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  • Afghan Folktales from Herat: Persian Texts in Transcription and Translation by Youli Ioannesyan
  • Margaret Mills (bio)
Afghan Folktales from Herat: Persian Texts in Transcription and Translation. By Youli Ioannesyan. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2009. 300 pp.

Reading the eleven transcribed oral texts with English translations in Afghan Folktales, I remembered a 1975 comment by Abdul Salám, an accomplished Herati oral storyteller. I asked if he changed stories that he heard from others. He said, “I never change them. Sometimes I correct/repair them.”

Youli Ioannesyan, a careful and knowledgeable St. Petersburg–trained dialectologist, presents traditional tales that he recorded from three nonliterate men in Herat villages (western Afghanistan) in the 1980s, during the Russian occupation. He protects the integrity of the oral texts, transcribing them verbatim, including all the discrepancies of grammar and syntax. The printed production is excellent, with few typographical errors. Ioannesyan offers abundant, well-researched lexicographic, phonological, and grammatical notes juxtaposing other regional dialect studies. The author’s “explanations of cultural terms” are less illuminating in places, as are some mistranslations, resulting perhaps from occasional limited fluency in the sometimes telegraphic local folk narrative idiom. The volume includes a glossary of dialectal and common words (212 entries), notes, and a bibliography.

Ioannesyan’s analytic goal in a 1999 monograph in Russian was to locate Herati Persian dialect phonologically and lexicographically on the varietal map of Persian-speaking Afghanistan and Khorassan (a historically important cultural region encompassing much of northeastern Iran and northern Afghanistan). He offers these eleven texts, the “large amount” of “folklore texts” (x) not in the monograph, primarily as data for Persianists, linguists, and language learners. He disclaims the work as “by no means a study in folklore [End Page 182] literature or anthropology, [although] these texts containing ethnographic data may be useful to folklorists or ethnographers” (xii). The problem of genre fluency is theoretically and methodologically important for folklorists and other comparative narratologists and should also concern field linguists. Thus in this review I reflect on dialectology and folk narratology.

For folklorists the utility of the translations is limited (although not that of the transcriptions) by Ioannesyan’s occasional mistakes in Afghan/Herati oral traditional narrative idiom (perhaps also by the limits of his native-speaker consultants, students “of Herati descent” at Leningrad/St. Petersburg University). Hence Abdul Salám and his “corrections.” Drawing on my own contemporaneous collection of several hundred recorded oral narratives, mostly traditional folktales from more than a hundred mostly Herati speakers, male and female, I “hear” in the lacunae ellipses, ambiguous phonemes, false starts, and self-corrections in these eleven texts, things that help to “correct” superficially incoherent aspects of Ioannesyan’s translations. Methodologically, what does such repair mean? How should it be evaluated as a listening practice addressing any single performed text?

The echoic corrective effect of juxtaposing other Heratis’ recordings to these texts supports John Foley’s theorization of immanent knowledge grounding performance competence (Immanent Art, 1991). It is one thing to agree with Foley that fluent performers and audiences hear in a global fashion, deploying prior knowledge of the discourse, making any one traditional “text” a locus of immanent meaning (like an auditory palimpsest), not an isolated speech event. The unsaid but immanently heard is crucial to understanding any performance and reperformance of a tale later. But how does a folklorist decide how (much of) our (or our consultants’) unspoken hearing of the immanent in a performance can be rendered in translation or commentary? Details not spoken in the performance (but immanent in competent hearers’ understanding) must be distinguished from what is surface-present in the text. Inferential translations or interpretations should be flagged as such.

Honest mistakes in translation or interpretation, as well as some English malapropisms (“cow shepherd” for “cowherd,” “cauldron” throughout for “cooking pot”) limit these translations’ utility for non-Persianist narratologists or language students, although the lexicography is mostly excellent. Ioannesyan describes the three narrators as “not ‘professional’ but … average dialect speakers” whose tales are “characterized by features typical of common colloquial illiterate speech. They lack consistency and contain repetitive phrases and expressions. The narrator may drop the sentence in the middle and either leave it incomplete or start...


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