Retelling Stories: Translation and Imitation Across Literary Cultures

Presented by: Sunil Sharma

When: 8:00 – 9:00 am Section 2: Regions & Functions of Texts Continued; Panel 4, 4C

Abstract: Storytelling is a humanistic practice that can range from the production of short oral folktales to voluminous literary works. The circulation of stories and fables, whether individually or in larger collections, across cultures in the premodern world is a well-studied topic. It is widely accepted that a work such as the 1001 Nights includes tales that originate in Persian and Indian traditions, but through the multiple stages of retelling it is almost impossible to pinpoint those elements other than through identifying particular motifs and devices. The best documented case study of the “translation” of stories across different cultural and literary traditions while retaining a recognizable structural frame is the collection of animal fables known in Europe as the fables of Bidpai or Pilpay, which started life as the Panchatantra in Sanskrit and was called Kalila and Dimna in Persian and Arabic. Within the Islamic-Persianate cultural sphere, two further processes of translation resulted in extending the readership of texts: one, translation from Persian into vernacular languages such as Turkish, Bengali, and Urdu, to name the chief ones, and from prose to verse forms. The translation studies scholar Theo Hermans writes in the context of the literary culture of the European Middle Ages that translation was “a constrained variant” of the more literary practice of imitatio; while literal versions were regarded “as more lowly and aligned with language learning,” looser versions “blend into the culturally more prestigious domain of imitatio.” Where do the poetic versions of tales that were initially composed and circulated as prose works fit into this scheme? On the one hand, the versified versions may have been a way to broaden the readership, but on the other hand, there was also an aspiration for the works to be accepted as high literature since poetry was valued over prose. I would like to investigate these stages of retelling or recasting of stories in order to complicate what we understand by the intertwined practices of translation and circulation within Persianate literary cultures in the Middle East and South Asia. In addition, I will also study the transformations that were made while packaging collections of stories within different cultural and literary contexts, paying particular attention to the frame tales and the chief narrators. For instance, the choice of the storyteller(s) in the frame tale as being a woman, a parrot, or a group of people can shed light on the cultural valence given to the narrator, how s/he/it tells a story, and how listening to or reading stories is fundamental to living well.