s been talking about the young Bulgarian peasant girls hired by his family as maids, and when his parents were out and it got dark, they all huddled together on a divan and the girls told what we now call campfire stories:

Of the fairy tales I heard, only the ones about werewolves and vampires have lodged in my memory. Perhaps no other kinds were told. I can’t pick up a book of Balkan fairy tales without instantly recognizing some of them. Every detail of them is present to my mind, but not in the language I heard them in. I heard them in Bulgarian, but I know them in German; this mysterious translation is perhaps the oddest thing that I have to tell about my youth, and since the language history of most children runs differently, perhaps I ought to say more about it.

To each other, my parents spoke German, which I was not allowed to understand. To us children and to all relatives and friends, they spoke Ladino. That was the true vernacular, albeit an ancient Spanish, I often heard it later on and I’ve never forgotten it. The peasant girls at home knew only Bulgarian, and I must have learned it with them. But since I never went to a Bulgarian school, leaving Ruschuk at six years of age, I very soon forgot Bulgarian completely. All events of those first few years were in Ladino or Bulgarian. It wasn’t until much later that most of them were rendered into German in me. Only especially dramatic events, murder and manslaughter so to speak, and the worst terrors have been retained by me in their Ladino wording, and very precisely and indestructibly at that. Everything else, that is, most things, and especially anything Bulgarian, like the fairy tales, I carry around in German.

I cannot say exactly how this happened. I don’t know at what point in time, on what occasion, this or that translated itself. I never probed into the matter; perhaps I was afraid to destroy my most precious memories with a methodical examination based on rigorous principles. I can say only one thing with certainty: The events of those years are present to my mind in all their strength and freshness (I’ve fed on them for over sixty years), but the vast majority are tied to words that I did not know at the time. It seems natural to me to write them down now, I don’t have the feeling that I am changing or warping anything. It is not like the literary translation of a book from one language to another, it is a translation that happened of its own accord in my unconscious, and since I ordinarily avoid this word like the plague, a word that has become meaningless from overuse, I apologize for employing it in this one and only case.

There must be similar cases, but I’m not aware of them; I wish I could retrieve the Japanese stories our ayahs must have told me in my first years, but they seem to be gone for good.

Comments

  1. Apparently, his memories were stored in non-verbal parts of the brain. That is, they were stored in some form that required linguistic interpretation, we may call it “translation”, in any language. A good check would be to see whether people reproduce the stories they’ve heard in childhood in the same wording they’ve heard them. Or they remember the contours of the story, but retell it in a new manner.

  2. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I wish I could retrieve the Japanese stories our ayahs must have told me in my first years, but they seem to be gone for good.

    If the amahs we had in Singapore told us stories I’ve not only forgotten the stories but also the fact of having been told them. They did teach us how to count in Malay — curious, as they were certainly Cantonese speakers, not Malay. We once asked one how to count to 4 in “Chinese”, as we called it, though it must have been Cantonese. I was just checking whether “eck ee sum say”, as I remember being told, using the sort of spelling I would have used at the time, bears any relation to reality. Surprisingly, it does: “sum say” is quite good, “ee” is very poor, and “eck” is completely wrong.

  3. Surprisingly, it does: “sum say” is quite good, “ee” is very poor, and “eck” is completely wrong.

    “Ek” is not Cantonese for one but Hindi for one!

  4. I suspect unconscious translation is fairly common in anyone who speaks more than one language but is not perfectly bilingual. My Russian is fairly fluent and I have read Master & Margarita in Russian many times, seen it performed on stage in Russian, listened to the audiobook in Russian and at one point could quote passages in Russian at length. Still, I know that today it is much easier for me to summarize the story in English than in Russian.

  5. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    “Ek” is not Cantonese for one but Hindi for one!

    I wondered if it might be Tamil, which would be more relevant in Singapore than Hindi, but no, it has no similarity to “onnu”. However, although they weren’t many Sikhs in Singapore when I lived there the traffic police were mostly Sikhs, so I checked Punjabi and bingo! The Punjabi for one apparently is “ikk”.

  6. “ee” is very poor

    Actually, it’s spot on: 二 (貳) yih two 2.

  7. DO,
    ” A good check would be to see whether people reproduce the stories they’ve heard in childhood in the same wording they’ve heard them.”

    I remember hearing that when Vi Hilbert was doing her work to stabilize and revive Lushootseed, she asked members of the community to gather stories from elders and if possible to get the exact wording. I think her thinking was that even the English versions might reflect the Lushootseed original closely enough to reconstruct what were often quite precise canonical versions of stories. It was an attempt to reconstruct the oral literature.

    “Or they remember the contours of the story, but retell it in a new manner.”

    I know of an example of this. There’s a device in Irish storytelling where important junctures in the story are stored in verse to lock them into form. There’s a point in “Peig” where someone is telling a story and comes to a bit of verse and misinterprets it and goes on to invent a new twist in the story to accommodate that.,

  8. You could get to eck ee sum say if you mix Chaozhou (Teochew) and Cantonese.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    A good check would be to see whether people reproduce the stories they’ve heard in childhood in the same wording they’ve heard them.

    Does anybody who doesn’t have a photographic memory?

    (Verses excepted, of course.)

  10. I remember reading that passage in its Bulgarian translation (I think?) at an early age (early teens?). I don’t remember it linguistically, but as thoughts/emotions/contours/(paragraphs expressing thoughts?). I often don’t remember in which language I have read something, even as an adult. It might have been in English in my late teens. I really have no way of telling in which language and in what medium I read or heard something, or had a conversation unless I remember the circumstances under which I read it or had the conversation.

    In any case, I remember empathizing with Canetti, and at the same time wondering why he thinks this is a strange phenomenon.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    Jim, There’s a device in Irish storytelling where important junctures in the story are stored in verse to lock them into form.

    In several traditions (Grimm, Perrault) there are snippets of verse spoken by important characters, as in Rappunzell, Rappunzell, let down your hair or Mirror, mirror on the wall, Who’s the fairest of them all?, or Tire la chevillette, et la bobinette cherra (instructions given to Le Petit Chaperon Rouge for opening the door of Grandma’s house – the archaic technique as well as language features now preserve those instructions verbatim, while the modern hearer has little idea of their meaning); or again Open, Sesame! (discussed here a short while ago).

    This tradition is not confined to the Old World but also exists among at least some Amerindian peoples.

    David M: A good check would be to see whether people reproduce the stories they’ve heard in childhood in the same wording they’ve heard them.

    In the modern world, before children learn to read they may hear traditional stories read to them, before they go on to read other types of writing, much of it tailored to their probably level of development. Not so in previous centuries, when traditional tales were told not only to children but in the presence of whole groups of family members and neighbours gathering around the fire in the winter, sometimes joined by a travelling minstrel. Like folk songs and traditional prayers, tales were not just heard in childhood but repeated on numerous occasions throughout a person’s life. In such circumstances, although some people were more gifted than others in storytelling, most adults, and especially older people, knew stories by heart and many were indeed able to repeat a tale verbatim, with minimal changes occurring from time to time because of changes in the language. (The Grimms’ main informant was an excellent example of this type of storyteller – not a professional, but she could have been). Only the verse snippets (themselves often sung) might remain the same, losing semantic meaning but maintaining their poetic structure, their appearance in the tale probably eagerly anticipated.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    Rapunzel, Rapunzel, lass dein Haar herunter! Stress on the middle syllable, not primary stress on the first and secondary on the last as in Appenzell – long consonants (or their orthographic remnants north of the White Sausage Equator) attract stress.

    I often don’t remember in which language I have read something, even as an adult. […] I really have no way of telling in which language and in what medium I read or heard something, or had a conversation

    That happens to me, too.

  13. Rapunzel, Rapunzel, lass dein Haar herunter!

    This looks to me like prose, whereas the English is definitely 4-stress folk verse, cognate with Knittelvers: “Rapúnzel, Rapúnzel, let dówn your long háir!” or alternatively “Rapúnzel, Rapúnzel, lét down your háir!” The listener more than half expects another line to follow, ending in a word rhyming with hair. So the original word stress is preserved, although with English vowels and [z]: /rəˈpʌnzəl/.

  14. M-L,
    “This tradition is not confined to the Old World but also exists among at least some Amerindian peoples. ”

    It does. I remember seeing someone complain somewhere that filed linguists had transcribed stories they’d collected in prose – clunky, repetitive prose – when in fact the stories were in verse, in canonical, set form.

    “most adults, and especially older people, knew stories by heart and many were indeed able to repeat a tale verbatim, with minimal changes occurring from time to time because of changes in the language.”

    A lot of Irish literature was like this. It was clearly performance art that someone sat down and transcribed. Here the audience was expected to be familiar with the entire corpus, so rather than being a set form, the stories were performed improvisationally, like jazz, with allusions dropped in that were only very tangentially related to the story just because the performer wanted to highlight some parallel they saw – because who wanted the same old thing? The performers were being paid to recite stock stuff. This gives a lot of what we have in texts a disjointed, free associative form that feels dreamlike or psychedelic.

    John,

    “This looks to me like prose, whereas the English is definitely 4-stress folk verse, cognate with Knittelvers: “Rapúnzel, Rapúnzel, let dówn your long háir!” or alternatively “Rapúnzel, Rapúnzel, lét down your háir!” ”

    Yes, especially since I the following line is “that I may climb thy shining stair.”

  15. Neither Dr. Google nor I know that line.

  16. I’ve never heard that line either. The “shining stair” rhyme in the Rapunzel story appears to originate in the poem “Sir Winfreth” by John Payne.

    A glittering fleece of golden hair,
    From top to tower-foot it floateth there;
    It hangs from the height like a shining stair.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    Jim: I remember seeing someone complain somewhere that filed linguists had transcribed stories they’d collected in prose – clunky, repetitive prose – when in fact the stories were in verse, in canonical, set form.

    This is not what I was referring to: the snippets of often archaic, repeated elements in the middle of a narrative.

    What you are talking about seems to be what Dell Hymes or D. Tedlock claim to have discovered, but I am not sure if “verse” is the correct description, especially when the tale is not a traditional, even “sacred” one but much more mundane (eg Hymes’ transcription of “How we went to steal a mattress”, in Chinookan).

    I certainly have seen “clunky, repetitive prose” (e.g. by Boas) but I attribute it to fairly literal translation done while the linguist was still unfamiliar with the subtleties of a language (the “typical” PhD project “grammar-dictionary-text(s)” was better than nothing but often less than completely reliable since it was to be done in a fairly limited period of time). Then the attempts by more literarly types to “improve” the translation (while knowing nothing of the language in question) often distorted the text even more.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    Jim: There is also the possibility that some consultants gave a simplified version of stories, and also that they omitted some episodes considered either too sacred or too shocking (knowing missionary tastes) to be shared with an outsider.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Yep, prose in German; fixed form only because it’s a short direct quote.

  20. Rodger C says:

    But it looks to me as if Rapunzel and herunter are supposed to assonate.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    That’s what it seems to me too. Assonance, a hint of rhyme but not quite a rhyme. It is common in medieval French poetry.

  22. I doubt it. Assonance in Germanic languages is a Celtic and Romance import, and although the Rapunzel-story is of Franco-Italian origin, the name of the heroine is entirely Germanic (earlier Romance versions named her Persinette < Petrosinella). In addition, assonance (except for the special case of rhyme) is almost never a structural element in Germanic verse in the way that alliteration and, in Old Norse court-verse, more complex forms of consonance are.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    JC, I did not mean to imply that medieval French assonance was somehow borrowed or influenced by Germanic poetic tradition, only that it was not an unusual or unexpected feature.

    I had no idea that the Rapunzel story was of Franco-Italian origin, since I only know it from Grimm. About the name, I discovered not too long ago that Rapunzel was not a randomly invented Germanic name but the name of a plant known in French as la raiponce. I remember having seeing writing this word occasionally without being able to understand its meaning, but never in the context of food, so it could have meant anything. On the other hand, Persinette, a rather cute name, recalls le persil ‘parsley’, from Latin petrosilium, itself apparently an adaptation from Greek.

  24. Rapunzel is a regional word that most Germans would know only as the name of the heroine of that fairy tale; if you want to buy it in German supermarkets, you need to look for Feldsalat.

  25. The whole Rapunzel/raiponce thing is discussed in this thread, which is extraordinarily interesting on many counts and which I recommend to your attention. (Also, I’m still proud of the title.)

  26. David Marjanović says:

    But it looks to me as if Rapunzel and herunter are supposed to assonate.

    It never did to me. Assonance is unknown to the wider German-speaking public, unless you’re prepared to call it “very bad rhyme”. Today, the words share nothing but stressed /ʊn/.

    However, non-rhoticity may be younger than the Grimms’ version of the tale. In that case, the syllabic [l] would be reasonably close to a syllabic apical [r]. So I suppose assonance isn’t completely impossible.

    if you want to buy it in German supermarkets, you need to look for Feldsalat.

    Wikipedia confirms my suspicion that this is what’s called Vogerlsalat in Austria. (…People do eat it, even though its name implies it’s for the little birdies.)

  27. Wikt says that Rapunzel is the name of three only-distantly-related plants: lamb’s lettuce (Valerianella locusta), rampion (Campanula rapunculus), and spiked rampion (Phyteuma spicata). It’s the first one that is known as Feld-, Vogerl- or Nüsslisalat in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The other two are specifically Rapunzel-Glockenblume and Ährige Teufelskralle respectively.

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