Translating Recipes 3: Fairy Tale Drugs

By Carla Nappi

Hello again! When last we met, I was telling you about a recent and ongoing experiment in translating Manchu-language medical recipes into different storytelling forms as a way to get at the narrative power of drug texts and their formulae. If you don’t recall that, take a moment to check out the previous two posts in this series and you’ll get the most out of what follows: Part 1: Narrating Qing Bodies and Part 2: A Drama of Butter and Pearls

All done? Good to have you back! Now, let’s reminisce a bit. Whether it was worrying over Little Red Riding Hood or wondering at the fate of Cinderella, many of us spent our childhoods reading and living a dream-life in fairytales. Many of these stories have common elements. Often, they incorporate some kind of magic or enchantment. They usually include conventional, stock characters that don’t change much over the course of any given story. And importantly, the stories move across time and space: different versions of a story might be found in very different contexts; often a fairytale story is transmitted orally rather than depending on a specific textual materialization of the narrative. In his introduction to Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, Philip Pullman thus characterizes fairy tales as being in “a perpetual state of becoming and alteration.”

Image:   A Manchu woman in a rocky garden, taken by John Thomson in 1869. Image 19678i from the Iconographic Collection, Wellcome Library, London.
Image: A Manchu woman in a rocky garden, taken by John Thomson in 1869. Image 19678i from the Iconographic Collection, Wellcome Library, London. 

If you think about it, an early modern medical recipe shares many of the same narrative features as a fairy tale. (At least, this is true of the early modern Manchu medical recipes that we’ve been exploring together.) These recipes often incorporate ingredients with (at least reputedly) incredible powers: gold, pearls, precious animal horns. They also feature a limited number of stock directions (mix this, smear that) and basic ingredients (wine, fat, water). There often exist many versions of the same formula, with the core identity of a particular recipe not dependent on its materialization in a particular text. And like Pullman’s fairy tales, if we consider how these recipes are used, they are also in a constant state of alteration and variation. Put another way, both Manchu medical recipes and fairy tales exist in a continuing state of translation. Like a fairytale, the recipe becomes a kind of basic storyline that is recorded into textual form but doesn’t depend on any single, specific textual inscription and can be adopted and adapted into different local contexts.

So what would happen, I wondered in the course of considering this parallel one afternoon, if we read a medical recipe as a fairy tale? Are there stories hidden in the lines of these Manchu texts, and how might looking for them change (at least in some small way) how we think about the kind of work a medical recipe does? Translating a recipe as a fairy tale does a few useful things for us. It emphasizes the translatability, literary form, and movement of these texts, and of the bodies within them. It puts a different spin on early modern medical recipes: sometimes, the formula (or, storyline) was more important than the identities of the individual ingredients it combined. And it highlights the fact that, for many readers, there was a kind of magic at work in an early modern medical recipe: powerful, unfamiliar ingredients were invoked in powerful, unfamiliar language. (Plus, it’s a whole lot of fun.)

In the next post, I’ll share the result of this experiment with you.


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