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Tamang Ritual Texts.

Notes on the Interpretation of an Oral Tradition of Nepal Author(s): Andrs Hfer Source: Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 1 (1985), pp. 2328 Published by: Cambridge University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25211767 . Accessed: 13/06/2013 10:14
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TAMANG RITUAL TEXTS. NOTES ON THE INTERPRETATION OF AN ORAL TRADITION OF NEPAL


By Andras In a recent Hofer

re issue of J.R.A.S. (2, 1982, 205-207), Tadeusz Skorupski Texts in viewed my Tamang Ritual the Folk-religion I, Preliminary Studies of an Ethnic Minority inNepal (henceforth "TRT").1 His criticism is based on some postulates that I question. And since ours is a controversy between two I think it worthwhile to and anthropology, disciplines, namely philology more some examine of the arguments put forward by Skorupski. The closely to texts of an oral tradition. point at issue is our approach Though language which in the past ponent of the religious tradition is Tibetan Buddhism, some influence on components exercised of the oral tradition, such as and exorcism. An adequate of oral tradition, shamanism interpretation some sort of coopera in the diachronic perspective, necessitates particularly neither Tibetans the Tamangs proper nor "Bhotias", speak a one com of the Bodic Division and (in R. Shafer's terminology),2

tion between the Tibetologist and the anthropologist. Thus, my reply to the is a programmatic rather than a polemic attempt. Tibetologist Skorupski At the root of our controversy is the fact that the interpretation of the texts in question by the Tamang or insufficient, informants was often ambiguous the translation difficult. making the reliability of my Skorupski (avowedly no expert on Tamang) questions translation on the grounds that in his opinion the Tamang rituals "stem from Tibetan rituals" (p. 205) and "(. of the layout ) without an understanding of different parts of the Tibetan to rituals of similar kind, it is impossible or analyse the Tamang rituals" (p. 205 f., understand, translate meaningfully since the corresponding Tibetan texts are "translat my italics). Furthermore, able without great difficulty", should be used as a key to the translation they of the Tamang texts (p. 207). This, in sum, is tantamount to asserting that the are texts are texts as to Tibetan and treated be such. Tamang I agree, of course, that an analysis of the Tamang material within While an historical framework must be a comparative one (this was not the aim of insistence on Tibetan sources as the primary authority for TRT), Skorupski's a meaningful translation of the Tamang texts, as well as his warning against on informants of an attitude relying (p. 207), are symptomatic Tamang common to philologists. Many, whether would if not most, or Sanskritists, (whether Tibetologists philologists or seem to be reluctant to recognize what I explicitly implicitly) call the autonomy of tribal or minority cultures. Trained on, and

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24 TAMANG RITUAL TEXTS. fascinated by, both the products and interpretations of the learned in the high cultures of Tibet or India, the philologist is likely to see mere "corruption" and "decay" in the way certain elements from these high cultures have taken root in the traditions of small societies without a comparably specialised elite. He regards such societies as more or less passive receivers imitating and/or when confronted their great neighbours. Consequently, misunderstanding tends to assume a sort with formalised action and language, the philologist as if rituals and texts were meaningful in themselves, of absolute meaning ? so to speak, and independent of those who actually practice and recite them. To say that the Tamang texts can be understood only with a prior knowledge of their supposed Tibetan prototypes intended by is to say that the meaning their Tibetan authors (according to one's own learned informants and inter is the only acceptable meaning. Is this not a fallacy? Such a strict pretation) equation of meaning with the exegesis by the learned, (a) inevitably leads to from the the confusion of two levels of analysis by dissociating authenticity communicative context, and (b) concludes from the absence of a satisfactory exegesis the absence of satisfactory understanding. I contend of our the interpretation that in spite of many uncertainties, informants has the same intrinsic value as that of their modern day Tamang Tibetan prototypes. They differ because they stem from different periods and different socio-cultural contexts, and because the texts are used by different The historical communities of native relationship interpreters. speech inter texts does not make their meanings between the Tibetan and Tamang
changeable.

There is one point that well illustrates the divergence between the anthro In TRT, an attempt was made to and the philologist's approach. pologist's ties of certain Tamang words with Tibetan in order establish the etymological and semantic shifts that have resulted to give an idea of the morphological from that sense-making process by which a peasant adopts community names and concepts and adjusts their meaning. Though sometimes helpful in were not such etymologies in the translation, refining some formulations so far as to in contrast, goes used to correct the informants. Skorupski, are even of those Tamang words that "emend" the meaning definitely part to that of the their meaning of modern by adjusting colloquial Tamang Tibetan word! corresponding The postulate that the texts must have once in the past meant "more" is for tempting and may be correct. The question, however, is: "more meaning" whom. Does "less meaning" imply "less sense" or even "no sense"? Is the for the Tamangs who recite them bulk of the texts a sort of mumbo-jumbo day by day in times of distress and risk of life? Do the texts have a meaning It seems, at any that the informants are unable to verbalize appropriately? the texts without rate, that we cannot understand finding out how the

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TAMANG RITUAL TEXTS.

25 set out from

themselves understand them, and to do this we must Tamangs the difficulties they themselves have with the text. Several interrelated factors are responsible for the ambiguities

and gaps in the interpretation of the Tamangs. One factor is the partly esoteric nature of the texts. Another lies in the rapid cultural change that in the wake of from the has been removing the Tamangs historical events and migration of Tibetan Tibetan sphere of influence; this explains why many expressions origin have become obscure. A third factor may be seen in a specific feature of Tamang ritual, namely in the relatively passive role played by the laics, so that conversation between the layman and the ritual specialist about to a minimum. the contents of the recital is reduced But the most are an oral tradi the recitals of factor is the fact that very part important tion. For reasons of space I can deal briefly with only two aspects of this
contention.

of individual Roughly speaking, the oral tradition consists of a multitude a texts. around solid the The core, interpretations whirling relationship between the two is a causal one in the sense that the number of individual is enhanced precisely because the texts constitute the only interpretations as a mean I the oral tradition whole. What is this: authority monitoring as are texts the been immutable since the of the end ideally, regarded having mythical past. (Individual variants of the same text, which do occur to some to this fiction in that they too are traced extent, can also be accommodated back to revelations by mythical beings). This must be so since the texts, by dint of their recital, "restate" and even "reinstate" reality as it was estab a text lished in the mythical The of past. curing ceremony always refers to the First Curing by the First Curer, and separates the evil spirits from man in accordance with their First Separation by the First Curer, etc. Conse numerous a the archaisms fulfil function and are not a mere by quently, product of a formal constancy preserved to a great extent in the texts over time. Furthermore, the formalised character of the texts gives rise to am biguities in their interpretation because, resulting from restrictions of syntax, etc. (coupled with prosodic such as constraints, wording, terminology, the texts always fail to fit fully the individual situation to rhythm or melody) which they are applied in the actual ritual. The same effect of such a "lack-of fit" has been demonstrated in political oratory in traditional societies.3 The second aspect is that the ritual specialists of the oral tradition of the Tamangs have no markedly in any respect, privileged social status, are not organized and act as part-time specialists. They thus lack the aura of erudite authority. Contrary to societies with more social hierarchy and more division of labour, where the laic can comfort himself with leaving the interpretation more or less to the learned, in Tamang society both the specialist and the layman enjoy considerable freedom in the interpretation of the texts. Needless to say,

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26 TAMANG RITUAL TEXTS. an esoteric specialist, such as the shaman, enjoys and even needs more freedom than other specialists. Even without the circumstances that are specific to the Tamang situation,4 and occasional in the interpretation are normal rather than gaps ambiguities
anomalous.

and occasional gaps irritate the Westerner Ambiguities (even the anthro must not he but exclude the that his notion of under pologist), possibility a differs from that of and that for the latter even standing Tamang, or fulfil a function. Indeed, unknown or obscurities may convey a meaning are not necessarily as it were, a holes perforating, questionable meanings context to the extent of ridding it of any propositional coherence. Informants are only at a loss when expected to make lexical comments; they never hesitate (unless already trained) to "gloss over". In spite of its pejorative for us, this expression connotation is illustrative of the way the Tamangs sense for them. The process by their texts. The texts do make understand which this sense is reached is less discursive and less hermeneutic than our notion of exegesis because of the performative character of the texts. That is, rather than serving as an object of contemplation, the texts are expected to not merely "tellings become self-effective once recited. They are "doings-of', as their above. Even emerges from about",5 "restating" purpose mentioned more important, any healing or other psychosomatic effect that the recitals call forth in those for whom should not be imputed to they are performed, some sort of blind, superstitious faith. Quite the contrary, these effects derive of the contents. This is not the place to from an understanding obviously delve into the question of how this type of text-understanding functions and how it bears on the individual's experience of the ritual. Let me refrain from the jargon of modern linguistics and note only that there is evidence that this level works (rather than unconscious) understanding partly at a sub-rational of the and is thus related to the much discussed but little known phenomenon effectiveness of symbols. As long as I have no other means (psychological, access to the Tamang mind remains statistical, etc.), my only non-speculative the Tamangs themselves give of the texts. That is why my the interpretation on to has theirs. Obviously my translation must go be based interpretation a few steps beyond the Tamang is: how many interpretation. The question steps? Skorupski objects often so complicated that my translation of the Tamang texts is "so literal and that it is difficult to read", because I relied too much on the informants (p. 206). He is, at least partly, right. Any translation implies some oscillation between the source language and from the former to the the target language, rather than a direct movement latter. The "inscape" (G. Steiner)6 into the source language always results in some import back into the target language, because the latter can never be

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TAMANG RITUAL TEXTS.

27

to render both the content and texture felt as an absolutely adequate medium of the former. This is all the more true of a "transcultural translation" where, as is the case with the Tamang come to terms with must the translator texts, a cultural setting fairly different from his own. In saying this I am not or "interlinearism"; nor do I wish to exoticize the "literalism" advocating Tamang material. Rather, I would like to try to exploit that creative potential that translations have always had for the switch-over to other "sayings about or the world". An interpretative to paraphrasing translation (in contrast some on must account take into encroachment the Nachdichtung) stylistic autonomy of the target language and be granted some freedom in handling word order, etc. characteristics, combinatory A certain amount of clumsiness is unavoidable. The Tamang texts contain terms and ritual many denoting specific concepts techniques that are alien to theWestern reader and that have no exact equivalents in his language. Even more important, texts are not plain prose, but recitals full of the Tamang I would call "poetic qualities". The translator is bound to render as as possible their structural particularities, faithfully imagery, rhetorical ? etc. not because of their intrinsic figures, only literary value, but also because of their performative are part of the These formal elements impact. often its the translator should meaning, just by enhancing ambiguity. Finally, not brush aside the question marks the informants have put in their inter what for the sake of ele pretation, by filling gaps and "emending" ambiguities so To do not would it would also gance.7 only arrogate authoritativeness; the and disregard Tamangs' basically para-exegetic approach deprive future research
"work".

of

the chance

of bringing

to light more

about

how

these

texts

the translation is often "difficult to read" counts little against the to document and respect the authenticity of the obligation faithfully own use and After the too find the all, Tamangs' interpretation. Tamangs some to difficult cases and in thus it is for the read, original preferable translator to get trapped in their problems rather than in his own hermen
eutics.

That

No doubt, with his large community of competent colleagues and native scholars and his inventory of analytical tools and conventions, refined over the long development of his discipline, an the philologist has advantage over the anthropologist and evanescent as working on something as multi-faceted an oral tradition can be. What a pity that with few exceptions anthropologists have not developed much interest in, and respect for, texts! Yet what has so far prevented them from doing so, namely their commitment to context, also

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28 TAMANG RITUAL TEXTS. holds a chance for them to contribute to the understanding of the purpose of a text, in particular an oral text by investigating context. its communicative This is not to claim an exclusive competence for the anthropologist. Rather Imaintain that the meaning and function of the texts are interconnected and must be analysed first in situ. The elucidation of their function also implies, as a second step, the elucidation of the history of the texts. That is, we must learn more about the origin of those elements in them that stem from the "great traditions", about the reasons for their selection, and about how they ? in order to understand better have become integrated and re-interpreted In the Himalayas, is the anthropologist the very nature of oral traditions. can in he of the that reckon with the fortunate Tibetologist indispensable help and Indologist.

NOTES
zur Siidasienforschung, In Beitrdge Band 65, Wiesbaden: F. Steiner 1981. to Sino-Tibetan, cf. his An Introduction Part II. Wiesbaden 1967. 3 M. Bloch in Traditional and Oratory London 1975, 12ff. (ed.): Political Language Society, texts also The formalization in the Tamang include what Maranda has labelled "verbo cliches mechanism the discourse. that is, a streamlining Cf. upon imposing dynamics", 2 P. Maranda, Comment in H. Jason and D. Segal of Oral Literature], [on Content Analysis in Oral Literature, two exemplary The Hague 1977, 303. For (eds.), Patterns preliminary of oral texts of the Rais and Gurungs of Nepal cf. N. J. Allen "Sewala Puja Bintila analyses on Thulung A Journal of Himalayan Rai Ritual Language", Kailash, Studies, VI, Puja: Notes and Legends: A Study in the Narrative 4, 1978; and S. S. Strickland, Poetry Belief, Practices, of 1982 (unpublished Ph.D. the Gurungs of Nepal, Cambridge thesis). 4 in what one may call the macro-cultural frame of the given circumstances Under changes reference further enhance ambiguity. Thus, contacts with Hindu population groups over the past or doubling in broadening for example, in the frequent 200 years have resulted identifications, of Tamang with Hindu of Tamang rituals in terms of Hindu gods or the explanation equation to the Levi-Straussian with rituals. The process no doubt bears some resemblance "bricolage", that here it is not so much that is subject the difference, the text but its interpretation however, to "re-assemblage". 5 I am referring to the distinction "The Spoken Word by D. Hymes, quoted by D. Tedlock, in American Indian Religion", of Interpretation and the Work p. 48, in K. Kroeber (ed.), Indian. Texts and Interpretations, Lincoln 1981. Traditional Literatures of the American 6 Frankfurt Nach Babel. Aspekte der Sprache und der Ubersetzung, 1981, pp. 19 ff. 7 I appreciate in giving one illustration of how he would and fairness courage Skorupski's to a "blow-up" the text (p. 206), but I cannot accept his resorting of a particularly translate in the Tamang obscure passage original. 1

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