Rimsky-Korsakov’s Frame Story

Although I lack the proper vocabulary to discuss classical music on a professional level, I can say I picked up on the frame story motif when listening to “Scheherazade: Orchestral suite after A Thousand and One Nights.” Considering the Nights origins in oral storytelling, Korsakov’s musical representation is a novel mirror of that tradition. Just as different translators have distinct interpretations (and thus, distinct publications) of the Nights, Korsakov uses an orchestra to illustrate his own take on the tales.

Putting together the meaning of Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” seems similar to putting together a puzzle. Before you can analyze what is actively happening, you have to determine who or what those actions belong to. For example, visualizing the frame story through this piece would be challenging if you didn’t discern the voices of Scheherazade and the King. What stood out to me while listening to different sections of the piece were repetitive measures, which would overlay or underlay different sections of the piece. This conflation is what seems to underscore the tales occurring in their relation to the frame story. It’s a distinct reminder that the stories are constantly linked to their frame, and encourages the listeners to stay engaged with both the outer and inner frames simultaneously.

Key Points about Burton’s Background: A Summary

  • At different times in his life, was known as: soldier, traveller, military surveyor, linguist (knowing nearly 30 languages), African explorer, anthropologist, ethnologist, pioneering sexologist, author of 50+ books, master swordsman, amateur geologist, botanist, inventor, and one of the found members/first presidents of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland
  • Worked with John Payne on Payne’s edition, then later compiled his own: The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night
  • Believed “an unexpurgated translation [of the Nights] should be as literal as possible”
  • Published 16 volumes of the Nights
  • In addition to the Nights, also published the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana
  • He believed a heavily annotated translation “might act as a kind of de facto anthropological encyclopedia for English-speaking Europeans on Muslim manners” (177)
    • His goal was to write as close to how an Arab might write in English as possible
  • Considered a great translator in keeping so much old and new content, but a poor one in his use of archaic language and in possibly plagiarizing from other Nights translators.

The Issue of Translating Wordplay

There are many elements to consider when translating a written work, but when the text is a work of fiction, subjective interpretation is just as important (if not more so) as literal translation. On Monday, one of the points we considered was how certain words may capture a specific meaning in one language that cannot be directly translated to another. As Isabella mentions in her post below, there are certain words that can capture an entire feeling, and therefore have no direct equivalent in another language. Within this vein, a similar issue can arise not from word specificity, but word ambiguity.

The phrase “a play on words” refers to a pun: a turn of phrase of double meaning, which is oftentimes colloquial relative to its user. For one a non-native speaker, wordplay is one of the most challenging obstacles to overcome. Certainly, it is one of the last things covered in formal education of a language, as a message can usually be understood regardless of whether the interpreter has knowledge of all possible word meanings. As I discovered in taking both Spanish and French as a student, it is possible to understand the context of a passage even if you don’t know every word within that language. For a translator of a fictional tale, however, interpretation is crucial, because there is no “correct” way to be fictional. In a literary sense, fiction allows the author to break rules for creative effect, which can lead to new grammatical  patterns and even entirely new words. We often see this in instances of character naming, such as John Worthington of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, who is presented as a respectable and worthy man. In a more contemporary context, we have characters like Tom Marvolo Riddle of the Harry Potter series, whose name is an anagram of “I am Lord Voldemort.” The wordplay here is easily understood to native English speakers, who have been immersed in a culture where this type of wordplay is a phenomenon, and it complements the work as a whole. Yet these wordplay creations require a certain colloquial understanding of the language that is difficult to grasp if one has never been entirely surrounded by that culture.

I believe this is one of the biggest issues faced when translating a work of fiction, especially when it comes from an entirely different era. Tegan Raleigh’s Sheherezade’s Ventriloquists is what prompted me to consider this, specifically in her interesting comparison of the different translations of the same story (“The Porter and the Three Ladies”). As a result of this incongruity of word-for-word interpretation, she insists that the translations be read “as more indicative of the translators and the translators’ culture than as revealing something to us about the culture from which the text originated,” a proposal which I strongly agree with. Even if these translators grasped a general understand of the plot and moral theme of a fictional work, the cultural gap is a level of separation between the original work and translated work, which in turn displaces the reader from the actual, original story. In Raleigh’s words, “certain elements of the translations can play into preconceptions of the target text’s culture and misrepresent the original text,” and cultural, colloquial wordplay is certainly one of those elements.

The Cyclical Structure of Sindbad’s Tales

Molan’s analysis of the ethics of violence in Sindbad’s voyages, especially in relation to their structure, encouraged me to more closely consider the ways in which structure shapes the story of Sindbad. We briefly discussed the different ways in which structural shapes add meaning to the narrative, such as a linear progression from the initial voyage to gaining wealth, or a bell curve that tracks the rise and fall of Sindbad’s morality throughout each journey. Through this, we can observe different elements of the story as different structures that overlap.

A notable structural frame that was mentioned was the spiral frame, which restarts with each new journey. The progression of each journey can be seen as a repetition of the previous journey, with new elements, and the looping of this frame can be related back to the outer framework of Scheherazade and King Shahrayar’s story. This parallel creates a doubling effect that alludes to the moral lesson behind Sindbad’s story. It is important to remember that Scheherazade is the storyteller, and that her ability to provide the King with metaphorical moral lessons is what allows her to continue living (in addition to their entertainment value).

Unlike many of the other Night’s tales, Sindbad’s story is unique in that it’s told from his own perspective, rather than from  another framed perspective, which further asserts that he is meant to be the metaphorical “double” of King Shahrayar. The looping parallel between the inner and outer story manifests in Sindbad’s actions and his overall journey. His consistent and continuous murder of the people in the cavern is synonymous with King Shahrayar’s murder of a new wife each night. Similarly, the loop of Sinbad’s journeys could translate to the initial journey the two brothers take when they come across the genie and the stolen bride. These looped parallels assert that Sindbad’s is a crucial story for Scheherazade to relate, as it implicates that King Shahrayar’s self-justification for the killing of his wives is as unfeasible of Sindbad’s self-justification of his own immoral acts.

Double Narrative in The Tale of Qamar al-Zaman and Princess Budur

Based on our discussion over the past week, we can see that the double narrative of this Nights tale serves many different functions. It allows us to juxtapose crucial elements of the Nights series, such as gender relations, social hierarchy, and variations of sexuality. Ultimately, I believe it also serves a deeper purpose for the frame story: that of Scheherazade and the King. In many of the stories we’ve read so far, I often find myself pausing to think, “how does this relate to  Scheherazade’s narrative?” and in this instance, I see this tale as a means to manipulate the King’s subconscious, much as Budur manipulated her husband and (eventual) subjects in dressing as Qamar.

There are distinct parallels between Qamar and King Shahrayar, suggesting that Qamar is meant to be his literary mirror. Like the King, after being betrayed by his wife, Qamar al-Zaman believes that marriage is ill-fated, and he carries a disdain for women, declaring, “‘…my heart feels no delight in women… I have read so much in the books of the wise concerning the wickedness and perfidy of that sex that I would rather die than allow a woman to approach me.” (Everyman Edition 259) Although a severe statement, it’s not too distant from the King’s own decision to swear “to marry for one night only and kill the woman the next morning, in order to save himself from the wickedness and cunning of women” (Haddawy 12).

These statements express that both Qamar and King Shahrayar see women as the inferior and devious sex. Yet, their stories play out in tandem. Qamar eventually marries Budur, who arguably maintains the upper-hand throughout the relationship, doing so specifically through her wit and and manipulation. Likewise, King Shahrayar permits Scheherazade to keep her life so she may continue telling stories, unwittingly playing into her own manipulative plan. The double narrative functions doubly in both the frame story and the Tale of Qamar al-Zaman and Princess Budur, creating not only two distinct frames, but four, and further exemplifying how the “story within a story” framework characterizes the Nights in its entirety.

The Power of Simplicity in the Narrative

Like others who have already posted, I, too, am fascinated by Todorov’s interpretation of the Nights as an a-psychological collection of works. It is often easy to correlate depth and complexity with quality, but this perspective shows how a work can be instead direct and explicit and still have value. Although the “distance between the psychological trait and the action it provokes is minimal,” as Todorov claims, it allows the narrative to work well as a collection of folkloric lessons.

The lack of distance between character and that character’s actions is actually a very effective way to tell a short story. One of the interesting points highlighted in the presentation on Wednesday was the idea of the male and female realms, specifically through language in the story of the Porter and the Three Ladies. With the females characterized by their ability to work in a figurative realm, and the males in a literal realm, we as readers can being to form further insight into these characters and how they function in the narrative.

The characters are able to form connections through their ability to use an understand metaphors, so the women are not only given power in being able to control a higher domain of language, but also can do so through teaching, rather than undermining. Rather than mocking or speaking down to the Porter, they accept him into their home (their “realm”, so to speak), and help him to imitate and understand metaphors, and bonding with him in a friendly way. Despite the class and gender divide, the women exemplify a way to assert power without judgment.

Humor and the Hunchback

So far, the Tale of the Hunchback, and its subsequent stories which we discussed in class this week, has led to some of my favorite in class discussion points thus far. Personally, humor is an important part of my life, but I also enjoyed seeing it framed within a different society and time from my own. Not only are there different variations of humor, but these variations appear to serve different purposes. From simple slapstick humor to religious and political jabs, these stories show how Arabic humor is just as colorful as that of Western culture.

At times, the humor is inserted to serve its most basic purpose: to entertain. There is something comically morbid in the odd manner in which the Hunchback “dies.” The tailor and his wife shoving an entire fish in his mouth, causing him to choke on the bone, are highly reminiscent of early cartoons with an emphasis on slapstick humor. Even the ways in which multiple characters encounter the hunchback is physically comical, with the doctor stumbling into him while rushing down the stairs, causing him to roll to the bottom.

More than just being humor for humor’s sake, however, there are also elements in this comedy that serve a deeper purpose. By placing these events in China, the author may criticize the government and officials of his own society, but without repercussions. This is a common tactic in literature, and can be found in many pieces of 18th century English literature, as they were written in a time of Monarchial rule. In a similar vein, religious humor is also prevalent throughout the different stories, with the characters depicted as a cliché of their religious association. The Jewish physician is hurrying to the door because he was told he would earn a quarter-dinar for looking at a boy with smallpox. When he finds the Hunchback dead, he then exclaims, “O Esdras, O Moses, O Aaron, O Joshua son of Nun!” Later, the Christian is distinguished by his turban, which was not indicated on any other character, including the Muslim. The officer that stops him is able to recognize him as a Christian based on his turban, which lends itself to an extremely ironic subset of humor.

It seems that Western and European societies are likely to misjudge Muslim and Middle Eastern culture as strict or humorless, but the lessons conveyed in the stories of the Nights show that humor is equally prominent in Arabic culture. Ultimately, the overlap of humor across so many different societies is an enjoyable means of uniting a broad spectrum of readers.