[Addendum] Folktales, language and culture


Hello everyone! This blog entry was meant to be published a while ago – sorry for the delay! Luckily, Anne also published a blog entry on that lesson of the “Demarginalising Orature – Translating minor forms into the digital age” seminar. I hope you have all read it, it was very informative and I can only add a few things.

Why the Wasp has a Tiny Waist

Something Tasun said in the seminar that stuck with me was how folktales in general have multiple important functions. In fact, they do not only have entertainment qualities but also contain moral lessons and are used as pedagogical tools. They can teach the values and customs of a specific culture. One example for this would be the folktale “Why the Wasp has a Tiny Waist”, which we have also talked about in the seminar.


To sum it up, the lesson successfully conveyed the cultural importance of Konkomba folktales and the Likpakpaln language. Therefore, it is important to preserve them (e.g. by making them accessible to a broader audience). Hopefully, this blog entry can play a tiny part in this.

Folktales: On the Preservation of Culture and Language

In our last session in the course “Demarginalising Orature – Translating minor forms into the digital age” we talked a lot about culture and language, their relation to folktales, and also how important folktales are in order to preserve them. Almost every folktale comes from an oral source, having been passed down through generations by word of mouth, and carries a lot of cultural meaning and importance for the communities that they are told in. They are also region-specific or community-specific, varying between various languages and dialects that therefore also hold cultural meaning.

By passing on folktales, whether in the written or oral form, the cultures and languages they derive from are preserved. We were shown a map of the world, its languages, and how many were believed to go extinct soon. 

As the map shows, almost half of the languages from today – spanning all continents – might go extinct soon, and one way of documenting them for the future is by preserving them through the documentation of folktales. Folktales are a source of indigenous knowledge and hence transmit the culture and language of a community. This is, because folktales include lessons about moral and values, often very specific to the culture they are deriving from. The example we had for this in class was a Konkomba folktale called ‘Why the Wasp Has a Tiny Waist’. It is a folktale that gives lessons about communal activities and the cultural traditions after someone, especially an in-law, has died in the Konkomba community. Without the knowledge of the culture a listener might not fully understand the folktale and its moral and values, but by telling it this aspect of the culture is preserved. 

And language, of course, is also a part of culture. But when it comes to languages that are not institutionalized, the best way to make it accessible, visible and preserve it is by translating it into an institutionalized language. But for the original language to still be preserved and made visible – because by hearing a folktale the listener also gets a feeling about the language – to foreignize the translation and thereby giving visibility to the original language and culture is the best way of doing so. 

Hence, folktales encompass cultures and languages and by documenting and preserving them, their cultures and language will be accessible for forever. A difficulty in trying to preserve languages and cultures is, that there needs to be someone to go to these regions, record these folktales, translate them, and preserve them in some way. This project on Konkomba folktales is a step in this direction, but there are so many regions, as shown in the map, that it will need a lot of dedication from many different people for this preservation to happen on a broader scale. 

Coding as a Humanist -Encoding a Konkomba Folktale in XML

As part of the course “Demarginalising orature – Translating minor forms into the digital age” our goal was to transcribe and digitalize some of the folktales that are shared among the Konkomba people as an oral tradition to make them available to a broader audience. That their culture is based on oral traditions, has to be kept in mind, when we digitalized their history. The dominant written language was a result of colonization, but the tradition of orality prevails. The telling of the tales is part of the Konkomba’s daily lives. They gather in the middle of their village either during communal work, to entertain each other or in the evening as a way of spending time together and bringing the tales closer to the younger generation, so that they wouldn’t be forgotten. The way these tales are told is very important. The storytellers interact with the audience through questions, gestures or emotions.
Because of changes regarding the community’s lives and work structure, these moments tend to be rather scarce now, as we were told in our introduction to the topic. Since very few tales had been written down, Tasun Tidorchibe visited the villages and recorded, transcribed and also translated the folktales into English. Our assignment was to turn the transcriptions of the folktales into a searchable PDF via TEI and produce a video with subtitles from the audio and video files given to us.

The folktale Lilli Bloch and I were working on is called “Nachiin Pays for Feasting on Unyii’s Children” and was narrated by Bilinyi Chikpaab in Kutol on 18th March 2022. The story is about a wolf, who deceives a crocodile in a vicious manner in order to eat all of her children. Since the crocodile is the guardian of the river, no one is allowed to drink from it, as a result of the actions of the wolf. But the rabbit, seen as the wisest character and trickster in Konkomba folktales, needed to drink and made a deal with the crocodile: the crocodile would get revenge on the wolf for eating all of her children and in return the rabbit would not get eaten. In order to bring the wolf to justice, the rabbit and crocodile outsmarted the wolf and built a trap which resulted in the wolf losing his testicles to the crocodile and the rabbit’s life being spared.

Since the provided audio is in Likpakpaln, the language spoken by the Konkomba people, Lilli Bloch equipped the video with English subtitles, while I worked on the PDF, using TEI and XML. I started with the Tei Header. I used the header we created in class as an orientation and adapted it to fit this particular requirement. Secondly, I copied and pasted the story into the document, to have the base covered and to work from there. I put the story in paragraphs, so it is easier to read. Then I marked the words that we wanted to use in the glossary, so an explanation is available through the glossary. Since there are some words or phrases that don’t have a suitable translation or could only be exchanged for a lengthy description or explanation, they are kept in Likpakpaln in the text, but have the explanation at the bottom of the document in a glossary. This is an easy way to display an explanation for terms that cannot be translated from foreign languages. But for readability, I put in three footnotes at the beginning with only the translation of the animals, for clarity regarding their species, so the reader can picture them and have a better understanding of the story.  We decided to put the longer explanations in a glossary at the end, so that the pages in the document would not be crowded, but we didn’t want to exclude them, since they are a way of teaching background knowledge and offering context for the reader about the Konkomba people and culture. We put the information about the footnotes also into the editorial declaration in the TEI document.

At first, I was a little bit sceptical, if it is possible to put two marks around a word, but luckily it worked out fine and it looks just like I wanted it in the PDF. The glossary and footnotes were the tricky part of the coding, since you have to think of a lot of terms, that have to be used in order to work properly in the converted file. We chose to put the explained term in a bold font and the explanation under it, so it has a tidier look to it.

In the TEI document
In the finished PDF

 After Lilli was done with the video, I inserted a link, given to us by our tutor Jana Mankau, into the document, which when clicked in the PDF leads to the repository, where the video with the subtitles is uploaded, in addition to provide a digitally readable transcription, the tale can also be listened to and the interactions of the storyteller Bilinyi Chikpaab with his audience can be observed. Once this was done, I uploaded the document on a platform called teigarage.tei-c.org, where I converted the document into a PDF.

#demarginalizingorature #TEI #coding #konkomba #folktales #culture #orality #digitalize #oraltradition

Visual Narratives – Subtitling a Recording of a Konkomba Folktale

When reading folktales that have rarely been written down before, it is important to keep their origin in mind. Konkomba folktales have been passed on orally for a long time and have only recently been written down and translated from Likpakpaln into English. Storytelling in the Konkomba’s culture takes place in a very specific way that is essential to them, a storyteller tells the tales to a group, with which he interacts throughout the process in a theatrical way, and often audience participation is what makes the story complete. The questions they ask or the things they say make the storyteller tell the story in its entirety. These interactions can be seen in videos of the storytelling sessions. Many of the folktales have been written down and recorded by Tasun Tidorchibe, who worked on this project with us and provided the material, such as videos and documents of the stories. This project will help to make the folktales more accessible. The storyteller incorporates a lot of emotion and expressive body language into his session, which gives the viewer an insight into the story’s highs and lows.  This performative element of the storytelling helps us understand the people even though we don’t speak the language.  Therefore, when the storyteller or the audience laugh or show other emotions in reaction to the narrative, their interpretation becomes more obvious to us. When reading the story in English, there will be some words that can not be translated, but a glossary and footnotes will hold explanations for Likpakpaln terms. This will be incorporated in our TEI document, that Nadine Hoffmann is working on. Nadine has also summarized the story in her blog. Because the storyteller in the video of “Nachiin Pays for Feasting on Unyii’s Children” tells the original story, translation and subtitles are a way of following the session and understanding it at the same time. His name is Bilinyi Chikpaab and the video was recorded on the 18th of march 2022 in Kutol. The story told is called “Nachiin Pays for Feasting on Unyii’s Children” and includes multiple characters, such as a wolf, a rabbit and a crocodile. 

When creating subtitles it is important that the text is timestamped so it is accurate to the video. Tasun Tidorchibe has timestamped the tale for this video. The subtitles have to be on the screen in time and long enough to be read fully. In addition to that, they also have to be in a style that makes them clearly readable. This can easily be achieved by creating a background for the text that sets the words apart from the  background. What I did in this case, is make the background transparent, so that the background isn’t lost. The font should also be as simple as possible, so that it is not distracting. I chose Open Sans Semi Bold and made the font size 48. 

There is a lot to see in the video and the subtitles shouldn’t compromise the storyteller’s presence. A block of subtitles should not be more than two lines of text. For example: The text at 00:02:55:05 to 00:03:15:05 and 00:06:30:00 to 00:06:37:00 had to be split up according to that rule. I started making a list of text that had to be split, looked at the words and then decided where to split the sentence, so it wouldn’t be too disruptive. There were 20 blocks in total, that had to be split. The subtitles in the program are numbered in accordance with those on my list and the timestamped sheet. To not get those numbers confused whilst editing, I decided to put the new subtitle chunks in a separate line at first and then drag them down into the original one, when I was done splitting all of them.  

After I had created all the subtitles and decided on the style, it was time to check the CPS (Characters Per Second) of each text block. Sometimes, an accurate timestamp means that the CPS will be too high (the ideal CPS is 30), so I had to adjust some of them. Doing that, I realized that it made more sense to try and keep the accuracy of the timestamp set at the beginning of a text block and push it as much as possible to the back, so that there would be more time to read it. I used the DavinciResolve program to create the subtitles, because it gives the most accurate time stamp format, which is hh:mm:ss:SS. This format allowed me to try out how to create the perfect length for a subtitle, but do minimal adjustment  and not push them out of place. I kept watching the video repeatedly to see if everything was in place and if everything was easy to see and read. Some of the blocks had more than 30 CPS, but I made sure, that it was still readable. 

Having completed all these steps, it is time to rewatch the video again and make sure all is in place. Watching the video now, the story comes to life and English readers can understand the emotions around the storyline perfectly.