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The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation

The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation

Dennis Tedlock
Copyright Date: 1983
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation
    Book Description:

    Dennis Tedlock presents startling new methods for transcribing, translating, and interpreting oral performance that carry wide implications for all areas of the spoken arts. Moreover, he reveals how the categories and concepts of poetics and hermeneutics based in Western literary traditions cannot be carried over in their entirety to the spoken arts of other cultures but require extensive reevaluation.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0530-5
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-19)

    Here speaks the storyteller, telling by voice what was learned by ear. Here speaks a poet who did not learn language structure from one teacher and language meaning from another, nor plot structure from one and characterization from another, nor even an art of storytelling from one and an art of hermeneutics from another, but always heard all these things working together in the stories of other storytellers. And this poet, or mythopoet, not only narrates what characters do, but speaks when they speak, chants when they chant, and sings when they sing. A story is not a genre like...

  5. Guide to Reading Aloud
    (pp. 20-22)
  6. Prologue: When the White Mask Is Worn
    (pp. 23-28)



    tell you one of those Zuni stories.

    (opening a book) My apologies for

    relying on the


    this is the story of the Shumeekuli.


    is something like a kachina, one of these

    beings who wears a mask whenever you see him—

    when they’re among themselves they don’t wear masks; when they come to visit people they do.

    Kachinas live over THERE (indicates west)

    but the Shumeekuli live over here, to the east (indicates east).

    It’s a FLAT (hand as if pressing on a flat vertical surface)

    kind of mask

    they come in SIX COLORS

    they come in...


    • 1 On the Translation of Style in Oral Narrative
      (pp. 31-61)

      Those who have sought to transform the spoken arts of the American Indian into printed texts have attempted to cross linguistic, poetic, and cultural gulfs much larger than those faced by translators who merely move from one Indo-European written tradition to another, but they have had very little to say about translation as such. Franz Boas simply advocated a “faithful rendering of the native tales,”¹ which for him and most of his followers meant what professional translators would call a “crib” or a “trot”—not a true translation into literate English, but rather a running guide to the original text,...

    • 2 The Girl and the Protector: A Zuni Story
      (pp. 62-106)

      The moment has arrived to put into practice the idea that a translation of an oral narrative should be presented as a performable script. But if I were to follow the normal practice of anthropologists, linguists, and folklorists, I would now send you, dear reader, to an appendix or else to a separate volume—a memoir, a monograph, or the annual report of some institution. That kind of separation may be appropriate when stories are treated as raw products, as ores to be mined for motifs, archetypes, social charters, or mythemes, rather than as events that might be reexperienced through...

    • 3 Learning to Listen: Oral History as Poetry
      (pp. 107-123)

      Beyond the question of how to score oral performances lies the further question of how to talk about such performances. Might it not be that such talk, when published, should itself escape the prose format, arguing its case not only in its words and sentences but also in its graphic design? David Antin and myself, at a time when he had begun publishing the talks that were later gathered in Talking at the Boundaries and I had begun publishing scripts of Zuni stories, made a pact that we would never again allow our own words—even our critical discourse—to...

    • 4 Translating Ancient Words: From Paleography to the Tape-Recorder
      (pp. 124-156)

      As a mythographer who has learned to regard oral narrative as a performing art rather than a direct analog of literary narrative, I have aimed my work in transcription and translation at the production of a performable and breathable script or score, rather than milling out scanned verse or justified prose. This work started with tape-recordings of live performances of Zuni narratives, coming full circle with the scoring of tape-recordings of my own oral performance (in English) of the scores of the Zuni performances, as embedded in my talks before live audiences on the subject of oral narrative and related...


    • 5 The Poetics of Verisimilitude
      (pp. 159-177)

      It is my purpose here to take a look, at features of narrative style and structure which have to do with the ways in which narratives reflect or distort the world of everyday experience. I will center the discussion on Zuni fictional narratives and draw comparisons with our own and other narratives or narrative-like phenomena, including everything from horror films to scientific proofs. The result will, I hope, add to the already abundant reasons for considering oral narratives to be something other than just primitive ancestors of written prose fiction and for viewing the minds which produced those narratives as...

    • 6 On Praying, Exclaiming, and Saying Hello in Zuni
      (pp. 178-193)

      In Zuni there are two ways of radically removing speech (penanne) or song (tenanne) from the plane of everyday vocalization. The speaker or singer may either ana k’eyato’u, “raise it right up,” or else yam ik’eenannakkya peye’a, “utter it with his/her heart.” In the case of singing, “raising up” affects the last two parts of a five-part song of the Kachina (masked dance) Society. The first three parts all have the same tonic, but the tonic of the fourth part may be raised higher and that of the final part still higher.¹ When a song is sung “with the heart,”...

    • 7 Phonography and the Problem of Time in Oral Narrative Events
      (pp. 194-215)

      Phonography has been with us for just over a century now. Phonography: the mechanical inscription of the voice, coupled with a mechanical reading aloud of that inscription, all without the intervention of alphabetic writing. The machines that first hit the market were like contemporary tape-recorders in one very important respect: They not only played recordings, but also made them. They hadn’t been on the market very long when Jesse Walter Fewkes decided to take one into the field; in 1890 he recorded verbal arts, both spoken and sung, among the Passamaquoddy in Maine and at Zuni.¹ Since then phonography (I...

    • 8 The Forms of Mayan Verse
      (pp. 216-230)

      What happens when our notions about what a poetics might be are held within the orbit of linguistics is well illustrated by the work of Roman Jakobson. In a statement meant to be a general pronouncement on poetics, he argues that the “poetic function” of language is actualized as a “focus on the message for its own sake,” specifically the structure of the message, and “since linguistics is the global science of verbal structure, poetics may be regarded as an integral part of linguistics.”¹ And just as his phonology involves a repression of the continuous and material nature of speech...


    • 9 The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation in American Indian Religion
      (pp. 233-246)

      Our text for this morning comes from the Aashiwi, as they call themselves, or from the Zuni Indians. They live in a town in west-central New Mexico and are now twice as numerous as they were when the Spanish first counted them in 1540. Their language is shiwi’ma, one of the 150 languages spoken by the various indigenous peoples of the United States.

      The name of the text is chimiky’ana’kowa. Literally translated, that means, “that which was the beginning.” It is the beginning, or “that which was the beginning.” These words were made by what happened at the beginning, and...

    • 10 Beyond Logocentrism: Trace and Voice Among the Quiché Maya
      (pp. 247-260)

      . . . . I don’t know where to begin this story. Quiché Maya stories occur naturally in conversation. People do not set aside an occasion for storytelling, where all other kinds of talk come to a stop. It is true that stories are likely to be heard at wakes, but people don’t die just so someone can tell stories at their wakes.

      When an anthropologist asks a Quiché, “Tell me a story,” chances are that he or she will be unable to think of a story, given no reason to tell a story other than that someone wants to...

    • 11 Creation and the Popol Vuh: A Hermeneutical Approach
      (pp. 261-271)

      Generations of Americanists, including such figures as Brinton and Morley, have held the Popol Vuh to be the most important single native-language text in all the New World, and much emphasis has been laid on the pre-Columbian character of its contents. But the Popol Vuh also has contents that reflect the fact that it was written after the Conquest, contents that have long been a source of embarrassment for Americanists. Bandelier wrote a century ago that the Popol Vuh “appears to be, for the first chapters, an evident fabrication, or at least an accommodation (of Indian mythology to Christian notions...

    • 12 Word, Name, Epithet, Sign, and Book in Quiché Epistemology
      (pp. 272-282)

      For an exploration of Quiché epistemological boundaries, the Popol Vuh is without rival as a starting place. Its writer takes a good deal of trouble to indicate his epistemic grounds, which until he reaches the sixteenth century at the end of the book lie beyond the limits of anything he himself experienced—or, to put that into Quiché, beyond anything xuuachih, “he faced,” which is the Quiché way of saying “saw with his own eyes.” In the middle of the book, as we shall see, he even sets forth an explicit epistemological theory.

      It is in the opening sentence that...


    • 13 Ethnography as Interaction: The Storyteller, the Audience, the Fieldworker, and the Machine
      (pp. 285-301)

      One November evening at Zuni, New Mexico, for the first time in a year’s devotion to the ethnography of Zuni storytelling, I suddenly found myself in near-perfect conditions for the witnessing of Zuni storytelling as it really should be, rather than in near-perfect conditions for the making of a studio-like recording. I had gone with Andrew Peynetsa, an accomplished raconteur, to the house of his eldest son.¹ Andrew’s daughter-in-law, Jane, her twenty-year-old brother, and several grandchildren were there, but his son, with whom he desired a conversation, had not yet returned from his job at a gas station. A couple...

    • 14 The Story of How a Story Was Made
      (pp. 302-311)

      What happens when a mythographer is present on the dialogical grounds where oral performances take place might be described, in the case of a tape-recorded tale like “The Girl and the Protector” (see Chapter 2), as a general decontextualizing effect that anticipates the decontextualization involved in playback, transcription, translation, and publication. The response of the native audience is dampened and the performer may be prevented from entangling members of that audience in the story, though in this particular case Walter Sanchez did make an unsuccessful attempt to have Andrew Peynetsa take the part of the heroine's grandfather at prayer. Less...

    • 15 Reading the Popol Vuh over the shoulder of a diviner and finding out what’s so funny
      (pp. 312-320)

      One day several years ago—it was Uucub Ahmac or “Seven Sinner” on the Mayan calendar—I found myself looking at the Quiché text of the Popol Vuh, a text written some centuries ago, over the shoulder of a Quiché who was not only very much alive, but who was laughing about something he had just read there. This was a man named Andrés Xiloj, reading the story of the encounter between Zipacna, self-styled as “the maker of mountains,” and the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Aside from the broad humor contained in the fact that the twins defeat Zipacna...

    • 16 The Analogical Tradition and the Emergence of a Dialogical Anthropology
      (pp. 321-338)

      The words that follow were composed for a Harvey Lecture in Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, delivered on the eve of the first day of spring, 1979. I mention this here (rather than in a footnote) because it is consistent with the theme of the lecture itself that the circumstances of anthropological discourse, whether that discourse comes from the field, the armchair, or the podium, should be kept in open discussion rather than being hidden away in footnotes, appendixes, and unpublished manuscripts.

      Having been introduced to the audience, but before beginning the lecture proper, I said, “I’m always...

  11. Epilogue: When Mountains Shine
    (pp. 339-344)

    On October 13, 1976, Barbara Tedlock and I were in Chuua 4,ak, a Quiché Maya town in Guatemala, talking with Andrés Xiloj. We were undergoing training in Quiché divination and dream interpretation during this period.¹ The day before, I had told don Andrés of dreaming that a shining white mountain had spoken to me with the voice of an old woman, saying, “Come with me.” He had commented that “worlds” do indeed shine, “worlds” (mundos, from Spanish) being a favorite Quiché metaphor for mountains. In the singular, “World” refers to the earth deity at his/her full planetary scale, sometimes called...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 345-356)
  13. Index
    (pp. 357-365)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 366-370)