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Cover > Thoughts on translation > A Case of Social Translation: Romani Literature in Slovenia

A Case of Social Translation: Romani Literature in Slovenia

by Marjan Strojan
When we speak of translation we take it for granted that what we speak of are various permutations performed between the languages in order to make them communicate with one another. But there are, within such inter-linguistic exchanges, a whole strata of other translational activities going on, the most important of which I would call a ‘social translation’ i.e. the passing of information from one group to another in order to make it meaningful to the receiver.

One such form of translation is a transition between oral and literary practices which fundamentally changes the very nature of the oral act involved in it. Making an oral performative act into a text is a case of social translation.In today’s talk I would like to turn your attention to one instance where such processes are still going on – to the case of the literature of Slovenian Roma.

The Roma people came to the Byzantine Empire from northern India at the beginning of the 11th century, following their stay in Iran and the Caucasus regions. By the 12th century they were established in Asia Minor and were settling in what is today Romania and the Balkans. In the 14th century Ragusa (Dubrovnik) they were free citizens (albeit low on the social scale), while in Kosovo, Moldavia and Wallachia they were enslaved. In the 16th century the emergence of the nation state in Europe brought widespread intolerance towards them. France and England barred them entry and they were expelled from Sweden, Denmark and Portugal. Throughout the 17th century, punitive policies were widely adopted, such as restrictions upon trade and shelter, restrictions on Roma gatherings, prohibition of traditional dress and of Romani language. In the 18th century in our own Austro-Hungarian Empire, Roma children were taken from their parents and brought up by other families – a practice that continued in some countries until the 20th century. However, with the abolition of slavery and the granting of legal rights, the 19th century saw an overall improvement in their treatment in most of Europe, which did not last long. The latter part of the 19th and the early 20th centuries were characterised by the theories of eugenics that culminated in the extermination of half a million Roma in Nazi camps. Consequently, after WWII, in some countries where, as during Tito's rule in Yugoslavia, Roma were viewed as victims of the Nazi persecution, most of them were then better off than before, or after.

The collapse of communism in Eastern and central Europe had major negative implications for the Roma population. The re-emergent nationalism produced racist attacks, often with semi-official sanction in which the countries of ex-Yugoslavia were no exception. Although Roma were living on the territory of today’s Slovenia already in the 15th century and have been mentioned in various registers of births, deaths, and marriages since the 17th century, they are still considered as something of an embarrassment to the society. Under the current law, they enjoy the status of a ‘specially protected minority group’, but Slovenian authorities make a distinction between autochthonous and non-autochthonous Roma, i.e. Roma who have traditionally lived in Slovenia and Roma who have arrived recently, in large part due to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. This distinction makes it unclear who has what level of protection, and has been used by a number of local authorities to delay taking measures towards improvement. Roma are underrepresented in public affairs at the national level. Unlike the minority groups of Italians and Hungarians they do not have any seats in the National Assembly. There is only a Commission for the Protection of Roma and some 20 municipalities with highest Roma concentrations are required to have one Roma councillor each.

The majority of Roma living in Slovenia are concentrated in two regions in NE and SE, i.e. Prekmurje and Dolenjsko, where they settled in Bela krajina and Suha krajina regions. There is also a small Sinti community in the NW of the country. Roma also live in major cities such as Ljubljana, Maribor, Velenje and Celje. As for their numbers, according to the 2002 Population Census, there were 3,246 Roma, or less than 0.2% of the total population of Slovenia. But the Census results relate only to self-declared Roma, unofficial estimations put the actual number up 3-4 times higher than that. (Nada Stropnik, Promoting Social Inclusion of Roma, A Study of National Policies, Institute for Economic Research, Ljubljana 2011). The great majority of Roma, especially those in the south and the groups living in or around the cities, are severely materially deprived. They live in in substandard conditions, usually in informal settlements and are excluded from many aspects of social and economic life. In recent years authorities have taken steps to improve their situation, including housing and education projects, but despite these improvements, poverty remains widespread. Their unemployment figure is estimated at 80 per cent, mostly due to inadequate education and hidden discrimination. As a rule Roma children participate in primary education only (if at all), and even there they are put in special study groups which more often than not get inferior instruction. The crime rate in Roma settlements is higher than average, but the statistics here are mostly concerned with petty crime, though the offences also include illegal social practices traditionally connected with gypsies, such as people trafficking, selling off their children and giving away their under-age girls to marry, all of which is considered a serious crime.

Regardless of their small numbers there are still areas of public life where the Roma are traditionally well represented, the most significant among them is the cultural life of the country – their music (and folklore in general) being at the fore of their cultural presence as it is felt by the rest of the population. Their literature with which we are here mostly concerned is far less conspicuous; the majority of the population are not even aware that it exists – except, of course, when adapted or translated into Slovenian language.

In Slovenian literary tradition we find gypsy culture as a permanent stock of characters and mores, mostly as a stereotype subjects included in romantic plots. This is also true of their media representation, where the thematic and form structures of the reports work towards the discriminatory discourse, using a construct of so called ‘common sense language’ for presenting the dominant interpretation of facts leading to ethnic discrimination (see Karmen Erjavec, Media Representation of the Discrimination against the Roma in Eastern Europe: The Case of Slovenia.)

In Slovenia, the literary creativity of Roma became fact only in the 20th century (see Rajko Djuri? in Jožek Horvat-Muc, Zgodovina romske književnosti, Murska Sobota, 2010). Even so, the Roma authors and anthologists produced a small library of titles, but (at least from what I have read) their product can seldom match anything found in The Roads of the Roma: A PEN Anthology of Gypsy Writers by Siobhan Hancock and Siobhan Dowd, PEN American Center's Threatened Literature Series, October, 1998, or in the Bosnian and Serbian anthologies of Gypsy poetry. In Yugoslavia, however, some writers, like Milan Begovi?, Nikolaj Velimirovi?, Velimir Živojinovi? – Massuka and others, exploited and popularised the themes and motives of Roma culture among the majority populations.

In modern Slovenian literature we have one such figure in Feri Lainš?ek whose novel Namesto koga roža cveti, published in 1992 (translated by Tamara M. Soban) as Instead of whom does the flower bloom Ljubljana, PEN 2002, was made into a film (Halgato, directed by Andrej Mlakar, 1994). The novel was also translated into German (1994), into Croatian (1998) and into Czech language (2005) and remains one of the most popular Slovenian works of fiction of its kind, which was also due to the title song of the film, written and performed by the popular Slovenian ballad singer Vlado Kreslin.

This, of course, was, by any measure, a publishing success, but if we take into consideration the actual story line, the characters and their part in the plot of the novel, we can see that there is – except for its modern writing technique – very little which sets it apart from romantic tales translated into modern setting as produced everywhere during the popular success of the so called ‘magical realism’, with the principle character Halgato’s violin being the central object of the piece.

It is perhaps significant that this musical instrument also plays the title role in one of the first ever drama pieces in Roma language in Slovenia, Violina / Hegeduva , 2002, by Jožek Horvat – Muc, the most prolific writer among Slovenian Roma, whose works includes two previous drama collections, a volume of poetry (2006), a collection of gypsy tales (Blood- mudded Water and other stories, 1999), articles on Romani language etc. Slobodan Nezirovi? produced a volume of Romani fairy-tales and songs (Romane parami?e taj romane gilja, 2008), keeping alive the oral tradition, from the creation myths of the common Roma culture, featuring their supreme beings Beng and Devel, to stock characters like the beautiful gypsy girl Ajša, and including some modern day legends.

While these and other publications are primarily meant for the Romani audience and readers, there are, of course, many more similar collections for Slovene readers, mainly children, like those of Madalin Brezar, who, together with her sister Marina also produced the Roma-Slovene Dictionary (2008). There are also many other Romani translations of Slovenian classics, among them even The Songs and Poems of the great Slovenian romantic poet France Prešeren (Džilavani buti i džilava , 2006) by the poet Rajko Šajnovi?, who has also translated a number of Slovenian fairy tales into Romani.

These, off course, are mostly individual efforts, many of which have, in recent years, received technical support and financial assistance by the Roma Union of Slovenia. Established in 1996, the Roma Union unites around 22 Roma associations around Slovenia, covering the south eastern areas around Pomurje, Posavje, Bela krajina and part of Gorenjska regions. Within the Roma Union, the Roma Women's Forum is active and the ROMIC - Roma Information Centre and the ROMIC radio studio operates as a basic information contact point for the Slovene Roma community. The Roma Union publishes the monthly newspaper Romano Them - Romski Svet ('Romani World') in both Slovene and Romani languages. There are also regular National Radio and Televisions broadcasts in Romani language, which also feature news from the Roma literary activities.

All of the above is a mere glimpse into the lively literary productions of Slovenian Roma authors – and that at the very beginning of their efforts. Yet what we see here is the naissance of the cultural phenomenon coming out of its orality phase into a fully developed modern literary tradition. And to bear witness to such a process today is something phenomenal in itself.

Yet, when we look closer into the individual products, we see that a great majority of our Romani production is, what I would call, ‘root literature’, i.e. the product of Roma who no longer live as Roma and have through their education and other assimilatory processes adapted to the majority way of life. Sociologically speaking, uprooted as they are, they are after their roots, and as such they want to implant the importance of their communal traditions and values into their own, especially their young, who share in their fate.

What we have here is, therefore, a literature of transition, and to make it culturally meaningful would take the skills and efforts of writers and editors as well as scholars and the institutions of knowledge to be directed towards the living oral traditions – something that, at present, is still sadly lacking in scope and depth. Without recognising the brunt of Roma literature for what it is, namely a social translation into Slovenian literature, we stand little chance of ever understanding its meaning.

Meeting of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Commitee, Barcelona, April 21th to 23th, 2015

Isabel Banal: Llapis trobats, sèrie iniciada el 1999.

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