Written Text to Oral Presentation

  By Luc Guglieimi


Abstract: In Belgium, as it is the case in other parts of the world, people have always told stories. However, since 1975, in the French part of Belgium, a resurgence of oral storytellers, telling legends in a variety of environments, from the jail to boy scout meetings, has occurred. The oral tradition is no longer limited to the family circle and has been freed from spontaneity. Instead, these events are planned and, for a fee, anyone can come and listen to the storytellers, sometimes professionals, sometimes amateurs. This article will examine the classifications of these stories being told as well as the various functions these stories have in the French speaking part of Belgium.

Keywords: Belgium, oral tradition, storytelling, legends, tales, storyteller



Stories have been an integral part of people’s lives for a very long time. Generation after generation have told stories, passing down a legacy that somehow remains original and intact even as its particulars and details transform. In Belgium, as in every part of the world, stories are still part of people’s lives. The French part of Belgium is no different, with an explosion of public storytelling since 1975. These storytellers narrate tales, myths, and legends in different locales – even in jails and hospitals. Traditional stories were historically confined to the family, but this has branched outward in Belgium over the past century. Stories are now being spread far outside of the family to the public arena. Many of these public performances are now planned storytelling events – spontaneous storytelling is slowly fading. Today, storytelling is a meet-and-tell affair in which people know the kind of story that will be told. Storytelling is a profession that has become more like a hobby, taken up by people of many different backgrounds and professions.


Element Change in Written Stories

The emphasis on oral adaptation from written texts represents a profound shift in how these tales are being communicated. The change from written to oral presentation causes modifications – some aspects are lost, while others are gained. Today, a storyteller will adapt a written story from the 19th Century to suit and become relevant to an audience in the 21st Century. One such storyteller is Michel Dellebecque, who uses the tale of La Fille au Foutre to create humorous content for his work. This fabliau is from an oral tradition written in the 13th Century by anonymous authors. Some stories have such wide-ranging appeal that each of their adaptations represent quite distinct changes. Till I’Espeigle is one such example, with multiple written and oral adaptions concerning his story, some of which scarcely resemble each other.

The work of Charles De Coster is especially interesting in determining how this ur-story and the inspiration of Till I’Espiegle has changed across various mediums and cultures. According to Werner, the sound of the word heard or listened to has its own freedom and limitations; it is very distinct from a written text. The phrase rings true: oral storytellers have the freedom to express a written text in their own way, and while some may be highly regular and disciplined in their structure, others may exercise the ability to adapt to each performance and audience. There are changes when a written text transitions to an oral presentation: a written text is meant to be read, not told. Telling the story in the same way as the written text will not create the living narrative aspect of the oral tradition. Most storytellers will only read the original texts, research, and write to make their adaptation fit the present audience. Many contemporary authors will turn to older traditions and legends to mine ideas and characters, but the evolution of the story they tell is usually their own. They will write their own narrative from scratch to create a relatable experience for those they seek to entertain.

In his adaptation of Till I’Espiegle, Charles De Coster does not attempt to maintain the culture and history of the Belgians at the time he was writing. Belgians, during the Spanish acquisition, did not like the Spanish; in fact, they deleted everything about the Spanish when their occupation ended. In the novel by Coster, the relationship between the Spanish and the Belgians is presented in a radically different fashion. Most books emphasize the atrocities the Dutch committed against the Belgians more than that of the Spanish. Furthermore, the period of Spanish influence lasted longer than that of the Dutch. Fitting a subject matter from such a radically different time and situation is a taxing process that involves the author and their preoccupations on an essential level. This involves research and, inevitably, many changes to the present work. The end result is certainly not a direct translation of the original work – sometimes, the entire political context and argument can be changed.

According to Smet, a writer and math teacher, retelling involves taking in all the research and ideas from the prior work to create another ‘original.’ The notes from reading the originally written text help in the creation of the new book. Smet will always reread after writing a part of the new story to look for potential improvements or changes to ensure the story aligns with his ideas. Smet then edits in the changes and works towards finishing the first draft for feedback from another party. After just such a process of rewriting and editing, Smet came up with the book Et Voila, adapted from the story of Till I’Espiegle.

According to Smet, the new creation is a constant dialogue between the creator and the oral production. The creator will control the written text, but the oral production will keep changing. Every time Smet tells the story, there is always some change; it is hard to remember the whole story word for word. Another writer, Schlegel, agrees with Smet. Her latest book, entitled La mémoire des oeuvres, stresses that writing is fixed in place on a piece of paper, while speech is full of meanings generated through the person who is speaking and his or her context.

It is true that there is always some change in the written text when it is translated to the oral, especially from a linguistic point of view. When storytelling, the verb tenses change to fit the spoken flow of language, subjects change, and all styles are supplanted and replaced to fit the speaker and make it lively. In the oral tradition, so many descriptions can be limitations; therefore, cutting them out from the written text will help captivate the audience. The tone and character of a written text are transformed in many essential and interesting ways during an oral presentation.

However, some things are added. The accents, jargons, sexual mores, atmosphere, and ambiance of the new century are all added in the new adaptation. Charles De Coster creates his book around national ideas of Belgium, a nation which did not exist at the time he is writing about. Belgium came into existence in 1830. Charles reviews and ridicules the Spanish acquisition while showing the suffering they caused in Belgium. Smet applies the same concept in his book by removing the Spanish story completely. His primary idea was to relate to a contemporary audience because in this century nobody cares about the acquisition, the bloodshed, and the suffering. Smet’s primary goal is to create a humorous read about Till and his mischief.

In the new work by Smet, sticking to the same issues as DeCoster would lead to backlash and become mired in political issues. A writer, though adapting different work, has to keep his main concept in place. Keeping the concept requires adding and losing the things that may affect the story, so that it is tailored to its audience. The oral tradition has a close relationship with its immediate audience. For Smet, with a focus on humor, it was necessary to remove the heavy and political ruminations obvious in the work of DeCoster. In the oral tradition, seemingly incidental props and features such as a character’s accent can serve to completely change the emphasis of a text. Smet transforms Till from a hero and poor Flemish man who spoke French to combat the Spanish dictator (according to DeCoster) to a man with a Brussels accent, all in the service of highlighting the humor in Till’s character.

Smet, in his work, adapts a different atmosphere and storyline compared to DeCoster. He makes his story, its language, and characters relatable to the present audience. Smet deletes the part of DeCoster’s story when Till is tortured by the Spanish and suffers in the same way as Christ. That heavy religious and symbolic treatment is simply unnecessary to Smet’s audience. The sad and painful experience of Till related by DeCoster becomes a comedy, with Till as a clown rather than a martyr or political champion. The living and breathing story of Till can be just as effective in entertaining an audience, even if Smet leaves out the civic and heroic acts of his subject.


Today, so many stories suffer from changes due to public demand. Storytelling has become a business; hence, the public ought to get what they demand. So many storytellers like Smet are turning to traditional literature to create new work for today’s audience. However, there is an underlying question about the effect of the traditional literature on today’s audience. It is important to draw a line between keeping traditions and doing business.



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