Saturday, April 26, 2014

Translations and Power in Folklore

In the process of working with folktales during my study of Nagum Boiken medicinal knowledge system I encountered another important relationship between translation and power. I had collected a version of a folktale earlier in my research, but on further analysis, I was told that the version I collected earlier was “not a serious version” to the one my collaborator wanted me to collect. At that time, without knowing the complex nature in which various versions of folklore texts are structured and layered in terms of their power and authority, we disagreed. What did we disagree on? First, we disagreed because the version I had collected earlier was the popular version. My collaborator argued that my research lacked any seriousness. The popular version is heard and performed in public for a general audience. The version which he wanted me to collect was a sacred version. He is the only person to know the sacred version. He felt it was time for me to know the sacred version and wanted me to document both the sacred and popular versions.

So what does this tell us about folktales, translation, and power? Within different societies there are different texts lodged at different levels within a culture. Each society views public and sacred texts or folktales in different ways. My collaborator held the view that the sacred texts itself is the source of his power and authority. He refused to surrender it through the process of translation from the primary oral culture to the secondary print technological culture. His insistence on maintaining two versions of the same folktale meant he could maintain his control and power of the sacred version over the popular version. This lesson has taught me to consider folklore texts, whatever they may be, as existing in two different levels of power in the indigenous knowledge world.

The first level is that power is sanctioned by the rules governing the performance and recitation of sacred texts. Denying access to the sacred knowledge constituted within the magic utterances and narratives in the sacred text is a refusal to transact any powers outside of the rules that govern performance of sacred texts. Power is maintained within the jurisdiction of sacred texts. The second level is the authority to perform or narrate folktales. One gets to be an authority on performative narratives and magic utterances through inheritance or through a long process of learning under the influence of great elders and authoritative mentors in a society. Individuals with such authorities are considered powerful in Nagum Boiken societies.

The Nagum Boikens have two mythical figures named as Haiwanga and Yarawali. Most magic utterances evoke the names of Haiwanga and Yarawali. The two culture heroes began the wali kombo (spirit illness) among other magic utterances. The folktale of the two brothers is dispersed in the northern New Guinea mainland. The two brothers are either seen as gods or friends. Lipset discusses the myths of the two brothers as the genesis of “geography, male agency and Austronesian hegemony in north coast cosmology” (Lipset 1997). Lipset links the theory to an earlier work by Hogbin that concludes among other things the emergence of conflict over powers between two brothers in “the magico-religious” world. The two brothers mythology appears as Manup and Kulubob myth in the Rai Coast area or as Andena and Arena in the Murik society. The myth is narrated to explain sibling rivalry, the “material knowledge” and the “masculine contests for authority and control” (Lipset 1997). The latter is questioned in relation to the female agency of such contests. The folktale of the rivalry between the two brothers has implications in the ways in which we view the closely connected tribal or ethnic groups in Papua New Guinea, and elsewhere in Oceania.  Looking at this folklore more critically we uncover the construction of male authority and power in societies where this folktale appears (Winduo 1998).

There are folktale models that are universal in occurrences, but are also indigenous to the region. Specific elements in Oceanic folktales can be teased out and their functions in socio-cultural and political development explained in detail. Translations of folktales have political potential as well as challenges in defining power. Power is constructed in folktales by those who recite or perform the unique local folktale. Various models of power often constructed in folktales are adequate enough as models of social political articulations. Members of a society use folktales to reinforce socially productive relations in society.

Translations of folktales, viewed from the perspective considered here, relate to the ways in which we read and study the traditions within the social cultural contexts and of such texts in the magico-religious world of Oceania. We are concerned with power embedded within the text and its performance as defined within the limits of sacred and secret knowledge. We also considered the literary and scholarly interpretations of Oceanic folktales in their appearance as cultural motifs infused into literary constructions. The folktales and their motifs serve the function of grounding the literary, artistic, or cinematic work within a localized concrete Oceanic space. It also consolidates the expression of feeling of a people at the highest level of expression in Oceania. The final issue is whether the process of translation from one language to another or from one medium to another affects the authenticity of the original folktale. Every performance, every translation, or every transfer of oral folktale is different from the last time it was performed, told, sung, translated, or transferred. It does lose its originality, but then it also gains its popularity and acceptance. The folktale survives because of the renewed interests it gains through new performances, new literary translations, and transfusion in literary works, and its transfer from one medium to another powerful medium such as novels, theatre, and films.

The research on folklore and our cultural knowledge systems helps deepen the understanding of Papua New Guineans through the cultural frameworks existing in their traditional societies where most customs are in oral performative forms.


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