A Conversation with Jack Haney, editor of The Complete Folktales of A. N. Afanas’ev

The folktales of A.N. Afanas’ev represent the largest single collection of folktales in any European language and perhaps in the world. Widely regarded as the Russian Grimm, Afanas’ev collected folktales from throughout the Russian Empire in what are now regarded as the three East Slavic languages—Byelorusian, Russian, and Ukrainian.

The result of his collecting, the collecting of friends and correspondents, and in a few cases his publishing of works from earlier and forgotten collections is truly phenomenal. In his lifetime Afanas’ev published more than 575 tales in his most popular and best known work, Narodnye russkie skazki.

Released this month as first of three volumes featuring the first complete translation into English of Afanans’ev’s Russian Folktales is The Complete Folktales of A. N. Afanas’ev: Volume I edited by Jack Haney.

Until now, there has been no complete edition of the Russian folktales of Afanas’ev. His translation is based on L. G. Barag and N. V. Novikov's edition, widely regarded as the authoritative Russian-language version. The present edition includes commentaries to each tale as well as its international classification number.

Haney is a retired professor of Slavic languages and literature, University of Washington, and is the translator and editor of Long, Long Tales from the Russian North (published by University Press of Mississippi). Below Haney speaks about his work with Russian folktales and the importance of Afanas'ev’s work. 

When did you first become acquainted with Afanas'ev and his Russian Folktales?
I first became acquainted with some of the Afanas'ev folktales when I worked in a small way on the Oxford book of Russian Folk Literature, published in 1967. Though there were but eight folktales in that collection, they were enough to whet my appetite and I increasing turned my attention to the Russian folktale, and not only those in the vast Afanas'ev collection but to the corpus as a whole, which comprises several thousand tales, some recorded by serious folklorists and ethnographers and others popularly.Eventually I felt confident enough to begin offering a course on Russian folk literature to university undergraduates, a course I continued to teach until my retirement in 2001.

Were you the first to begin serious work on the Afanas'ev collection?
Oh, certainly not. In 1873 W.R. S. Ralston published
Russian-Folktales, which he dedicated to Afanas'ev. This was probably the first substantial work based on Afanas'ev, A very popular edition of some of these same tales by Arthur Ransome followed in 1916, although he retold them in his own inimitable way. Norbert Guterman published a large number of the tales in his Russian Fairy Tales in 1945 but since then there have been only the odd selections from Afanas'ev and the Guterman volume is now linguistically out of date and incomplete. In addition there is no apparatus with it so that for folklorists it is not very useful. It is time for the complete tales finally to appear in English.

You have previously published a series of volumes called The Complete Russian Folktale. How does that differ from the Afanas'ev collection? 
In that collection I sought to offer to the reader an example of every type of folktale recorded in Russian as listed in the index to the East Slavic folktales. The vast majority of those chosen were from collections other than Afanas'ev's; indeed, I used tales from the latter only when there were no alternatives available. Thus, the two projects are unrelated.

What is special about the Afanas'ev collection?
Not only is it the largest single collection of Russian tales, if not the largest collection of any one people's folktales by a single editor and collector, it is the most popular among the many, many Russian collections. Many of these Russian tales have become classics in their own right in Russia and have been translated into many languages Especially well  known are those featuring Baba Yaga, the Russian witch, but there are others as well.. They have been adapted for children, for whom they were not originally intended, and they have also been adapted for film and TV and even the stage in Russia so that some of them are widely known indeed.

What is the audience for which this translation is intended?
I hope that the tales will be widely read by all who like reading folktales but because of the apparatus I have provided they should prove useful to students at the high school and university levels, as well as serious folklorists who have no Russian or for whom the Russian editions are not available.