Textualization of Oral Epics, and: The Oral Epic: Performance and Music (review)
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Journal of American Folklore 116.462 (2003) 500-501



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Textualization of Oral Epics. Ed. Lauri Honko. Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 128. (Berlin: Mouton DeGruyter, 2000. Pp. vii + 397.)
The Oral Epic: Performance and Music. Ed. Karl Reichl. Intercultural Music Studies, 12. (Berlin: Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2000. Pp. vii + 248, illustrations.)

At one time most editors and textual critics would have agreed that the purpose of textual criticism and editing was to present the best possible text, if necessary by creating composite texts that were supposed to represent the text as it should have been. Today scholars question the assumptions and results of the older forms of textual criticism, finding, for instance, that these composite texts often seriously misrepresent the texts and textual traditions, for they represent no attested text of the work of literature, no text experienced by any readers. As Lauri Honko notes in the preface to Textualization of Oral Epics, the movement in epic studies, as in other areas of folklore studies, has been toward the study of performance in an effort to "stay as close to the oral rendition of an epic text as possible and to listen carefully to the poet's voice" (p. vii). The two books under review here are important statements of this new trend in epic studies.

Textualization of Oral Epics is a selection of essays from the 1996 Turku conference on oral epics. The contributions range from essays by Karl Reichl and Arthur Hatto on Turkic epic to essays by John Brockington on Sanskrit epic, Minna Skafte Jensen on Homeric epic, and Juha Pentikäinen on Siberian epic, to mention only a few. Reichl's "Silencing the Voice of the Singer: Problems and Strategies in the Editing of Turkic Oral Epics" can stand as representative of the Textualization volume. As with the other participants, Reichl raises issues of collection and recording: why and what have collectors and editors chosen to include in their editions of Turkic epic? As he notes, collectors of Turkic epics have rarely included musical transcriptions with their work, even though it is widely acknowledged that the performances are in fact sung.

Reichl proposes two basic questions that confront editors of oral poetry: "Is it at all possible to effect a 'translation' from performance to text?" and "Should the written representation of the speech-event . . . be a transcription ('documentation') of the event or should it be an edition of the event? Put differently, should the written text 'contain' everything that made up the performance?" (p. 105). With these questions, Reichl characterizes the essential problem of all editing and reproduction of speech events. Not only is any performance event or piece of literature bound to be translated, as George Steiner long ago noted (After Babel, Oxford University Press, 1975), but as Jeremy Black has recently written about Sumerian epic, it will be translated into cultural and literary meanings accessible to the listener/reader (Reading Sumerian Poetry, Cornell University Press, 1998). Though the original epic performance must remain inaccessible to the reading audience, what translators and editors can do is provide as much documentation and other aids for understanding the poetry as possible. Reichl recognizes that different scholars will use the text differently: "If my concern is with the communicative event, I will want to record at what stages the singer twirls his mustache, wipes his forehead, drinks tea etc. If my concern is with the epic as a poetic, aesthetic entity, the drinking of tea seems to play only a marginal role, if it plays any role at all" (p. 114). Ideally, as Reichl suggests, as much information as possible ought to be collected at the time of performance, but when we turn to analyzing the material we will take from the performance what we need for our project. [End Page 500]

In The Oral Epic: Performance and Music, Karl Reichl and his fellow contributors examine what is probably the least studied aspect of epic, the musical traditions. A variety of epic traditions are covered—South Slavic, Albanian, Mongolian...


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