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  • She-Calf and Other Quechua Folk Tales
  • Delia Poey
She-Calf and Other Quechua Folk Tales Edited and translated by Johnny Payne Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 271 pp.

Inasmuch as there is never a one-to-one correlation between one language and another, to translate is to transform, and each word requires an interpretive decision on the part of the translator. A more honest term for translation is the one used in oral communication: interpretation. This term is aptly applied to Johnny Payne’s work in She-Calf and Other Quechua Folk Tales.

Payne’s own experience as a storyteller of sorts provides him with the sensitivity to recognize each storyteller’s art in these tales. His brief, informative introduction, a story in and of itself, acknowledges the storyteller’s desire to engage in a form of self-expression that cannot be encased in the label [End Page 173] of “informant.” Payne’s respect for the storytellers and their tales comes through clearly in his meticulous transcriptions and well-thought-out translations. Most notably, Payne understands that a tale is performed in context; since the performance is impossible to capture in writing, he provides an introduction to each tale, describing the teller, the performance style, and the immediate circumstances that prompted the telling.

Quechua is spoken today by between 5 million and 12 million people, primarily in the Andean region of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia but also in four other countries, where it is rarely recognized as a major language. In the cosmopolitan centers of Peru, where these stories were collected, Quechua has a very low status. In remote villages, however, it is the language that is lived; that is, it is the language of the everyday. It is referred to by its speakers as runasimiâ, “the language of real people.” Payne’s book provides the text in both English and Quechua, on facing pages. The University of New Mexico Press is to be commended for embarking on a bilingual project of this scope, which goes some way toward recognizing Quechua’s global importance.

While we readers may be worlds away—geographically, culturally, and linguistically—from where these tales originate, our familiarity with folktales in our own cultural context provides us with a way into these tales. Folktales, though culturally specific, appeal to a deeply shared humanity. They reveal what we cannot see but somehow can intuit. Not surprisingly, several tales in this collection, such as “The Woman Who Tended Ducks” and “The Eagles Who Raised a Child,” deal with the falsity of appearances. Others use the trickster as a protagonist. Through such characters the reader witnesses the subversion of the status quo. What is more human than the desire to feel empowered in the face of the uncontrollable?

Payne’s volume also offers simple jokes. Not coincidentally, two of them cast the gringo as a dupe. Payne aptly observes that “the Quechua native, far from being the passive object of outsiders’ researches, has for a long time been working out his own analysis of the contact between cultures.”

Popular stories are conduits of a community’s values, fears, and truths. Hence some of these tales offer practical admonitions, ranging from the need for children to be obedient to prohibitions against incest. Yet many of the tales are not transparent. They delve more deeply into how human beings relate to one another and to the natural world; in the process, they reconfigure the nature of reality. Such tales are longer and more layered. They tend to culminate in a wedding or feast, followed by the storyteller’s conventional affirmation of their veracity.

The title story, “She-Calf,” is full of sensory description and emotional tension. In it, a boy awaits a ritualized nightly visit from a she-calf that peels off its skin and thus transforms itself into a young woman. Sensuously charged, the tale effectively transports the reader to a world both familiar and magical.

All in all, these folktales enchant, surprise, instruct, and, yes, at times puzzle.