Capturing Oral Tradition (aka: Brothers Grimm)

I’m dealing with translated works associated with Brothers Grimm. I’m finding some works that are translated with credit to translator, but where writer is [Anonymous]. I’m in the process of transferring this to Grimm, as Grimms’ words are the ones being translated. So, I’m operating on the principle that their work—as affixed to paper, and as translated by many over the years—is the act of writing.

Grimms’ “tales, in fact, were part of a rich oral tradition—passed down from generation to generation, often by women seeking to pass the time during household chores. But as industrialization took root, local traditions changed and scholars, like Jacob and Wilhelm, began a quest to save the stories from extinction. They interviewed relatives and friends, collecting whatever tales they could, sometimes embellishing them (although they insisted they did not).” —Biography

See also: Brothers Grimm - Wikipedia

I’ve considered maintaining a relationship to [Anonymous] in the oral tradition, then crediting the Grimms with “adapting” them, but without some clear records, it would be problematic to even apply titles to the anonymous works, as Grimms’ tales are likely to have been entitled by the brothers themselves.

Please chime in if you disagree with my approach, as I am prepared to revert or modify my work if it is misguided.


I totally agrre with this approach. It’s the only one that makes sense to me.

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I’m sorry, but I’m about to disagree and complicate everything (again?). I actually thought about this before for a similar book I was about to add — and then didn’t.

First of all, I would credit [Traditional], not [Anonymous], following MB’s distinction. Folk stories don’t come from one unknown author, they are passed down, generation to generation, until reaching the version recorded.

Let me use an example I picked at random from the WP list of Grimm fairy tales: Brother and Sister ( Brüderchen und Schwesterchen).

As I was thinking about this, I started thinking that two author relationships is the wrong way to see this. Each recorded — fixed — version is its own work; all are based on the same folk story. This one, for example, was also recorded by Alexander Afanasyev as Sister Alionushka, Brother Ivanushka, both are different as written stories but are versions of this folk story. So I thought what should be done is: create one work for the folk story Brother and Sister, author [Traditional], and one for (the Grimm brothers’) Brüderchen und Schwesterchen with a based on relationship to this one. The same for Afanasyev’s version and the others, i.e., all these different works are connected in being versions of the same (variant) folk story. This seems the most accurate way to describe these works. But In the end I didn’t do it because I can’t decide if folklore can be a “work” on BB. If it is not written, and it has no fixed form, is it a work by BB’s definition? Should we have a folklore work type? — I’m still quite confused about that.

And there’s something else to have in mind: These folklorists were writing stories told to them by other people, and the Grimm brothers even claimed not to embellish the stories they heard. In many cases, the person who told the story is known — in the case of this story, Marie Hassenpflug, a well-known story-teller. It was Marie’s version of Brother and Sister that the Grimm Team recorded, it was her story. I think the storyteller should also be credited. Ideally with “told by” relationship (which we don’t have), but I think a shared “written by” credit with the Grimm Bros would be in order, until we have a more appropriate relationship.

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As a MB editor, I would be tempted to do precisely that, though recognizing terminology in literature, perhaps [Oral tradition] would be be better term.

Q1. What would a guideline be around naming an oral traditional work?

Q2. Would be be true that oral traditional works cannot be translated?

Would it be correct in your view to have Grimm’s work be an “adaptation of” the oral traditional work?

If someone is recounting folklore to someone who is then adapting that story and fixing it as words on a page, it’s hard for me to see the mere telling of the story as “writing” it.

Imagining that these were merely transcripts of recordings of Hassenpflug, I would be tempted to credit the storyteller and not the transcriber.

However, in the case of Grimm, it seems their act of listening a story told by often multiple storytellers and synthesizing it into a tangible work rises to the level of writing, or if not, at least adapting.


The main problem is: There is not one basic story, that could be fixed as starting point for all the variants that exist.
The only way the variants could be related “correctly” might be the use of a classification system like the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index - Wikipedia
But, of course, this is very complicated :wink:

Yes, but they always have a basic narrative in common, even if the details change, that’s what makes them variant versions of the same story. However, to reiterate, I also have doubts that it is appropriate to create works that represent unwritten folklore, I’m just putting it forward as my best attempt to represent these relationships.

I also looked into the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index, at first I thought it could be the solution, but actually this a mistake, as the index classifies story types, not stories; and the stories that belong to a type can be quite different. Case in point, Brother and Sister, the example I was using, is classified as an Aarne–Thompson Type 450 tale, as is The Lambkin and the Little Fish (another of the Grimm Bros., told by Marianne von Haxthausen, according to D. L. Ashliman). If you read the stories, you will see the narrative is very different, even if they have certain characteristics in common.

Yes, my point here was the difference between a traditional and an anonymous work. [Oral tradition] sounds like a good idea to me.

I would suggest the most common name in English, if there is one. There is no sense talking about “original language” for these works. I think it’s also appropriate to add all variant titles in English and all other languages as aliases, as these works are not meant to represent any specific language. If it is a folk story of for which there is no common translation (or any translation), it’s appropriate to use the most common name in the language of the story.

Yes, as it doesn’t represent any fixed version in any one language. The written works based on the folk tale can be translated, of course.

Yes. I was using the phrase “based on”, but I have no problem saying that these are written adaptations of oral traditional works. That seems quite accurate to me.

This is very tricky, of course, because we have no way of knowing how much they changed. With the Grimms in particular, there is also the issue of multiple different versions having been published across seven editions. The ones in the first edition — reportedly, I don’t read German — were much shorter, written in a more vernacular German and followed closed the storyteller’s version of the story — more a transcription than a creative work. You can even find scholarly works arguing the Grimms changed the literary German language by putting the vernacular of oral literature into writing. In any case, respecting the fact that they have been credited as authors for centuries and that we ultimately don’t know much they changed in the stories, I’m suggesting a new “told by” relationship for the known storytellers in oral literature and the “written by” relationship from the brothers. I just suggested using the “written by” relationship temporally, until we have a more appropriate one — my main point here is that these people deserve the credit, and, even if one doesn’t care for that kind of justice, it simply results in a more accurate entry.

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