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Reviewed by:
  • Françoise Ugochukwu
Ursula Baumgardt and Jean Derive (eds), Littératures orales africaines–perspectives théoriques et méthodologiques. Paris: Karthala (pb €29–978 2 81110 020 9). 2008, 448 pp.

This book is the first to offer both a comprehensive viewpoint on African oral genres and a highly practical methodology on the recording, transcription, translation and study of oral literature. The five authors, leading scholars whose personal research has informed Francophone studies in the field, have drawn on a shared collective reflection, born out of years of fieldwork and operations by the CRNS-LLACAN research group they have been spearheading. They introduce readers to African oral literatures, the organizing of their literary space and the treatment of texts, from the recording of a performance to its publication and study. The book, in four parts, begins by surveying the historical development of studies on orality, considering the contribution of research to the organizing of oral literature in complementary genres, and highlights the shift from an ethnographic approach heavily influenced by data drawn from written literature, to a more specific, orality-focused approach. Reminding their readers that oral literature is a collective heritage and a living body of performances in constant evolution, powered by creativity and characterized by variability, the authors focus on the status of verbal arts, their manifestation, and the channels they use to express themselves. The book presents orality as a cultural mode, illustrating the premium given to it by Africans, and suggests that factors such as creativity in performance, the physical presence of fieldworkers in the audience, and the time and place of the presentation all provide ready access to the meaning of this mode. The authors [End Page 675] also explore the relationship between text and performance and examine the way texts are memorized–an issue which has not been addressed adequately until now.

The second part of the book is primarily interested in delineating the African oral literary space. Its first chapter attempts to define the contours of that space through an in-depth ethnolinguistic study of the use of vocabulary, and redefines oral literature as relating to language and communication in a slightly different way. The authors, organizing oral genres away from grids inherited from written literature, reveal the complex meshing of words and genres into networks that codify communication while blurring the dividing line between literature and ordinary discourse, and propose to use these new grids to arrive at a classification based on levels of formality in communication. Their reflection is illustrated with examples taken from folktales, proverbs and riddles, three genres which African cultures do not always consider as distinct. The new methodology proposed here, based on criteria relating to content, users and functions, and meant to facilitate the defining of local genres, is illustrated by two practical applications of these criteria to the classification of oral genres in the Kong Dioula culture of Ivory Coast and to a study of epic texts from several African languages and cultures.

Part III moves readers from performances to texts and translation, assessing challenges presented by the writing down of oral performances–faithfulness to the style, voice and body language of performers; styles and registers in translation; the rendering of ideophones and onomatopoeias; the researcher's influence on performance–and suggesting possible solutions to these challenges. It examines the various options open to researchers to ensure a successful dissemination of their findings–an exercise in compromise and flexibility, making use of both print and electronic media. Chapter 9 best illustrates the authors' desire to offer a practical manual to doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers: after a brief historical survey of past fieldwork methods, the author of this chapter assesses current practices and takes researchers step by step from recording to translation through background enquiry and transcription.

The last part of the book is the shortest. The first of two chapters offers a discipline-led, theoretical and chronological survey of Francophone and Anglophone publications in the field; it tracks the development of these publications, leading to a defining of oral literature as a discipline per se. The author highlights, on the way, the various disciplines involved (anthropology, history, literature and ethnolinguistics) and some...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-0184
Print ISSN
0001-9720
Pages
pp. 675-676
Launched on MUSE
2010-11-14
Open Access
No
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