November 08, 2011

Our Singing Language

Our Singing LanguageDale Farm friend

There is no pure Romani language: there are several living, vivid, ricocheting dialects. These dialects sometimes take a loan from other tongues: language is absorbed as it is travelled through. The porosity of Romani dialects can seem to resemble the porosity of English except for one distinction. English, for all its riches, is a language of colonisation and globalisation; Romani, for its treasures, is a language of the invisible or enslaved. The Gurbet Romani dialect for example is influenced linguistically by centuries of enslavement of the Roma in Romania (the group term Gurbet means foreign work or aliens).

The Gurbet Roma group, like the Kalderaš and Lovara, is known for independence and entrepreneurship. A number of writers have arisen from it, the most prominent being Ilija Jovanović whose first collection of poems Bündel/Bodžo was published in Romani (and German translation) in the year 2000. News from the Other World: Poems in Romani is a bilingual selected poems by Jovanović. The book opens with the writer’s memories of childhood – accounts of the casual, unconscious racism of non-gypsy “friends” - as well as a short history of Roma people. The body of the book is made up of poems about settlements, hazards of travel, identity, love, childhood and salvation. These make for strong if, at times, severe reading: dark notes abound, duende is evoked and Jovanović’s Romani diction has fine, wry attack. Romani is phonetic, so you can listen in to his voice through reading the poems as you find them. To get the flavour of this poet, try sounding the buzz-note consonants and dammed-up internal rhymes at the close of ‘Lost World’:

Traden amen pe sa o them.

Amen džas thaj džas

ni džanas kaj thaj dži kaj.

(They chase us across the whole world.

We move on and on, having no idea

when this will end, or where to go.)

Jovanović writes of Romani as ‘our singing language’ and Romani certainly possesses qualities, as with English, that pass beyond meaning: the sound of sense, the sound of sensuality, and the sound of a group’s shared sensibility. The poems are capably translated by Melitta Depner. My sole criticism is that the concentration and energy of Jovanović’s dialect sometimes carry abstractedly or blandly into English. The poet’s attack and duende are what vanish in translation. To take a fairly typical example from the poem ‘I Have No Home’: the syntactical crackle, alliterative strut and resignation registered by the line-break of ‘Čořope, bokh, maripe, mundaripe / traden ma than thaneste te džav’ registers in translation as dejected prose: ‘Poverty, hunger and violence /drive me from place to place’. The Roma are indeed a victimised people, but do not wish to behave or sound like victims - or be ventriloquised into that role. What I am saying is that the poems work best in Romani, but you do not need to be a Romani speaker, nor a specialist in the Gurbet dialect, to get something out of this attractive and truthful book of poems. It is probably a tiny miracle such a book has been allowed to exist and it is a welcome addition to Romani writing in English translation.

News from the Other World: Poems in Romani, Ilija Jovanović, Francis Boutle Publishers, pb., 152 pp., £9.99, ISBN 978-1-903427-54-5

Thanks are due to the editor of Poetry Review, Fiona Sampson, where this piece first appeared.

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