Interview with Karl Reichl on Thursday, October 13, 2016
Interviewed by Jennifer Spitulnik and John Zemke
Transcribed by Jennifer Spitulnik
Jennifer Spitulnik: First of all, thank you so much for being here and for sitting down for an interview, and I’d like to start out by asking you just to tell us in your own words: what do you do, and why do you do it?
Karl Reichl: Yes, okay. Well first of all, thank you for letting me be here.
Well basically, I am a teacher, so to speak. So, I’ve always thought that the teaching part of my research, of my activity as a researcher, as a scholar, was an important element. And this teaching part actually then also shaped a bit the things I do, or I can do, or I could do—I’m retired now, but. So in other words, I was in an English department. As a student I studied mainly subjects—I’m in two areas: English and Romance Philology—but subjects which could be taught in school, and happily, I was able to move on to university, but still felt that my basic obligation was to teach students. And most of, or many of, my students then again became teachers. So I see myself in this sort of tradition, although my later research, and the research why I’m here, which sort of got me here, is only in a way marginal to my teaching. Or, was in my—in the years at the University of Bonn where I spent most of my teaching years after Munich. My interests were then threefold: one was linguistics, and I did teach a lot of—I’m talking about teaching again!—I did do a lot of teaching in linguistics; and as the years went on, a lot then in Old English and Middle English, branching out into literature as well—medieval literature; so the second field is medieval studies. I did my dissertation in medieval studies, and I wrote my dissertation on a manuscript—13th century manuscript—which had a third of the texts in Middle English, and the other third in Anglo-Norman French, and the other third in Latin. And that was the sort of thing I liked: languages, different languages, different literary traditions in the Middle Ages. So that was the second thing. And the third thing, the actually, I mean I’ve always had this interest in Oriental languages, and Oriental cultures, but from the medieval perspective, it was really quite an easy step to go from a study of medieval literature in its variety to oral—living oral traditions. Because so much of medieval literature is or was, oral. I mean, obviously, we’ve only got the things which were written down, but——So in order to study, properly study, the orality of medieval literature, I sort of found a wonderful pretext to go and study the real orality of the peoples whose languages I was fascinated in and had been also studying since my university days. So these three fields—linguistics, medieval studies, and oral poetry, and especially in the Turkic field—disparate as they might seem, are sort of interlinked. And of course, being free from any teaching load, I can devote far more time now to the study of oral literature in Central Asia.
JS: I’ve noticed with some of your—and I’m not familiar with your entire body of work—
KR: No, I wouldn’t recommend it anyway—
JS: It’s quite extensive. [laughter]
KR: No I’m quite—actually, my Habilitation, which is the professorial thesis, is on modern linguistics, Montague grammar. And I’m still sort of—I still wish it had never been published. So I’m glad to hear that you’re not familiar with everything. [laughter]
JS: Well, I was going to say that in some of the things that I’ve been reading, you’re doing a lot of comparative work.
KR: Yes, that’s what I—
JS: And bringing these two fields—these extant oral poetry traditions and the medieval oral traditions together in this comparative way.
KR: That’s right.
JS: And bringing these two fields together. And I think that’s really interesting. So can you talk a little bit about how you got there?
KR: Yes. I mean, of course with whatever one does there is a sort of personal, individual occasion here and there in one’s life. But then there is the more understandable path of the young scholar, going here or going there, reading this or reading that. I was—My interest, actually, in medieval studies came in the course of my university studies. Because I realized that some of the interests I had, I could realize best in medieval studies, because medieval studies does call for comparative work. I mean, you can’t just study Middle English. I mean, this manuscript had three languages, and you couldn’t just pick out the Middle English texts and ignore the rest. That wouldn’t be a scholarly study of the manuscript. So, medieval studies was the first thing. I did have this interest in Oriental studies, which was totally independent of my university studies, although I did study Persian then from my first semester onwards. But they were still disparate, not linked. And the linkage came really with two books I read. One was Radloff, Radloff was a scholar of the 19th century who collected a lot of these oral epics from Central Asia, and edited them and translated them, for me, conveniently, into German. So all of a sudden, a whole new world opened up, as yet unrelated to medieval studies. But then I read several books—one of them being Jan de Vries on heroic epic poetry, in a German translation. Another book, which I wasn’t able to buy because it was too expensive, it had just come out, was Maurice Bowra’s book on heroic poetry, also in German translation. And the book I could buy, and did read, also in German translation, had the title Der Sänger Erzählt. And that is the German translation of The Singer of Tales, by Albert B. Lord. And of course, that really was then, for me, the link between medieval studies on the one hand, and my Oriental interests on the other, because Lord, and Parry before him, had actually been familiar with Radloff, and did, had an interest in going to Central Asia, but at the time it was not possible—for political reasons, that was the 1930s, so they went to former Yugoslavia instead. So I felt that I could sort of pick up on this, and also of course, have a, if you like, a “legitimation” for my colleagues at the university—“why is this man in the English department, he’s supposed to be teaching Old English; why is he now going to Central Asia?” So I had this sort of legitimation: “well look here, scholars have already blazed a trail, as it were, by bringing together medieval—or, in the case of Parry, Classical epics and oral epics—and why shouldn’t I maybe, possibly dare to do that sort of thing as well?” So this is the, so really, it is interest on the one hand, which cannot be rationally explained, its incidence in one’s personal life, but then, a sort of the reading of particular books, and of becoming familiar with particular scholarly methods and the history of scholarship in oral epic studies.
JS: All right! Outside of those three main threads, it sounds like languages has been a particularly driving force. Is there anything else that you’ve pursued, but that hasn’t quite made it into the main body of your work? I’m just curious.
KR: Ah. Okay. Well, actually, one thing I did—Or, I mentioned before in our conversation before this interview, that I spent my senior high school year in Joplin, Missouri. And up to that time, I was actually all geared to become, not a musician, but to study music to become a music teacher in a high school in Germany. And in fact, this year in Joplin changed my direction! I realized two things: one thing was, I wasn’t really as good a musician as I thought. I mean, I was playing on the second music stand, so to speak, in the high school orchestra, which was extremely good, in the first violins. And only just now, I played with a friend again in Princeton, the violin. But, it wasn’t enough, I think to really pursue a career in a conservatory. And the second thing, and this was even more important, was simply the realization that there were so many other things I was interested in, whereas with music I would have had to really focus and concentrate and cut out other things. But I’ve had this interest in and that was one of the reasons also, I was interested in medieval studies, because medieval lyrics, a bit like folk poems, are basically songs. I mean, not all of them, but especially the earlier ones. And I was lucky then for my dissertation—this manuscript I mentioned actually was a collection of the earliest Middle English lyrics. And I was lucky in Cambridge, England, to—I had a scholarship to be there as a research student in Magdalene College and my tutor and supervisor was John Stevens, who was a great specialist for medieval and Renaissance poetry and music. Music and poetry was his field. So this sort of musical side, which I’ve never really—I haven’t really got anywhere with music as such, apart from being an amateur violinist—this has sort of a bit sort of submerged in my medieval studies, but hasn’t really become a major topic. And I’m also very much interested in the music of these oral epics, which are generally—this is an aspect which is generally totally ignored. Both by the musicologists, who have better things to study as ethnomusicologists than the music of epic; and of course the epic scholars, because it’s outside their normal competence. So, if you like, music is sort of one of these areas where I would have liked to be to incorporate it possibly even more into my work.
JS: I went through a similar thing, except it was my senior year of college, instead of high school after pursuing a conservatory, so—But that’s also, a very good argument for music education in schools to begin with, because then even people who are studying these literary aspects of the text can still bring that musical knowledge to it, and think about it, if only to collaborate with musicologists.
KR: Yes! Yes, exactly.
JS: And I did notice that discussion of the music of the oral epics in your work. So, can you tell us about the mentors and colleagues who shaped your work?
KR: Yes. I mean obviously, in one sort of as a student, both even in high school, and then later at university, you do have a lot of teachers. And I could give a long list of people who I really admired. But I think—trying to think who were the most influential people for me, well I think one of them was actually the English teacher in Joplin, Missouri, Mr. Dunham, who later became instructor here at the University in Columbia, but he died early, had a brain tumor. And we went through a book of English literature in his class called Adventures of English Literature, a book I’ve still got! And it sort of—I found it stimulating and I found stimulating the way he taught. I guess I was a little bit—although I really enjoyed being in America and being as American as one could get, and yet I had maybe a sort of a secret longing for Europe and this sort of English literature somehow helped me to be in an English speaking country, and yet have a slight link back to Europe. Anyway, he definitely. And then at the university, I had a number of very good and inspiring professors. But the one with whom I then did my dissertation was an Anglo-Saxonist, Helmut Gneuss. He came from Berlin, he was a young professor who then came to Munich. And what I liked about him was, he was a real sort of philologist. He taught me not to—to really look carefully, to check again, to really get my linguistic skills up to a high level, and not make mistakes about—when editing a text, for instance. He was an editor of the main German journal for English studies, Anglia, and I later then also served as an editor, which was a lot of work, actually. So that was the second figure in my academic life, directing me. And the third one was this tutor and supervisor in Cambridge, John Stevens. Who showed me that you can combine different things. You can combine music and poetry; you don’t have to be—So, Helmut Gneuss was more the sort of, you have to be the specialist who is the most focused and specialized person on one tiny little subject; and the other one had the other side of it: you can also be open to different things within a particular field. So I’d say these three somehow directed me and shaped the course of my life.
JS: That’s wonderful. So, speaking of being both specialized and having that breadth of interest, can you tell us about your methodologies and the ways that you tend to discover and approach new questions?
KR: Well, the—If you sort of go to the oral, oral studies, which is why I’m here—oral poetry, especially oral tradition and especially oral epics—So, one thing I really do find important, and that’s probably my upbringing as a medievalist, is simply that I do think that a solid knowledge of the language is necessary. So, for instance, with these translations of the Kyrgyz epic Manas, you are in a situation—which I’ve sort of produced two volumes; there will be, God willing, three more—and they have had a difficult text—or any other editions and translations of Turkic oral epics—you normally are faced with a text, which is full of linguistic problems. And you—No dictionary will help you, because the words aren’t in the dictionary, and in fact, with this Karakalpak epic—I was in Karakalpakistan, I consulted with the editors and contributors to a huge Karakalpak-Karakalpak dictionary, and asked them, you know, what does this mean, what does that mean. They didn’t know. So the only way you can solve these problems is by being a sound philologist. And in that particular—one of the words I asked for I then found the word in Nogai, a different Turkic language, but it’s not surprising it’s there, because these Karakalpaks in their epic tradition are sort of descended from the Nogai. So you get, for instance, archaic words in a language, and no one speaking that language knows these words because they’re not there anymore! They’re obsolete. But their tradition comes from another linguistic group, and if you do enough linguistic and philological research, then you can find, “ah, it must mean this because it’s there!” and so on. So, I’ve maybe said a little bit too much about this, but at any rate, so if you ask me about methodology, this would be one sort of thing I find important.
I mean, the other thing is that, for a medievalist, of course, all you have is the text, the written word. And the great thing about oral literature, alive, is that it’s not written anyway, but even the word is not just a word to be spoken, but it’s a whole sort of thing. So I’ve been very much influenced and found it very helpful by this ethnography of communication, or then later performance theory, all this sort of—I mean, John Foley of course has done a lot on that as well—a methodology, then, of actually describing what is going on in this communicative event, i.e. the performance of an epic. The trouble is that my first recordings, I just I didn’t have a video camera, only at a later stage, and I didn’t have—I was on my own. So in other words, I didn’t have someone with me, who did all the—like we now, have someone who does the recording for us, and for me. So, managing the technical equipment, sitting there in the heat, on the floor, in an audience of people eating and so on, is very hard work. And only later, I had the video camera. So, I would have liked to do that side of my research much better from a technical point of view, than I was able to do it. But I do think this is a very, very important side and this kind of methodology developed by Dell Hymes and all these people I find extremely helpful and useful.
Maybe as sort of a negative, or rather, well not negative, but, if you are in literary studies, also medieval studies, then of course you’re dealing with texts, like Beowulf for instance, that have been interpreted a thousand times. So if I want to say something original about Beowulf, I’ve got to try and think of something original, but it’ll probably be a little bit weird. So, what I’m saying—this is sort of within almost within quotation marks, but or parentheses—what I’m saying is that in traditional literary studies, the pressure on scholars to say something different from what other people have said is very high, because the material has been explored almost to the end! So, whereas if you deal with material that hasn’t been explored, in fact hasn’t even been recorded yet, you’re not really required to think, “now what could I say different about this?” So, you’re quite busy just with the recording, with editing, with translating, with making sense of this, and of course embedding it into the context in which it belongs, and so on. So in many ways, I suppose you’re asking more traditional questions; questions that medievalists maybe asked a hundred years ago. I mean, it makes you sound somewhat old fashioned, because medievalists now have to ask completely different questions, then they have to find new ones all the time. Do you know what I mean? So it’s a different situation. But the methodology, still, I’d say philology plus this ethnography of communication, etc etc: these would be the mainstays of my work.
JS: Thanks. I want to turn to John, see if you want to jump in with anything here, if you have questions.
JZ: I’m—actually, when Professor Reichl was describing his interest in medieval lyric as a byway into his study of medieval literature, I was looking at the bookcase where I have the 1947 Aetheneo Anglais edition of Las Cantigos de Santa Maria, which I purchased in 1978, and I thought, well, that’s marvelously coincidental that he was interested in medieval lyric, and I was interested in medieval lyric, and music, but I also didn’t do anything further with music. At a certain point I realized, no, you’re not a musician. [laughter] These are musicians over here, and you’re not one of them. But, that struck me very strongly. As well as the, a kind of—I don’t know if it’s kismet, this idea that you meet one individual who in a way shapes you, your further interests.
JZ: And for me, this was an individual that I met when I was in university studying Spanish, and she made a very large impression on me.
KR: Ah yeah.
JZ: And also, the combination that you mentioned of philological rigor and awareness of the importance of the performance arena, and the communication as being guiding principles in your methodological work, I think these are just crucially important. My own teacher was a very rigorous philologist, and my own training was very rigorously philology, so. And, this is perhaps an issue that medievalists these days might return to, facing up to, I’m not sure.
I did want to ask you a bit about the nuts and bolts of your work, because the transcription of texts is not an easy matter, even if they’re written down! Much less if you need to decipher the audio signal. So if you could talk a little bit about how you approach your transcription, and then translation, if that’s not too dry a subject.
KR: Well, not for me! But, I’m not sure about the people—
JS: We want to hear about it.
KR: Well, I think this Edige, the Karakalpak epic, might be the best example. The singer has died now, but he’s a Karakalpak; that means the area of the Aral Sea in northwestern Uzbekistan. So there’s sort of the Aral Sea catastrophe with no water, drying out, and so on—it’s sort of quite well known, and on its shores—or rather, what used to be the shores of the Aral Sea—these Karakalpaks live. A fairly small Turkic people, and they had a very lively epic tradition. And when I first went to then the Soviet Union, to Uzbekistan, I also went to these Karakalpaks and recorded epics. And from the singer I’ve recorded the complete repertoire, and re-recorded some of the epics then, after several years interval. And one of them I edited, Edige in the Finnish series of the Finnish Academy of Sciences Folklore Fellows Series. Here I must say, I’ve known this singer very well and I can actually understand him—on my recordings. But even so, because in singing, he distorts the syllables a lot, I did—I needed, and thankfully had, native help. I think for transcribing—I’ve done sort of smaller bits on my own, and then checked with other people and so on. But for transcribing a longer text, you do need a native speaker. But not any native speaker, but a native speaker who actually knows this tradition. And I had young man, who then stayed for some time in Germany with me as well, who was very very good. But I’ve then gone through several revisions of this transcription, and it turned out that other people heard different things, and I heard different things, and we went back to the singer, the singer then said different things! So, you’re sort of in a bit of a quagmire and try to kind of come to a—as close a transcription of what was said on the original tape as possible. But closeness does not mean phonetic transcription.
So I decided in the end—and there you, I mean, it depends. It depends on the reader, and on what you want to do with it. Now if I wanted to address a linguist, (though a linguist wouldn’t want to read a whole epic) but if I wanted to address a linguist, then obviously a phonetic transcription, a close phonetic transcription, as detailed as possible, with all sorts of extra accidentals as this book The Folklore Text, by Fine—so you can do all sorts of things—I mean, you can do that for maybe fifty lines, or a hundred lines, but not for thousands of lines. I mean it’s just as a reader you can’t—— So, you compromise. My transcribers, my helpers, they automatically switched into standard, into the standard language. I mean they heard the dialectal form; wrote it down in the standard language. So, that I didn’t like either, so what I did was a sort of more phonemic transcription, modeled on the standard language, but trying to capture the dialectal traits, and explaining the dialectal traits as well. So in fact, anyone linguistically interested could reconstruct from my text what the singer said exactly phonetically. But this is a question—Well, the one thing is, unless you are lucky enough—or unlucky, depending on how you look at things—to live long enough in some of these rough places, then of course you’re so good that you can do it yourself. But if you don’t, I think then you—and in fact even the great scholars, Radloff, etc—they all had help from native speakers. So this is one thing I think one has to—One needs, as a non-native speaker, with languages which are spoken where you can’t sort of stay years and years and years, I mean it’s different with Italian or whatever, then——
And the second thing is, you probably have to come up with some kind of compromise in order to make your text readable. If your goal is not a linguistic description, but more the literature or the poetry.
JS: I was really struck by your discussion of that, how there’s something to be said for that kind of specificity, but there’s also something to be said for accessibility. Because if you can’t make your way into the text as a non-specialist, or even as a non-specialist in that specific—the linguistic aspect or the poetic aspect—or whatever, the ethnopoetic aspect. If you can’t make your way in then who is it for, right? And I really appreciated that discussion of the editorial choices and the editorial responsibilities.
KR: Yes, yes. One does have to make them. I think it’s an illusion to think that—It’s really the same question with the edition of medieval texts. I mean, you have the same—If you are such a purist that you say, “no no no, everything has to be reproduced.” Well then, why not produce a facsimile? I mean, if you edit, then you engage with the text, and then you will, somehow or other, have to bring your opinion and your knowledge into the edition. But obviously, explaining and stating exactly what you’re doing. And for which audience you are doing it.
JZ: I’ll actually ask another question.
JS: Go ahead.
JZ: So you mentioned the difficult working conditions of the in your field work. Will you care to expand on exactly what was involved in your undertakings?
KR: Yes. Well, for one thing, my first visit to Uzbekistan was in 1981, at that time I was still comparatively young, but I wasn’t the young scholar who had no job and had sort of to bridge a gap, and would now sort of go abroad and do some field work or whatever. I mean I did have my job, I had to come back to it, for family and other things. So I was always, all through my career, I was never sort of free enough to say, “ok, I’m going to go there and I’m going to stay there.” Mostly because of my job but partly also because of having a family with four children and so on. It’s not so easy to—It’s okay in America, we were together in Harvard, the whole family, but I think the whole family in Nukus on the Aral Sea would have been pretty catastrophic. This is then—So one of the problems is the political situation; you’re not really free. I was happy to be able to go there as part of the German-Soviet scientific exchange. So in other words, I came then to the Academy of Sciences in Tashkent, and the person who was my partner there was a very very nice—he’s still alive, professor of folklore—and we sort of hit it off immediately. And the same in Karakalpakistan: a very nice professor for these Karakalpak epics. So I was lucky in that, that I had the right people who were my contacts. But even then it was difficult. On my first visit I wanted to record an Uzbek epic singer; I could not get a visa; I needed a visa within the country to go to this particular place, and I almost started sort of crying, that I couldn’t go there, and they realized how hard I took it, so they had a little sort of bus, a mini bus and they put me into the middle, and then all the scholars around me, and then we drove there. Without a visa. And you know—Things like that, you also never forget. I mean, I’ll be eternally grateful to them for having dared to do that sort of thing so we could record the singer! But it is—So it’s these political but also—I mean, Karakalpakistan, this is the area with the highest infant mortality in the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Union; high illness rate, disease rate in general; it’s just not a healthy area to be in. It’s actually—I hope no Karakalpak is ever going to listen to this tape, but it’s actually quite unattractive landscape. So it’s not—You know, there are some really wonderful towns like Bukhara, Samarkand, or mountains, but Karakalpakistan isn’t of that kind. And the Aral Sea isn’t there any more, more or less! So it’s not a desirable place to be. And yet, of course, the epic heritage is there and for me it was wonderful to be there, and I was always very welcome. But it would have been difficult to stay there for a longer time, even on my own, had I been able to. So it’s this combination of the country itself, the times before—After 1991, things of course got better, easier. Well, easier let’s say. Whether better is a different question, depending on what one looks at. Because a lot of traditional traditions also disappeared after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Karakalpaks had no need, in a way——Well, it has changed again. But at the time, at first, the need to assert their individuality, their identity, their own culture, making it clear that they were not Russians, was very, very very great. But afterwards, of course their first concern was to be linked up with the rest of the world. So, rather a pair of blue jeans than an epic! It’s that sort of thing. But meanwhile, they’ve become “Uzbekisized,” so once again there is this tendency to be Karakalpak, rather than Uzbek, although they are part of Uzbekistan. So things sort of keep changing a bit. And in Kazakhstan, they had almost—A lot of Kazakhs did not speak Kazakh anymore, but Russian. But they’ve been very successful in reintroducing Kazakh. So a lot of scholars speak, for instance that’s the sort of in the universities speak Kazakh, although they relearned it. Very successful, a bit like Wales or some of the other countries with sort of “dying” languages. I mean, if I had been much younger and independent, then it would have been easier, certainly, to spend longer times there.
JS: I have to say, I really appreciate hearing a man, a male scholar, talking about the constraints of family and career, because you don’t hear that so much. But of course, that’s a major factor in my life, and especially for women in research and scholarship.
KR: Yeah, that’s true, yeah.
JS: But it’s true, it is a constraint. Something else that you said that I wanted to pick you up on, and actually, what you asked is kind of a question I was going to ask, so thank you! But something I wanted to pick you up on: you talked about the role of native speakers in this scholarship. And with Radloff, and with yourself, and others and, I wonder how much of that—What kinds of roles they played and how much their labor is—How much transparency there is around that? Or how much their work is elided or
KR: Yeah, this is true. One thing I can talk about myself, because that’s obviously what I know best. And I did have—I have this big project, which I wasn’t actually going to take on; I was asked to organize the translation of a 55,000 line epic—55,000, yes—Kyrgyz epic from the Kyrgyz in Xinjiang in northwestern China. So I started organizing the translation and I wrote to contact at first two scholars: a German scholar for the German translation, a very good Kyrgyz-ologist, as they say, and a very good American scholar, who would have been ideal to do it. But none of them wanted to do it. I mean, for various reasons. They had their own projects and so on and so forth. So having with my sort of—I mentioned gratitude, and here too, the person who asked me in Xinjiang, a Kyrgyz, had been very helpful years and years ago to me. And I felt I couldn’t let him down. Then, he said, “Well, you do it!” So I said, okay, all right, I’ll try. So the first volume, I did on my own, and actually, I mean I did ask the—for specific problems, I asked the relevant scholars. But basically, I did it on my own. For the second volume, I had, for a part, I had a Turkish young scholar who had done a dissertation on this singer, and had also translated one of his epics into Turkish. I asked her to somehow correct my translation or contribute a bit herself; I think she mostly corrected my translation. But she never corrected anything. What I mean to say is, if I had a question, a difficult bit, then she would kind of confirm that, yes, this word means this, but it didn’t make any sense in the context. So it wasn’t really all that helpful. So I decided, and we decided mutually, that maybe it wasn’t the best thing to continue. But she suggested a Kyrgyz who taught—is still teaching—at a Turkish university. He’s a linguist. He’s not in Manas. But he’s a native Kyrgyz, it’s his language, and he’s a linguist, a Turkologist. So two very good sort of——
KR: Yeah, qualifications, thanks. And he helped me then with the second volume, and even more with the third. But the trouble is he—We’ve now done it this way: I at first thought I could correct his translation. I mean, correct the English. He has tolerable English. But I can’t. You have to translate it yourself, and then I can look at his translation, and what his translation does is simply when I get to a difficult bit, where I really don’t know what—who is speaking and what are they talking about, then I look at his translation and he generally figures it out. Who is speaking, and what they’re talking about. But when it gets difficult, then it’s almost the same with him as with me. So I’ve got to get back to philology, as I said earlier, or ask scholars in Kyrgyzstan or in China. So I’m not actually using his translation at all. It’s just a help, and it does speed up my own translation. So I’ve sort of arranged with him to call it, to sort of say “with.” So on the title page, it’s my name, with so-and-so. I think that’s fair. And also I pay him, so it’s fair to acknowledge the help; I can’t really put him there as a co-translator, because he doesn’t; if he translated a thousand lines, and I another thousand then it would be fine. But as he sort of—it’s not really usable. And yet it’s not enough to say in the Preface “thanks to so-and-so.” So it’s this kind of situation. But it is a difficult one, because on the one hand you want to acknowledge the help you get, and you need to acknowledge the help you get; on the other the help is of a very different kind and sometimes you feel: well, I’ve really done the work. It was useful to have this or that tip and here and there a line or whatever, but. So it’s—But I think mostly in sort of older publications, all these helpers, they appear in—I mean if the scholar is at all a conscientious scholar—they appear in the preface. And they say, “So and so has written it down for me,” and it is necessary to acknowledge the help.
But also sometimes not the concrete help. I mean, like I said with this bus: I mean, you then want to acknowledge the help of these scholars who actually made it possible for you to do the recording, even if they didn’t help with transcription or anything else. But you depend, especially in areas of that kind, you depend on the native scholars. I couldn’t possibly have gone around with a tape recorder. Would have ended up in prison within five minutes. [laughter] So you need the support. But it has to be, yes, it has to be—I think it is—I think it is generally stated, from the—It’s only… There is a translation, I won’t give any details, of a Yakut epic into English, and it’s an older translation, and the editor this journal—I think it came out in a journal so it’s older—[wrote] “so and so is actually a doctor, but he is a great scholar in Yakut and has translated this epic.” Actually it’s a literal translation from German, not from Yakut, but—So, occasionally you get things like that, but they, I’d say, are the exception. [laughter]
JS: So, it sounds like your interest in the Central Asian oral epics, and this ethnographic work—you’ve been doing this for a while so you’ve been doing the textual, medieval work along with the more ethnographic interviewing and recording epic singers. So what has it been—I mean, you’ve talked a little bit about your experiences with fieldwork. But what has it been like doing these two things side by side with each other? And is there more overlap than my question supposes?
KR: I think for me, in my thinking, and in my interests, yes, there is a lot of overlap. One experience is this book, Singing the Past, which was published by Cornell University Press, and was actually I was asked to write it and it is a sort of comparative book with medieval work on the one side, and some of this Turkic material on the other. And somewhere or other, this book makes me wonder how—Oh, and I must say, Cornell I don’t know why, never sent the book out for review, and the year it came out, I happened to be in Kalamazoo, and they didn’t have it along either. Which was a bit sort of I think they had a change in editors, or people at the press, and somehow it fell between two chairs. But I’m sort of wondering how much scope is there for comparative work. I mean, how far can you go? Because obviously I talked to one very famous Anglo-Saxonist, and she said, “Well, it’s difficult to understand the Turkic material. I mean, it’s a different language, we don’t speak the language, or know what the language is.” So I think there’s a tendency with scholars, to ignore whatever they don’t understand. I mean it’s bad enough with scholarship that you ignore—this is a particular trait, I think, of the English speaking world: you often ignore scholarship in other languages—in German, or French, or whatever—Of course, if your field is French, then you will look at French, I mean obviously, you’re aware then of French. And if your field is German, then you will—But if your field is English, and there is a book in German on some important edition or something or other, it tends to be ignored. And I think it’s a bit this thing with comparative studies. If you compare two things which are both familiar or well known, like the old comparative studies, you know, Romanticism in France and Germany, or in England and Germany; then you’re talking about poets or writers who are known, and it’s fine. But if you—
But other comparative work, I’ve become a little bit skeptical about the audience, in a way. I mean, how much sense does it make, or how would one have to do it in order to really work out the relevance to a reader who is not prepared to read even through a translation of a text from a region or in a language unfamiliar to him or her? I mean it’s a problem; I haven’t solved it. But I think there is a certain problem. For me, comparative work is very important though; I think this is probably I’m not the only one. You compare A and B, originally coming from A, but then you find B is interesting, and it’s even more interesting than you thought at first, and finally, your interest is all in B! I think a little bit of that has happened with me, that some things I just do in the Turkic field without thinking all the time, “now, what is the relevance of that for Beowulf?”
JZ: I just make the observation, in a way following up on your point about the interpretability of the text, that you’re really talking about the hermeneutic circle, in which you go in to the text, a little bit, and it gives you some information; then you have to go back to the text with a different point of view now. And for medievalists, or for someone who teaches a foreign language, such as myself, this process is going on all the time in the classroom, when you see people that can’t understand the text, because they don’t have the cultural references. That slowly but surely, if you’re patient and you allow the text to inform you of what it’s really saying, as opposed to imposing your preconceived reading onto it, you do get some enrichment. You do get some sense of at least a basic orientation to a different way of thinking about things. Of course, you know, if I sit down and read a Nart mythology out of the Caucasus, I’m completely lost! I have no idea what’s going on. And I remember initially Dede Korkut being somewhat confused, but ok, now I’ll go back and read it again. And, but, that’s kind of, in my mind, what philology was very good at! Was, you go back and read it again. And again. And you make sure you understand what the grammatical function is, or what the syntactic relation is, or what the range of meanings is. And it’s not [snaps] the modern meaning. And you have to go back and actually look at the specialized dictionaries, etc etc. But, anyway, that’s my—
I’m going to ask another question before I have to leave. Which is, we’ve been talking about your career in some detail, and it’s very illuminating to see how a scholar can grow. But then suddenly, the question that occurs to me is: if you kind of assess the state of scholarship in traditional verbal arts, or oral traditions, what do you think? Is there a future for this particular line of inquiry? In a world where all too many of these traditions are disappearing with languages that become extinct? Or is that too dark of an assessment?
KR: No, I don’t think—Well, I think that yes there is a future. And, well, I think generally, I mean that is now a very general remark; one finds that the sort of questions scholars ask, say, in the humanities, have become far wider and sort of embracing different things than at the time when, for instance, I was a student. So when we studied literature, the dominant paradigm was the imminent interpretation. So in other words, you wouldn’t ask—You’d look at the text, interpret the text, maybe a little bit of context, but only a little bit, not too much. You were certainly not interested in the writer and the poet and so on, and you wouldn’t ask sort of general questions which sociologists or politologist, a psychologist, and so on would ask. And this sort of thing has much broader view and questioning I think has become more current, and that of course also includes questions in a way like oral poetry, because it is sort of connected to other things. I mean say, area studies. So I was recently at a conference with area studies; they were mostly interested in politics and the political developments in Central Asia, or in Central Eurasia, as they nowadays say for this whole area. But still, the role of national music or the sort of traditional national music and traditional national poetry, or traditional national—all sorts of customs that we sort of lump together under folklore, etc—they are viewed not so much as sort of an isolated phenomena which the specialist analyzes, but which are then also analyzed or seen within a larger context. And I think especially certainly in the former Soviet Union, a lot of people—Turkic peoples—have even those who never had an oral epic, now have an epic. So the Chuvash in the middle of Volga region, all of a sudden an epic appears. I mean it is written down by a folklorist, but actually written down on the basis—a bit like the Kalevala of the Finns, or other literary forms or redactions of oral, smaller songs—So, these epics have taken on a new meaning. And for the Yakuts after they’ve been inscribed—their epic has been inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list, it has really taken an upsurge. So I do think that after the first sort of euphoria of independence, for instance, now talking about these various post-Soviet states, I think the—It is very clear to a lot of them that they must really hold on to what is typical for them and even sort of further some of these things. The Tatars, as I said, really haven’t got any epics any more, but they’ve really produced wonderful editions of their epic heritage; the Kazakhs the same: a hundred volumes—they always like these round numbers—of Kazakh epic poetry. And very good philologically, very good, well edited volumes. So I do think it has become, then, part of the things they are proud of. And the same of course in China—only speaking of the Turkic peoples—they of course are in a different position from the ones in the Soviet Union; and I know that some are very concerned without being sort of political extremists or anything—they are very concerned about just losing their language and their tradition because of this huge Chinese—Han Chinese—majority. But then all the more reason to hold on to it and to keep it. So yes, I think it’s not, because not only [Ilhan] Başgöz and his book Hikaye, but even earlier at the end of the 19th century, also a scholar of Turkish said, “Well, I’d better write down all these fairy tales, because now they are building roads in Anatolia, it’ll disappear.” But it hasn’t disappeared! Or it changes into something new which is nevertheless also interesting.
JS: That actually answered the last question I was going to ask, so in closing, I’ll ask if there’s anything that we haven’t touched on that you wanted to discuss.
KR: I think we’ve been fairly broad in our discussions, and I’m particularly glad that we got onto my high school year in Missouri.It seems a sort of a wonderful closure, as it were, to come back to Missouri at this stage in my life and have this interview with you and with John. So, I think that’s pretty much——
JS: All right.
JZ: I can’t tell you—well, I can tell you how very deeply appreciative we all are that you agreed to come and talk to us. It’s one of the privileges of being in the Center, to invite scholars of great accomplishment to come and talk. And part of the idea of this video interview is that we would like to have some record of what senior people were thinking and how they’ve gotten into their profession, and what they’d discovered along the way, as a point of reference for younger scholars, because of course, they won’t have the opportunity to meet with you directly. Although they will, tomorrow! But thank you so much!
JS: Thank you. Thank you.
KR: Well, thank you!
JZ: And we’re really very, very appreciative.