Kadya Molodowsky: Merciful God (From Yiddish)

Merciful God
By Kadya Molodowsky
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
(Click for a recording of the poet herself reading the original Yiddish)

Merciful God,
choose another people
for now.1
We're tired of the death, tired of the dead.
We've no more prayers for You.
Choose another people
for now.
We have run out of blood
to sacrifice to You2.
Our home is turned into wilderness.
The earth is insufficient for our graves, our toll.
There are no more dirges left,
no more songs of woe
in any old holy scroll.

Merciful God,
let some other land be holy
some other mountain.
We've strewn each stone and every field3 with grave
ash and consecration.
With our elderly,
with our young,
with little babies we have paid
for every letter of that Decalogue4 You gave. 

Merciful God,
lift up that fiery brow of Yours
and see the peoples of the world.
Give them the prophecies, the Days of Awe.
In every tongue they babble5 up Your Words, 
Your revelations and Your law. 6
Instruct them in the Acts7
and the ways of temptation. 

Merciful God,
give us common clothes
of shepherds tending sheep,
of blacksmiths at the forge,
of washer-women, skin-flayers,
and even lower...the uncleanest.  
And oh
merciful God
grant us this one last blessing:
strip us of the shekhina of our genius8.


1 — The word dervéyl can mean "for the time being" or the familiar imperative of a verb for "elect, single out."

2 — An earlier draft had "to offer You in holocaust." Meaning holocaust in its original sense of "burnt offering" and of course the later meanings as well. That translation choice, which did not duplicate the effect of the Yiddish, was nonetheless motivated by the attitude Molodowsky seems to be striking in Yiddish. I'm still uncertain about having "tamed" the translation into literal accord as I have here. Whence my waffling about it in a footnote.

3 — Feld has a more funereal feel in Yiddish than its German cognate. It can in fact mean "graveyard." The word héylik "holy" here is likewise a bit funereal in connotation.

4 — The original refers to the ten commandments as di tsen gebótn with a Germanic term, as opposed to the Hebrew term aséres hadíbres. The Germanic phrase is one used in Yiddish, but it has the effect of de-sanctifying the referent, objectifying it.

5 — The verb préplen literally means "to mumble." But it is a verb that can be used to refer to non-Jewish prayer.

6 — This line is not in the original Yiddish, but it felt right to me in English.

7 — I.e. teach them the máysim "deeds, acts." They already know the máyses "tales."

7 — Shekhina: divine presence of God in Judaism. (The word is common enough in English writing about Judaism, and in the religious lexicon of English-speaking Jews, that I was comfortable leaving the word as is.) It is tempting to take the term גאונות geyéynes in the sense of "scholarly inventiveness, textual brilliance" i.e. Torah study itself. It evokes exceptional skill generally, but also rabbinical learning and spiritual leadership. All of which proved useless, the author implies, against the tragedy that immolated European Jewry.

The Original:

אל חנון,
קלײַב אויס אַן אַנדער פֿאָלק
מיר זײַנען מיד פֿון שטאַרבן און געשטאָרבן,
מיר האָבן ניט קיין תּפֿילות מער,
קלײַב אויס אַן אַנדער פֿאָלק
מיר האָבן ניט קיין בלוט מער
אויף צו זײַן אַ קרבּן,
אַ מדבּר איז געוואָרן אונדזער שטוב,
די ערד איז קאַרג פֿאַר אונדז אויף קבֿרים
נישטאָ קיין קינות מער פֿאַר אונדז,
נישטאָ קיין קלאָגליד
אין די אַלטע ספֿרים

אל חנון,
הייליק אַן אַנדער לאַנד,
אַן אַנדער באַרג.
מיר האָבן אַלע פעלדער שוין און יעדן שטיין
מיט אַש, מיט הייליקן באַשאָטן.
מיט זקנים,
און מיט יונגע,
און מיט עופהלעך באַצאָלט
פאַר יעדן אות פון דײַנע צען געבאָטן.

אל חנון,
הייב אויף דײַן פײַערדיקע ברעם,
און זע די פעלקער פון דער וועלט
גיב זיי די נבואות און די יום–נוראים.
אין יעדן לשון פרעפלט מען דײַן וואָרט–
לערן די מעשים זיי,
די וועגן פון נסיון.

אל חנון,
גיב פראָסטע בגדים אונדז,
פון פאַסטעכער פאַר שאָף,
פון שמידן בײַ דעם האַמער,
פון וועשוואַשער, פון פעלשינדער,
און נאָך מער געמיינעס.
און נוך איין חסד טו צו אונדז:
אל חנון
נעם צו פון אונדז די שכינה פון גאונות.

Alexander Pushkin: "What's in my name for you?" (From Russian)

"What's in my name for you?
By Alexander Pushkin
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Russian

What’s in my name for you? What good?
It will but die as the sad sound
of a wave that's splashed its last aground,
a cry out in the toneless wood.

Lifeless its marks will lie among
these album pages: the design
of someone's epitaphic line
in some unfathomable tongue.

What's in it then? Lost to the past
in new emotions' wild infection,
upon your soul it will not cast
the tender rays of recollection.

But on a silent day of rue
pronounce it with a sigh of pain
and say "One memory is true!
There beats one heart where I remain!”

The Original:

Что в имени тебе моём?
Оно умрёт, как шум печальный
Волны, плеснувшей в берег дальный,  
Как звук ночной в лесу глухом.

Оно на памятном листке
Оставит мёртвый след, подобный
Узору надписи надгробной
На непонятном языке.

Что в нём? Забытое давно
В волненьях новых и мятежных,
Твоей душе не даст оно
Воспоминаний чистых, нежных.

Но в день печали, в тишине,
Произнеси его тоскуя;
Скажи: есть память обо мне,
Есть в мире сердце, где живу я…   

Čto v ímeni tebé mojëm?
Onó umrët, kak šum pečáljnyj
Volný, plesnúvšej v béreg dáljnyj,
Kak zvuk nočnój v lesú gluhóm.

Onó na pámjatnom listké
Ostávit mërtvyj sled, podóbnyj
Uzóru nádpisi nadgróbnoj
na neponjátnom jazyké.

Čto v nëm? Zabýtoje davnó
V volnénjah nóvyh i mjatéžnyh,
Tvojéj dušé ne dast onó
Vospominánij čístyh, néžnyh.

No v denj pečáli v tišiné,
Proiznesí jegó toskúja;
Skaží: jestj pámjatj óbo mne,
Jestj v míre sérdce gde živú ja...

Gary Light: Key West Blues (From Russian)

Only Gary Light would write a Russian poem that begins by paraphrasing from a Bob Dylan song, and then uses the word "poetry" in English as a loanword two lines later to rhyme with pó-vetru "in the wind."

Born in Kiev in 1967 to a Jewish family, Gary Light came to the US at the age of 13. He attended Northwestern University, and received a law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law. He is one of a number of American poets (Gabriel Preil, whom I've also translated, is another) who grew up quite at home in the US and in English, but elected to lead their life of linguistic creativity in another language. He has translated Russian poetry into English, but has expressed dissatisfaction with how his own English poetry turns out. As he himself puts it in this interview:
"I suppose I don't feel like a "Russian writer" in the narrow classic sense of that term, though the majority of my....initial literary 'baggage' comes from the Russian tradition. I'm probably an American author after all. But if I were to be absolutely precise, then I'd say I'm nearer to a symbiosis of cultural heritage in literature, a kind — if you will — of "cosmopolitanism" like that of authors such like Arthur Philips, Vasili Aksenov, Andre Codrescu, Leonard Cohen, Vladimir Nabokov, Umberto Ecco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Ruiz Safon..."
Наверное, я все же не ощущаю себя «русским писателем» в узком классическом значении этого определения,  хотя  большинство моего....изначального литературного багажа – из традиций русской литературы. Наверное, скорее, все таки, я американский автор. Но если уже совсем точно, то мне ближе симбиоз культурных наследий в литературе, своего рода, если угодно, «космополитизм» таких авторов как Артур Филлипс, Василий Аксенов, Андре Кодреску, Леонард Коэн, Владимир Набоков, Умберто Эко, Габриэль Гарсия Маркес, Карлос Руис Сафон. 

Key West Blues 
By Gary Light
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Russian

Time was she and I would come here together.
We were in our twenties. No words like "never"
had rung for us...bed-and-verse existence...
We lived on Paris and awful whiskey. 
Green apples and other such comforts we had were
more than enough for our love and laughter.
We didn't even know when the rays
of dusk and dawn set the dew ablaze. 
Clothing and food seemed a burden. Together...
Lips along bare skin whispered "forever." 
And the rest?...The end is cliché. I'll stop here,
But that in our lives was the fiery year
when the wall went tottering in Berlin,
and that bed of Marathon — water through the window,
like the fish in Key Largo, from the depths of our shoal.
It's not that we're mourning for that now. No,
that we today aren't man and wife...isn't it. 
(All that has long been thrown to sh...)
But that we became just like the rest, together,
forgive us Key West, and forget us forever. 

The Original:

Key West Blues
Гари Лайт

Когда-то мы с ней приходили сюда
нам было по двадцать, слова «никогда»,
для нас не звучали... Постель и стихи,
мы жили Парижем и виски плохим.
Нам яблок зеленых и прочих утех,
хватало с лихвой на любовь и на смех.
Мы даже не знали в котором часу
закат и рассвет зажигают росу.
Обузой казались одежда, еда
и губы по коже шептали – «всегда»...
Про дальше – нет смысла, банален исход
но в жизни у нас был тот пламенный год,
когда зашаталась в Берлине стена,
постель в Марафоне – вода из окна,
как рыба в Ки-Ларго – из самых глубин,
не то, что б сегодня об этом скорбим.
Совсем не о том, что не муж и жена,
все это давно уже послано на...
А просто, что стали такими как все,
прости нас Ки-Вест, и забудь насовсем

Nicholas Zhdanoff Lutsenko: Through The Looking-Glass (From Russian)

This poem was written in April of 1991.

Through The Looking-Glass
By Nicholas Zhdanoff-Lutsenko
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

We live in the looking-glass in a secret kingdom,
Where all the rules of law read in reverse,
Where we are weaned on perfidy and fibs,
Where a people suffers forever as if cursed.

We live in the looking-glass, but what strange lives,
Guarded each day by Powers of Caprice.
Still lukewarm, our love for our poor Fatherland.
Only the weakest souls go overseas.

We live in the looking-glass, and we're still alive.
We've yet to pass the purgatory test. 
Here hungry highwaymen can make it big,
Sucking the hot blood from the infant's breast.

We live in the looking-glass with crooked shadows.
The past with boney fingers holds us tight.
The drunken coachman can't deal with the horses. 
We've left behind all hope of truth or right.

We live in the looking-glass, in a contrived world.
Imbibing lapidary theories' fog,
We kneel to our Godawfulness Incarnate,
As always, placing all our faith in Fraud.

The Original: 


Мы живём в Зазеркалье – таинственном царстве,
Где законы и правила – наоборот,
Где воспитаны все мы на лжи и коварстве
И где вечно страдает несчастный народ.

Мы живём в Зазеркалье, но странною жизнью,
Нас капризы властей каждый день стерегут,
В нас любовь еще теплится к бедной Отчизне,
И лишь слабые духом за море бегут.

Мы живём в Зазеркалье и мы ещё живы,
Мы ещё не прошли очищающий суд.
Здесь голодные хищники рыщут наживы
И горячую кровь у младенцев сосут.

Мы живём в Зазеркалье с кривыми тенями,
И нас прошлое держит костлявой рукой.
Пьяный кучер не в силах справляться с конями,
Нет надежды на правду у нас никакой.

Мы живём в Зазеркалье, в придуманном мире,
Лапидарных теорий впитавши туман.
Мы убогость свою воплотили в кумире
И по-прежнему верим в преступный обман.

Anonymous: South of the Walls We Fought (From Chinese)

South of the Walls We Fought
Anonymous (Han-era)
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

"South of the wall we fought 
North of the city we died 
Dead in the wastes unburied for crows to eat — we rot 

Call to the crows for us 
Say — cry for these strangers brave and true 
Dead in the wastes to go unburied 
Their rotting flesh has no escape from you"  

The water is deep  roiling and moiling
The reeds in darkness  spread and sway 
Here fearless horsemen  fought to the death
Their weary mounts  still pace and neigh 

"They've built guardposts at the bridge 
Now the people can't go north 
And the people can't go south 
We want to be loyal — but how?  
How can we harvest the grain how can our master eat? 
We hoped to be loyal subjects but what can we do now?" 

"I think of you — my faithful subjects 
My faithful men — how could I not? 
At dawn — you set off to attack 
Night fell — you never came back" 

The Original, with transcription of Late Han pronunciation:

戰城南     tɕanh dʑeŋ nǝm 
死郭北     siɁ kuɑk pək
野死不葬烏可食 jaɁ siɁ pu tsɑŋh Ɂɑ kʰɑiɁ ʑiǝk

為我謂烏    wɑih ŋɑiɁ wǝs Ɂɑ
且為客豪    tsʰiaɁ wɑih kʰak gɑu
野死諒不葬   jaɁ siɁ liɑŋh puh tsɑŋh
腐肉安能去子逃 puoɁ ɲuk Ɂɑn nəŋ kʰiɑh tsiəh dɑu

水深激激    ɕuiɁ ɕim kǝk kǝk
蒲葦冥冥    bɑ wuiɁ meŋ meŋ
梟騎戰鬥死   keu giɑih tɕanh toh siɁ
駑馬裴回鳴   nɑ maɁ pui ɣuəi mieŋ

梁築室     liɑŋ ʈuk ɕit 
何以南     gɑi jəɁ nəm 
北     gɑi jǝɁ pǝk
禾黍而穫君何食 guɑi ɕɑɁ ɲə ɣuɑk kun gɑi ʑiǝk
願為忠臣安可得 ŋionh wɑih ʈuŋ gin Ɂɑn kʰɑiɁ tək

思子良臣    siə tsiəh liɑŋ gin
良臣誠可思   liɑŋ gin dʑeŋ kʰɑiɁ siə
朝行出攻    ʈɑu gɑŋ tɕʰus koŋ
莫不夜歸    mɑk pu jas kui

Lera Yanysheva: On Her Own (From Russian Romani)

On Her Own
By Lera Yanysheva
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

I sit at home and on my own.
I'd hoped to start a family.
The men said I was quite a lady
But years have had their way with me.

My little sisters are still young.
My baby brother is a kid.
My mother has been dead for years.
My father is an invalid.

God, what am I supposed to do?
I can't just leave them on their own.
Who else will put bread on the table?
Who else can work? It's me alone.

I did have men propose to me.
My father wouldn't let me though —
"I'm begging you: stay for the children.
We'll end up starving if you go."

The tears keep running down like water,
A fire has burned my heart clean through.
I'm no young woman anymore.
My darling, lover, where are you?

It's pointless. I can't be with you
When I have got this family.
And I have got to think of them.
The household has no head but me.

It's awful but sometimes I think of 
Running off with a gadjo man!
You girls are raising your own girls now
And I'm stuck at a market-stand.

Here men all look at me with pity
And mutter "goddamn tragedy"
And my black hair begins to whiten.
Here I am getting...elderly.

The tears keep running hot as water
Oh God! What could I do but give....
I'm old now, after what I've lived through, 
But never had a life to live. 

The Original:

Лера Янышева

Бэшав дро кхэр мэ екхджины    
Мэ палором ґара камава.
Сарэ ракирнас: мэ раны
Нэ о бэрша мирэ прастана.

Сы мандэ тыкнорэ пхэня
И мандэ пшал сы набаро.
О дай мири ґара мэя,
Э дад пхуро сы насвало.

Со ж мангэ Дэвла тэ кэрав?
Семьятыр тэ уджяв нашты.
Янава мэ кхэрэ тэ хав.
Мэ екхджины кэрав буты.

Рома явнэ кэ мэ сватэнца.
На отмэктя ман дад миро:
«Мангава тут мэ чяворэнца,
Амэнгэ битыро пхаро».

Ясва прастана сыр паны,
Ягаса о ило хачёл.
И мэ ґара на сом тэрны.
Кай, кайжэ ту, миро лачё?

Да, палэ тутэ мэ на джява,
Ведь мандэ семица бари.
И палэ лэн мэ думинава,
Ведь мэ дро семья хуланы.

Чяялэ, ладжяво признаться,
Гаджеса мэ бы унастём!
Сарэ чяя барэ чявэнца
А мэ про тарго ходиндём.

Сарэ рома пэ ман дыкхэна,
Пхэнэн, со мэ бибахталы.
Мирэ калэ бала парнёна,
Тэ и кана мэ пхураны.

Ясва прастана сыр паны.
О Дэвла! Семья захая!
И мэ дыкхав, со мэ пхури.
О джиипэн захасия!
Lera Janîševa

Bešav dro kher me jekhdžinî,
Me palorom ghara kamáva.
Sare rakírnas me ranî,
Ne o berša mire prastána.

Sî mánde tîknoré phenja
I mánde pšal sî nabaro.
O daj miri ghara meja.
E dad phuro sî nasvalo.

So ž mánge Dévla te kerav?
Sjemjátîr te udžav naštî.
Janáva me khere te xav.
Me jekhdžinî kerav butî.

Roma javne ke me svaténca.
Na otmektja man dad miro:
"Mangáva tut me čavorénca,
Aménge bitîró pharo."

Jasva prastána sîr panî,
Jagása o ilo xačol.
I me ghara na som ternî.
Kaj, kaj že tu, miro lačo?

Da, pále túte me na džáva,
Vjedj mánde sjémjica bari.
I pále len me dumináva,
Vjedj me dro sjémja xulanî.

Čajále, ladžavo priznátsa,
Gadžésa me bî unastjom.
Sare čaja bare čavénca,
A me pro tárgo xodindjom.

Sare roma pe man dîkhéna,
Phenen, so me bibaxtalî.
Mire kale bala parnjóna,
Te i kana me phuranî.

Jasva prastána sîr panî.
O, Dévla! Sjémja zaxaja!
I me dîkháv, so me phuri.
O džiipen zaxasija!

Meir Ariel: Jerusalem of Iron (From Hebrew)

Some Israeli song lyrics for a change of pace.

Inspired by the Six Day War and Ariel's experience in the Battle of Jerusalem, these are alternative lyrics to the tune of Naomi Shemer's "Jerusalem of Gold."

Jerusalem of Iron
By Meir Ariel
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Jerusalem there in your darkness 
We found a loving heart,
When we invaded your invaders
To make your borders ours. 
We'd had enough of blasted mortars,
When suddenly dawn bled.
The sun came up, no time to whiten.
It was already red.

O my Jerusalem of iron 
Of dark and lead, can you not see? 
No wailing at your wall now!
We set you free!

Our shelled battalion charged on forward  
All blood and smoke and guns
As mothers ran out grieving, leaving
The corpses of their sons. 
Lips bitten bloody, our battalion
Kept fighting, pushing through,
Till proud above that holy graveyard
The flag of David flew.

O my Jerusalem of iron 
Of dark and lead, can you not see? 
No wailing at your wall now!
We set you free!

The sniper nests have all been silenced
All the king's men laid low,
So we can go to the Dead Sea now 
By way of Jericho.
We can go see the Temple Mount now, 
Visit the Western Wall. 
Yes here you are almost all golden
In twilit evening-fall.

O my Jerusalem of Gold
Of lead and iron and of dreams
Within your walls forever
Let there be peace

The Original:

ירושלים של ברזל 
מאיר אריאל

במחשכיך ירושלים 
מצאנו לב אוהב 
עת באנו להרחיב גבוליך 
ולמגר אויב 
מקול מרגמותיו רווינו 
ושחר קם פתאום - 
הוא רק עלה, עוד לא הלבין הוא 
וכבר היה אדום 

ירושלים של ברזל 
ושל עופרת ושל שחור 
הלא לחומותייך 
קראנו דרור 

הגדוד, רגום, פרץ קדימה, 
דם ועשן כולו 
ובאו אמא אחר אמא 
בקהל השכולות 
נושך שפתיו ולא בלי יגע, 
הוסיף הגדוד ללחום 
עד שסוף סוף הוחלף הדגל 
מעל בית הנכות 

ירושלים של ברזל... 

נפוצו כל גדודי המלך, 
צלף - נדם צריחו 
עכשיו אפשר אל ים המלח 
בדרך יריחו 
עכשיו אפשר אל הר הבית 
וכותל מערב 
הנה הנך באור ערביים, 
כמעט כולך זהב 

ירושלים של זהב 
ושל עופרת וחלום - 
לעד בין חומותיך 
ישכון שלום

Lera Yanysheva: St. Petersburg (From Russian Romani)

This poem is based on real events. Since 2003, Romani neighborhoods in and on the outskirts of St. Petersburg have been repeatedly attacked by Neo-Nazi skinhead groups, with the reaction of the police and the public seldom rising above indifference. For more thoughts on the poem, see the note after the translation.

St. Petersburg
By Lera Yanysheva
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

I wander down the road he liked to stroll down all the time, 
And there I see the shop he used to stop in every day. 
Then God do I feel sick. My heart's all shredded. Why? 
Why did you have to take my little boy away? 
              God oh God!

We lived an honest life  
           but you of course would know.
Everyone knows he'd not hurt anyone.  
               He was too sweet. 
For two weeks he was laid up in a coma  
                and then...Oh    
God! He was twenty..... 
            and the skinheads jumped him in the street. 

I crawled across the floors of all your churches on my knees,  
Groveling while my boy lay in that hospital,   
And stayed up for his sake each night to offer you more pleas.   
Why? Answer now! Why did you just ignore it all! 
              God oh God!

I'd dreamt of my son's wedding day, of welcoming a wife. 
Instead I got prepared for him to die...and now today.... 
O Blessed Virgin, what on earth still justifies my life? 
You...you know what it's like to lose your son this way. 
              God oh God!

I press my palms against the shop's display glass...no more pleas,  
Just thinking: how could I deserve what you have done? 
Then I look over at the Metro exit and....I freeze.. 
I'm losing it. I could have sworn that was my son.  

I grew up here, got married here, and found a calling here  
Singing to their applause. The times were good to me.  
Yesterday, God I held this Russian city dear. 
Today, it's got a beauty that I cannot stand to see. 
              God oh God.

Thoughts on the poem

The poem seems like an anti-prayer, an anti-litany. It is the voice of a woman who does not ask for intercession, because she has learned there is no point. The refrain O Dévlale "Oh God" uttered with shades of despair, accusation and incomprehension, builds up an almost ritualistic charge — reminiscent of formulae such as (in their English versions) "Grant This Oh Lord" or "To Thee Oh Lord" which punctuate the supplications of a Christian litany. But this poem does not supplicate. It is done supplicating.

It has a liturgical air to it in some ways, but it is quite unliturgical. Being in Romani, it is as far removed as can be from the Slavonicism with which the religious register has articulated itself in Russian literature. The religious terms are all Romani. (Even Yanysheva's own Russian translation of this poem is almost completely bare of Slavonicisms except for things like the name of the Blessed Virgin, and elements which are part of the spoken language — even the address to the divine O Bože ž Moj has the distinctly un-liturgical emphatic particle inserted, as if to say "Oh God" not so much in plaintive address, but with accusation, disappointment.)

It puts me in mind of Job turning to God one more time and saying "no, seriously, what the fuck?" I could fill this post with ways in which it reminds me of Job. Take passages like "yet my hands have been free of violence and my prayer is pure" or the way in which Job's debate with his acquaintances (who insist he must have done something to deserve his fate, despite Job and God knowing otherwise) finds a parallel in the common assumption that Roma must be guilty of something, though of course God sees the truth of matters — as this poem in fact states. I'm not saying it's necessarily a conscious allusion to Job. I don't know if it is. But they are of a kind in their misotheism.

It also works subtly as an antagonistic dialogue with the life of Christ as related in Christian mythology. The exclamations echo, not in phrasing so much as in their narrative context, Christ's words on the cross and in Gethsemane. The speaker points out in none-too-subtle terms what she and the Virgin Mary have in common. When she thinks sees her son alive stepping out of the Metro (i.e. coming up from underground) in a moment of confusion which makes her question her own sanity, it is a kind of non-Resurrection which turns the myth of Christ's Resurrection on its head. If the point of miracles is to make one believe, this un-miracle serves to make her even less sure of what she can believe.

The speaker of this poem — after calling out like Job, but receiving no such answer as he did — turns at the end of the poem to the city of St. Petersburg, and by extension the nation which it represents, implying that these people wouldn't have done a damn to help Jesus himself, anymore than they did to stop these Nazis. The story of Christ and of the Christian God rings hollow. So too can the beauty of the titular city itself no longer be anything but intolerable to look at. (The Romani text literally says she cannot look upon beauty, without specifying whose beauty or of what sort, or whether it's beauty in general. Yanysheva's Russian translation of this poem, however, makes the thrust of the final line more clear-cut.) All St. Petersburg's beauty, and all the wonderful memories it has given her, are now belied by the seediness, callousness and inhumanity it harbors. Like the Christian God, if He even exists, St. Petersburg itself is cruelly unfeeling. In the final direct second person apostrophe in the penultimate stanza, when the speaker says palso že mánca 'djáke tu kerdjan? "Why did you do something like this to me?" it is not entirely clear whom, or what, she addresses. This place, this city, was her home in every sense of the word. It, too, has forsaken her.

Many of Yanysheva's poems, like this one, have iambic lines varying in length, generally between pentameters, hexameters and heptameters (though this is a rule of thumb — this poem, for example, has no pentameters, and there is one line of octameter.) It is the rhyme-scheme and iambic pulse which maintain regularity. It has the effect, to my admittedly unqualified ear, of making the lines seem more speech-like, contracting and expanding to accommodate the flow of speech. Though it can fragment speech-flow as well by running purposefully out of joint with it, as in the second stanza here where this is given visual, typographic manifestation.  

The Original:
Лера Янышева

Гэём дромэ́са мэ, одо́й псирдя́н мро чяворо́. 
Дыкхав пэ ба́нза мэ, кари́к заджя́лас ка́жно дэс. 
О Дэ́влалэ… Ило́ миро́ дукха́л. Палсо́? 
Палсо́ ж на ачядя́н ту ма́нгэ чяворэ́с? 
              О Дэ́влалэ!

Сарэ́ амэ́ джидя́м патывалэ́с. 
            Ведь ту дыкхья́н!
И никонэ́скэ налачё ёв на кэрдя́. 
              Джинэ́н сарэ́!
А дэшуду́й дывэ́с ёв сыс дрэ ко́ма… 
Биш бэршорэ́ чявэ́скэ сыс… 
           скины́ лэс замардэ́!

Пир кхангирья́ сарэ́ мэ пэ чянгэ́ндэ прогэём, 
Коли́ миро́ чяво́ дрэ да больни́ца пасия́. 
Сарэ́ ратя́ палэ чявэ́стэ думиндём. 
Палсо́ ту ман — нэ, пхэн — палсо́ на ушундя́? 
              О Дэ́влалэ!

Сыр мэ камьём о бьяв чявэ́скэ тэ кэра́в! 
А вме́сто адава́ дужакирдя́ лэс мэрибэ́н. 
Пхэн, Ма́схари — вашсо́ про свэ́то тэ джива́в? 
Ведь ту джинэ́с, сыр нашавэ́на чяворэ́н, 
              О Дэ́влалэ!

Мэ по банза́кри фэ́нчтра о васта́ тходём 
И думина́в — палсо́ жэ ма́нца ’дя́кэ ту кэрдя́н? 
И по вуда́р метро́стыр мэ дыкха́в и замэём… 
Сыр насвалы́ — на чяворо́-ль миро́ выджя́л?.. 

Ада́й выбариём тай палоро́м мэ выгэём 
Гадже́нгэ багандём. Мэ со́мас бахталы́… 
Сыр я́да фо́ро, Дэ́вла, атася́ камьём. 
Ададывэ́с пэ гожипэ́н мэ тэ дыкха́в нашты́, 
              О Дэ́влалэ! 

Lera Janîševa

Gejom dromésa me, odoj psirdjan mro čavoro. 
Dîkháv pe bánza me, karik zadžálas kážno des. 
O Dévlale...Ilo miro dukhal. Palso? 
Palso ž na ačadjan tu mánge čavores? 
               O Dévlale!

Sare ame džidjam patîvalés. 
           Vjedj tu dîkhján!
I nikonéske nalačo jov na kerdja. 
              Džinen sare!
A dešuduj dîvés jov sîs dre kóma... 
Biš beršore čavéske sîs.... 
          skinî les zamarde!

Pir khangirja sare me pe čangénde progejom, 
Koli miro čavo dre da boljníca pasija. 
Sare ratja pale čavéste dumindjom. 
Palso tu man — ne, phen — palso na ušundja? 
              O Dévlale!

Sîr me kamjom o bjav čavéske te kerav! 
A vmjésto adava dužakirdja-les meriben. 
Phen, Másxari — vašso pro svéto te dživav? 
Vjedj tu džines, sîr našavéna čavoren, 
              O Dévlale!

Me po banzákri fénčtra o vasta thodjom 
I duminav — palso že mánca 'djáke tu kerdjan? 
I po vudar metróstîr me dîkháv i zamejom... 
Sîr nasvalî — na čavoro-lj miro vîdžál?.. 

Adaj vîbarijóm taj palorom me vîgejóm 
Gadžénge bagandjom. Me sómas baxtalî... 
Sîr jáda fóro, Dévla, atasja kamjom. 
Adadîvés pe gožîpén me te dîkháv naštî, 
              O Dévlale! 

Lilith Mazikina: "The Years Flow By..." (From Romani)

"The years flow by..."
By Lilith Mazikina
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

The years flow by like water through hands, 
From the girl I was to the woman I am.
Now I'm the one with her own girls, see!
What thief filched all my youth from me? 
Whoever it was...I hope he has fun. 
There at my window — the dark birds come. 
I open the window — shoo them away.
How far ahead is the bone-cold rain?
It's all without you! "Forget him" they insisted.
What sister forgets her brother existed?

The Original:
For reasons explained on this page, all Cyrillic Romani texts I translate are accompanied by transcription in Roman characters. 
Бэрша прастан - вастэндыр паны.
Мэ сомас чяй - мэ ячьём ромны;
кокорьятэ, дыкх, акана чяя.
Тэрныпэ миро со за чёр чёрдя?
Саво чёрдя - мэк лэнца кхэлэл...
Пал окностэ - калэ чириклэ;
откэрава фэнштра, криго традав.
Кицык ангил шудрэ брышында? -
сарэ битыро! "Забистэр", пхэнэн.
Нэ сыр пшалэс забистрэла - пхэн?     

Berša prastan — vasténdîr panî.
Me sómas čaj — me jačom romnî
Kokorjáte, dîkh, akana čaja.
Ternîpé miro so za čor čordja?
Savo čordja — mek lénca khelel...
Pal oknóste — kale čirikle;
Otkeráva fénštra, krígo tradav.
Kícîk angil šudre brîšîndá?
Sare bitîró! Zabister, phenen.
Ne sîr pšales zabistréla — phen?

Lera Yanysheva: Lullabye For Her Blood (From Russian Romani)

Lullabye For Her Blood
By Lera Yanysheva
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

The wolves in leafy woods are sleeping.
Rockabye baby, day is done.
Horses are sleeping, birds are dreaming.  
So sleep you snug sweet angel son. 

Just close your eyes for bedtime baby
And oh don't cry I'm begging you.
Or else you'll wake your sleeping papa...
And then what am I going to do? 

My shining sun, God how I love you,
My blessing and my saving grace,
I'm begging you, please don't start crying
Or he will come and break my face. 

His mother will burst in with curses
"Dumb outland tramp! Don't let him yell!"   
She'll hiss "Well? Do something goddammit. 
The poor thing's bawling bloody hell." 

I'm asking you on bended knees now,
Dear little apple of my eye,
Just shut your mouth for mama, sweetie.
Hush little baby. Don't you cry. 

Don't make the neighbors hear him beat me.   
I am so tired, sweet shining sun.
It's almost time to head to market.
So please, sweet dreams now, little one. 

The gadje are asleep till morning.
The lambs and chickens rest in peace.
The young and old are off to dreamland.
No one's awake but the police.

The Original:
For reasons explained on this page, all Cyrillic Romani texts I translate are accompanied by transcription in Roman characters. 

Ратуны Гилы
Лера Янышева

Дро вэш рува́ сарэ́ сутэ́,
Бай-бай, миро́ ту гудлоро́.
Совэ́н грая́ тай чириклэ́.
Сов, чяворо́ совнакуно́!

Закэ́р якха́, миро́ бэя́то,
И на дэ го́дла, тут манга́в.
Тэ ушунэ́л тут тыро́ да́до.
Со ту́са ма́нгэ тэ кэра́в?

Ту кхам миро́, мэ тут кама́ва,
Ту бахт миро́ и камлыпэ́н.
Но на дэ го́дла тут манга́ва,
Ведь ма́нгэ муй ёв розмарэ́л.

Сасу́й явэ́ла тэ кошэ́л ман.
«Лахыйка», — ма́нгэ ёй пхэнэ́л.  
«Ну кэр же варе-со май сы́го,
Бэя́то чёрорро рове́л!»

Мэ по чянга мангав дриван тут,
Тырда́ва мэ кэ ту васта́:
Закэ́р же муй, миро́ ту чяво,
Нэ сов же, сы́го, колбаса!

На кэр сканда́лицо дрэ се́мья.
Сыр кхиныём, мро кхаморо́.
Тэ джяв про та́рго уже вре́мя.
Сов дэвлорэ́са, чяворо́!

Сарэ́ гадже́ сутэ́ ратя́са,
Каґня́ совэ́на тай бакрэ́.
Тэрнэ́, пхурэ́ сунэ́ дыкхэ́на,
Екх халадэ́ нанэ́ сутэ́.

Ratunî Gilî
Lera Janîševa

Dro veš ruva sare sute
Baj-baj, miro tu gudloro.
Soven graja taj čirikle.
Sov, čavoro sovnakuno!

Zaker jakha, miro bejáto
I ná de gódla, tut mangav.
Te ušunel tut tîró dádo.
So túsa mánge te kerav?

Tu kham miro, me tut kamáva,
tu baxt miro i kamlîpén.
No ná de gódla tut mangáva,
Vjedj mánge muj jov rozmarel.

Sasuj javéla te košel man.
"Laxîjka" mánge joj phenel.
"Nu ker že vareso maj sîgo,
Bejáto čororro rovel!"

Me po čanga mangav drivan tut
Tîrdáva me ke tu vasta:
Zaker že muj, miro tu čávo,
Ne sov že, sîgo, kolbasa!

Na ker skandálico dre sjémja.
Sîr khinîjóm, mro khamoro.
Te džav pro tárgo uže vrjémja.
Sov devlorésa, čavoro!

Sare gadže sute ratjása
Kaghnja sovéna taj bakre.
Terne, phure sune dîkhéna,
Jekh xalade nane sute.


Ratunî Gilî: the literal title could be read either as "Night Song" or as "Blood(y) Song." (Rat in the singular nominative means "night" when feminine, and "blood" when masculine, representing the phonologically merged reflex of two originally distinct Indic words.) The only sense for ratuno which lexicons give in North Russian Romani is "bloody" — which is also the only primary sense I've seen it used in, in this dialect. Ratuno does however mean "nocturnal" in many — perhaps most— other Romani dialects.

Stanza 1:
Note — the assonances, multiple internal rhymes, and other phonetic echoes in this stanza. E.g. dro vruvá and sov, čavoró sovnakunó. It contributes to a musical mood in the opening, and almost demands to be sung. (The word čavo takes initial stress in the vocative čávo, as it does here. So too would čavoro have a vocative čávoro — at least according to reference materials I've consulted. Though the poet's text, where stress is marked, seems not to envision this.)

Stanza 2:
Note — the echoes here and later, of mangav(a) "I ask, I demand" and mánge, the dative form of the first person singular pronoun.
Line 3: tîró dádo is how I might have predicted the line would be stressed. Though the poet marks accentuation as tî́ro dádo. Presumably it is poetic license, or perhaps a low-level prosodic rule is operating (of the same kind that in American English causes the end-stressed Tenessée to have its accent shifted back in Ténessee State University to avoid accent-clash.)
The last line literally reads "what am I to do with you?" in Romani. For this line I borrowed from Yanysheva's Russian version, for no other reason than that I liked how it worked in English.

Stanza 3:
kamlîpén: perhaps also meant to echo khamlîpén "sweat"?

This stanza is the only one where the rhyme joining lines 2 and 4 is approximate — the two lines end in different consonants. They both end in a sonorant however, and are compensated for by the perfect -ava rhyme in the same stanza. Still, this interruption in rhyming has the effect of signaling a disjointedness, a wrongness, which is completely in keeping with this stanza's role in fully shifting from singsong lyricism to verse of a much more disturbing nature. It's jarring, and I think that's the point, as the word bearing the inexact rhyme is rozmarel "breaks, smashes open." Had the poet wished to have a full rhyme, she could have easily found one. Rhyming in Romani, as in Russian, is fairly easy thanks to the inflectional morphology.

Stanza 4:

Sasuj javéla te košel man: it isn't entirely clear to me how to read this, whether javéla takes its full semantic force and means "come" or is just an auxiliary verb. The poet's own Russian version doesn't settle this, though it does make me feel, at the very least, that I'm not gravely defacing the poem by translating javéla as a verb of motion.

Bejáto čororro rovel! : The bulk of the poem is in pretty normal North Russian Romani. However, the words attributed to the mother-in-law in this stanza seem to shift into a slightly different dialect. Or at least, a different accent. The doubled r of čororro implies a dialect which preserves the two different rhotics of Early Romani — which North Russian Romani does not, but some other dialects spoken in and near Russia do. Perhaps we're not meant to know which dialect exactly, only that it's different. The other possibility — one that I seems more and more plausible as I think about it — is that the form čororro (instead of čororo) is just a misprint, in which case I've overinterpreted to ridiculous extremes.
The term Laxîjka I was unsure about. I take it as being related to other terms in other dialects like Crimean laxînka and assume it has the sense "Rom woman from somewhere else" and having a pejorative tone as befits the fact that the mother-in-law is košel-ing her.
I'm not clear on what implication to take from this. My sense is that the woman voiced by the poem has married into some Romani family from elsewhere, far from where her own family lives — and is thus cut off from the sort of close-knit Romani kinship network she would have be able to rely upon for succor if she were among "her own."

Stanza 7:
gadže: gadje being to Roms as goyim are to Jews. I couldn't find a way to get around simply using the word "gadje" here.

The implication here is either (a) she knows the gadjo police won't care so they might as well not exist, or (b) that the police might hear, or that someone might call them, and that that would only bring further misery, since whatever she suffers — or is worried about suffering — at her husband's hands, this woman knows it isn't half as bad as what would happen, presumably to the entire family, if the police got involved.

Lilith Mazikina: "Asphalt melts under my sole" (From Russian)

"Asphalt melts under my sole..."
By Lilith Mazikina
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Asphalt melts under my soles,
Runs hot beneath my feet.
A pack of house-cats calls
For mother in loud clear pleas.    
I open up to the breeze
To get drunk with the sun.
I'd learned to give up believing
That summer again would come. 

The Original:

Тает асфальт под подошвой,
плавится под шагами.
Стаи дворовых кошек
звонко просятся к маме.
Я раскрываюсь ветру -
чтобы напиться солнца.
Я разучилась верить,
что лето ещё вернётся.

Santino Spinelli: Roundup (From Abruzzese Romani)

And another from Spinelli...

By Santino Spinelli
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

A bang on the door in the long dead of night,
disciplined hounds with long fierce teeth,
assault rifles raised in a face half-asleep
sleep smashed dream gashed night-terrors awake;
black uniforms cool cruel eyes
hatred revulsion and heinous slander
punishing windstorm innocent eyes...
the door banged shut a dream pulled apart
tears on the ground...gutted hearts.

The Original:


Ni dàb ki vuddàr andrè i barì ràt
dànd barè di ǧiukèl mardè,
ni putinì a katàr pru muj sovaddò
sunò dukkaddò sunò trašianò;
kalè jurvibbè kià ǧiungalè
nafèl bi mištipè doš barì,
bar bravàl kià laččè...
a vuddàr pandindì ni sunò ningaddò
rovibbè pri pù... jilè čindè.

Notes on the Romani:

baro: the adjective occurs three times, in different senses — the first in barì ràt (one of a handful of multi-word idioms in Romani which actually can be traced to India) meaning idiomatically"the dead of night, the middle of the night" (literally, the long/big night), and again in dànd barè "big teeth" referring to the hounds' terrifying teeth. And then in doš barì where its meaning is more abstract.

Sunò: this word which, in common Romani can mean either "dream" or "sleep", appears three times each with a different spin. The dream one was living in, the nightmare one wakes up to, the sleep of unawareness reft away....it is all of these things.

kià: metathesized form of common Romani jakha.

Nafèl bi mištipè: perhaps a subversion of a sugary mištipè binafèl?

Doš barì: a very polyvalent phrase. I suppose "great injury" might be another way to translate it. Doš can mean a number of things including injury, misconduct, misdeed, flaw, sin. But it seems like the sense of falsification is to the point — and Spinelli clearly thought so in his self-translation. 

Lera Yanysheva: Paganini (From Russian Romani)

Valeria "Lera" Yanysheva is an actress, singer and dancer (formerly?) affiliated with the Moscow Romen theater. She also showed herself a poet when, 8 years ago, she put out a small collection of verse in Romani — in various dialects thereof — accompanied by free translations into Russian. The collection, titled Adadîvés i Atasja "Today and Yesterday" contains so much to cut one's teeth on. (You can download it here.)

She is one of the more brilliant poets I have happened upon in a long time — in any language. Her exploration of Romani dialectal variety is a major innovative achievement for Romani literature. The way she deploys it allows for effects that are untranslatable (or rather, can only be translated badly.) In some ways it puts me in mind of the dialectal experimentations of Rudyard Kipling (in his Barrack room Ballads) or Paul Laurence Dunbar and Margaret Walker (who wrote their best poetry in Black English.) In other ways, though, the way she uses dialects, and dialect shifts, to actually tell part of the story, is harder to find analogues for in English. Her self-translations into Russian, which she herself admits not to thinking as highly of, are nonetheless interesting. They sometimes contrast strikingly with the corresponding Romani texts in ways, and are fully deserving in every way of the Russian appellation (which I think English should steal) of Xudóžestvennyie Perevódy "artistic translations." Still, it is in Romani that she interests me more.

Some Russian Romani poets I have read seem to be unsure of what to do with the language as they find it — they're finding their footing. Yanysheva seems to have a sure sense of what she can, and wants to, do in Romani, and she does it in a way that stands apart from a lot of contemporary poetry. She is seldom self-consciously "poetic" and in fact the poem translated here is about as close as she gets. (Unlike Nada Braidic and some other Romani poets, she does not compose bilingually, or compose in the majority language and then translate into Romani. She says, in one message board post, that she produced Russian versions of the poems in Adadîvés i Atasja only after the collection was complete, and I get the impression she only produced them because she had to.)

Adadîvés i Atasja does not feel like a "first book." Nobody, however talented, gets this good without practice. These poems are the result of considered craft, an extremely keen sensitivity to language. Romani in her hands is a fine instrument. Sometimes she has a way of making every word seem like exactly the right word in exactly the right place. I wind up saying sometimes "how did you even think of that?" She can wring an entire conceptual universe out of the multiple meanings of a single verb — something Romani is particularly ripe for. She can write in the manner of a lullaby that shifts into gritty and terrifying realism, and when she mocks someone she is both merciless and absolutely hilarious. It is worth learning to read a language simply in order to be able to read poetry like this in it. Her gritty and dark sense of irony is striking as is the keen sense of detail that allows her to evoke enormous amounts by mentioning just the right thing in two or three words.

Seriously —this, this right here. Poetry like this should not be allowed to remain obscure. This poem, about writing in Romani, seems to be a fitting starting point to begin translating her.

The postscript to her collection reads:
Насколько я знаю, цыганский народ равнодушен к поэзии. Принимая это как данность, я всё же попыталась написать стихи, которые были бы интересны самим цыганам. Мне хотелось, чтобы в этой мозаике характеров люди узнавали черты своих знакомых. При самом лучшем раскладе цыганские читатели вообще забыли бы, что это поэзия. Всё должно выглядеть просто как интересная история. И если вы добрались до последней страницы, то, наверное, это у меня получилось. 
As far as I know, the Gypsy people are indifferent to poetry. Taking this as a given fact, I nonetheless tried to write poetry which might interest Gypsies themselves. I wanted people to recognize in that mosaic of characters the traits of people they knew. The best-case scenario would be for Gypsy readers to completely forget that this is poetry. Everything ought to simply seem an interesting story. If they made it to the last page then I've probably achieved that. 
This seems only half of it. She often does tell a story in an indirect way. Most of her poems read like soliloquies, or are put in the mouths of characters, and are meant to draw you into the world the character inhabits — a world where you learn something, and one which is often based on reality. She is, however, also manipulating language in an extremely non-generic way. Stories she indeed tells, but she has more to say than the paraphrasable content of a story. She demonstrates with the very material of language, rather than narrating. Language is not just dialogue or soliloquy but also her stage her props. She reminds me in some ways of the darker side of Rosalía de Castro, though with much more realism. She has Edwin Arlington Robinson's sense of theatrical character-building, but her language is much more straightforward.

The poem translated here is actually somewhat atypical and unrepresentative of how she generally operates. It does not tell a story. It doesn't seem to be in the voice of a character, really. It's also short. However it repays close reading and close consideration of individual words, and it has a programmatic feel to it.

I include the poet's own Russian self-translation of this poem for interest's sake. For more on that see below. I've used two non-standard English words in my translation, taken from the English spoken in Scotland and Northern England — both of which are ultimately of Romani origin, and one of which I use as a translation of its own Romani cognate. For more ponderments and wonderments about the poem, again, see below.

By Lera Yanysheva
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click here to hear me recite the original Romani

The people crowded in to hear great Paganini's solo,
But crooked gadgies found his violin and chibbed its gut,  
Cut every string but one...so on one string the virtuoso
Played — and no one could tell the strings were cut. 

Our gypsy language is word-poor? Maybe. 
For every thousand words that others have, we've maybe one. 
But if you are cut out for verse in Romani, 
A Paganini is what you become. 

The Original:
For reasons explained on this page, all Cyrillic Romani texts I translate are accompanied by transcription in Roman characters. 

Лера Янышева

Скэдэ́нпэ тэ шунэ́н о Пагани́ни мануша́,
А лэ́скэ налаче́ гадже́ о стру́ны риськирдэ́.
Ачья́пэ то́ко екх... Нэ ёв адя́кэ башадя́.
Со стру́ны риськирдэ́, нико́н на ґалынэ́!

Чиб романы́ набарвалы́ лавэ́са.
Гадже́ндэ кай тысе́нца — е́кх лав амаро́.
Нэ ко́ли сти́хи романэ́ чинэ́са,
Сыр Пагани́ни яв ту, дру́гицо миро́!

Lera Janîševa

Skedénpe te šunen o Paganíni manuša,
A léske nalače gadže o strúnî risjkirde.
Ačápe tóko jekh...ne jov adjáke bašadja.
So strúnî risjkirdé, nikon na ghalîné!

Čib romanî nabarvalî lavésa.
Gadžénde kaj tîsjénca — jekh lav amaro.
Ne kóli stíxi romane činésa,
Sîr Paganíni jav tu, drúgico miro!

Russian Translation by the Poet:

Лера Янышева
Click to hear the Russian

Набился слушать Паганини полный зал.
Вдруг видит он, что струны оборвали.
Одна осталась. Но маэстро так сыграл!
Что струны порваны, никто не понял в зале…

Словами небогат язык цыганский.
На тыщу русских слов — у нас всего одно.
Но коли ты стихи писать собрался,
О Паганини вспомнишь всё равно.


The story the poem draws from is not actually true. Paganini never played on only a single string. He did however play with broken strings on occasion. But this was because he broke them intentionally, the better to display his virtuosity on stage. One wonders, in light of the multiple meaning of činésa whether that's part of the point, and the falsity is thus a savvy one. The metaphor still works however you slice it, though, if you consider that no Romani-speaker is monolingual (and probably few if any have ever been, since the arrival of the Roms in Europe); every poet who does compose in Romani does so by choice, since they could well have simply used the majority language.

Yanysheva's decision (or rather the implementation of her decision) to write in Romani, and then adapt her poems to Russian, brings out extraordinary virtuosity on several levels. Here she completely subverts and undercuts part of the overt statement of the poem, about the poverty of Romani. Činel means "cut down, mow down" as well as "write", and "play (an instrument.)" It is related to the word čindlî "violin" — Paganini's instrument. A single word is all she needs to tie the act of writing Romani to the cutting of strings, to evoke the metaphor of versewright as craftsman chipping away at a work, to highlight the link between poetry and music, and in so doing subvert also the idea that merely a large vocabulary (and of a particular type at that) can be equated with how rich a language is. For here the richness and texture of the poem comes not from having multiple words meaning closely related but different things, but rather from having a single word mean so many extremely different things at once — each of which adds a different shade of sense to the poem. Many notes are wrung out of a single word, much like Paganini's single string. The material she deploys for her master-stroke is a specific resource afforded by Romani. If Romani were really so poor and so unsuited to linguistic art, the poem suggests, then its very existence would not be possible.

It does seem to me that polysemy is an especial richness at the Romani-writing poet's disposal. Using words (e.g. čhinel, them, doš) with wide semantic ranges in ways that bring different parts of that semantic range to light at different times is not something exclusive to Romani writers, obviously, but it does seem — in my unabashedly and almost comically non-expert and amateur opinion — to be somewhat more characteristic of Romani poetry compared with the literatures with which it is in contact. But I can't say anything beyond that. There is still much I have yet to understand, and I don't want to get carried away.

In my translation, I thought about using a loan from Angloromani "chiv", to do the same sort of heavy duty as činel does in Yanysheva's poem. Angloromani "chiv" is the merged reflex of a number of different Romani etyma, with meanings as various as live, tongue, language, cut, put, knife and write. (Serendipitously, one of the merged roots it represents is actually related to Romani činel. It's where we get the word "shiv" meaning "improvised stabbing weapon, shank" as well as the Northern English dialectal verb "to chib" used in my translation.) However, I ultimately decided against it. With some regret. It felt too much like a really great joke that would be ruined by having to explain it to everybody afterward.

Still, I felt it worthwhile to use some words of Romani origin (such as gadgie "man, fellow", and chib meaning "slash, stab") which have made their way into dialectal English. There are many ways for a language to be rich after all, and the evocative richness of the Romani lexicon has contributed to that of English, particularly spoken English in Northern England. It is after all to Romani that English is indebted for such terms as pal, posh, lollipop, nark and hanky-panky (as Russian is for words such as lavé "cash, dough" čuvák "dude, dawg" tyrít' "to filch, make off with" and laža "shitshow on ice, load of bullshit.") Poor in words? Maybe in some sense. But not the sense that matters. Words themselves can be rich, or poor, in sense and evocation.

The original is a Romani poem addressed to a fellow Rom; it is advice given to a good friend (drúgico miro), telling him — or rather demonstrating to him — that the perceived "lexical poverty" of Romani should not deter him from writing in that language, perhaps also reminding him — with the image of the string-slashers — that it is others who would set limits on what Roms and their language can do. She shows him that the importance of the difference is more apparent than actual, that if he writes in Romani, and is up to the challenge, he can even take those seeming weaknesses and show them — as she shows them — to be potential points of strength.

I have given Yanysheva's Russian version of the poem after the Romani text though the Romani text is obviously the basis for my translation.

If the Romani poem is addressed to a Rom, the Russian translation seems to me to be addressed to an ethnic Russian, or at least somebody who does not know Romani. It expresses itself in terms assimilable to the outsider. It seems to assume the addressee writes (or might hypothetically write) poems in Russian, rather than Romani. In the Russian there are no nalače gadže "vile (non-Rom) men" who cut the strings — rather Paganini just notices that "they", whoever they are, have cut them. The point is that Russian-speakers have no business on the high horse, but the vility of the gadje is toned down.

Where the Romani poem has iambic lines varying between pentameter, hexameter and heptameter, the Russian version cuts itself down to just pentameters and hexameters, the two that are more acceptable in the Russian tradition (Russian poetry has not taken much to iambic lines longer than six feet, unlike English where heptameters or "fourteeners" have a long and fêted tradition from Chapman to Tennyson to A.E. Stallings.) In addressing itself specifically to Russians (it translates the second instance of the word gadže with the word for "Russian") it points out that Romani may indeed have a smaller passive vocabulary, but the issue isn't how many dictionary entries your language has, let alone whether "your language doesn't have many words of its own" (a common dismissal leveled at Romani by people too numerous even to name, let alone punch in the throat.) Even if you (i.e. a Russian) try to write poetry, you'll remember Paganini. It won't be easy for you either, more words won't do you much good. The last two lines in Russian read semi-literally "And if you ever set yourself to write verses /  you'll remember Paganini in any case." 

The Russian version for all that it differs from the Romani in its dynamics, has the same point at its core. The trappings and epiphenomena of long and varied written use aren't the end-all. It is something else, apart from merely the size of the passive vocabulary, that makes a language great, rich or evocative. It is something else that makes for great or rich poetry, or a great poet, in it.

Goethe: To The Moon (From German)

To The Moon
By J.W. Goethe
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Hushed, you flood with shining mist
Valley, bush and knoll,
And I feel you finally
Liberate my soul.

Round the regions of my world
Goes your easy gaze
Kind as a companion’s eye
Sizing up my days.

Every echo hefts my heart,
-Tears and joy renewed-
As I balance bliss and pain
In your solitude.

River, river, flow and flow;
Pleasure’s passed for me:
Every kiss has vanished with
Laughs and loyalty.

All I once possessed and lost
Is such treasure still.
Men would rather bear this pain
Than forget that thrill.

River, rise, and never rest,
Rushing down the dale;
Wash and whisper me a tune
As I sing my tale

How in dark December you
Rage and overflow,
Or arise in gloried Spring
Bidding roses grow.

Lucky’s he who leaves the world
Free of hate, by choice,
Has a friend to laugh with and
Lovingly rejoice

In what men have never guessed,
Or forgotten quite,
Roaming mazes of the breast
Wayward in the night.

The Original:

An den Mond

Füllest wieder Busch und Tal
Still mit Nebelglanz,
Lösest endlich auch einmal
Meine Seele ganz;

Breitest über mein Gefild
Lindernd deinen Blick,
Wie des Freundes Auge mild
Über mein Geschick.

Jeden Nachklang fühlt mein Herz
Froh- und trüber Zeit,
Wandle zwischen Freud' und Schmerz
In der Einsamkeit.

Fließe, fließe, lieber Fluß!
Nimmer werd' ich froh;
So verrauschte Scherz und Kuß
Und die Treue so.

Ich besaß es doch einmal,
was so köstlich ist!
Daß man doch zu seiner Qual
Nimmer es vergißt!

Rausche, Fluß, das Tal entlang,
Ohne Rast und Ruh,
Rausche, flüstre meinem Sang
Melodien zu!

Wenn du in der Winternacht
Wütend überschwillst
Oder um die Frühlingspracht
Junger Knospen quillst.

Selig, wer sich vor der Welt
Ohne Haß verschließt,
Einen Freund am Busen hält
Und mit dem genießt,

Was, von Menschen nicht gewußt
Oder nicht bedacht,
Durch das Labyrinth der Brust
Wandelt in der Nacht.

Du Fu: Staying the Night in a Riverside Villa (From Chinese)

Staying the Night in a Riverside Villa
By Du Fu
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Visible darkness  grows up mountain paths
 I enter my study  over River Gate
A wispy cloud  lodged all night on cliff's edge
 the lonely moon  atumble in senseless waves
A line of cranes  flies past on a silent hunt
 a pack of wild dogs  brawls violent over prey
I get no sleep  mind worrying over war 
 I have no power  to spare the world its fate 

The Original:



Du Fu: The Conscription (From Chinese)

Written in 759 during the height of the An Lushan rebellion. "Stonemoat" (Shíháo) is a village in Henan province. Press-gangs were combing the villages, looking for men who could be forced into military service to replace the imperial army's massive losses against An Lushan.

The Conscription
By Du Fu
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

So I stopped at sundown to rest in Stonemoat Village
 They came in the night  to collar more men for war
The old inn-keeper slipped out over a wall
 While his elderly wife went out to the front door
Such angry curses  the pressgang officer bellowed
 Such pitiful tears the woman sobbed away
I listened to her proffer regretful pleas:
 I had three sons all serving at posts in Yeh1
One of my boys  just told me in a letter
 The other two  were killed in the attack
The one alive  won't last on borrowed time
 The dead are gone  dead boys do not come back 
There aren't any more men left to this household
 Just my grandson still nursing with his mother
My daughter cannot leave him here just yet
 And a shredded skirt  is all she has for cover 
I'm an old woman  I know my strength is gone
 But please let me come  tonight with your convoys
If you've urgent need  in Heyang2 I can be there
 In time to cook  some breakfast for our brave boys
As night drew on  all sounds of speaking stopped
 I thought I heard a whimper being choked down
Rising at dawn  to get back on the road  
 I took my leave  of the old man alone 


1 Yèchéng — city about 300 miles northeast of Stonemoat, where imperial forces had suffered a severe defeat at the hands of the rebels earlier in the year

2 Héyáng — name of a place about 125 miles down the Yellow River from Stonemoat, and the site of an encampment for imperial forces that year.

The Original:








Alexander Germano: On Wheels Of Fortune (From Russian Romani)

A bit of propagandistic blasting from Germano about abandoning Romani itinerancy and settling down. Puns ahoy. Witty, but nowhere near the depth of Nárto Phuranîpé. Also, you can smell the Soviet smugness a mile away. 

On Wheels Of Fortune
By Alexander Germano
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

What fate, what fortune we keep seeking
Roaming the roads and woods for years!
And what in seeking have we seen?
Oh we have seen our share of tears.

We sing all day, we sing at night. 
That is where drunkards' Fortunes lie. 
We like the horse, we like the whip,
Believe in something in the sky.

Devil and God can't do a damn.  
The cards deal us a pack of lies.
What do they do but do us in,
And raze us down where we would rise? 

The time has come for better living.  
We're free to make ourselves at home.
Fortune won't smile in campgrounds....
Lets move on from the need to roam.

The Original:
For reasons explained on this page, all Cyrillic Romani texts I translate are accompanied by transcription in Roman characters. 

Александр Германо

Сави э-бахт амэ родаса
Пиро дрома, пиро вэша.
И со дро лодыпэ дыкхаса? —
Амэ дыкхаса бут ясва.

Ратя и дывэса багаса,
Со сы екх бахт дро матыбэ,
Чюпны и грэн амэ камаса,
Патяса дро екх болыбэ.

Дэвэл и бэнг ничи на дэна.
Бут хохадэ патря амэн.
Ёнэ амэнгэ хась кэрэна
И подрискирна джиибэн.

Авэла тэ дживас адякэ,—
Вавир кэраса джиибэ.
Нанэ э-бахт прэ фэлда,
Чюрдаса пэскро лодыпэ.

Aleksandr Germano

Savi e-baxt ame rodása
Píro droma, píro veša.
I so dro lodîpé dîkhása? —
Ame dîkhása but jasva.

Ratja i dîvesá bagása,
So sî jekh baxt dro matîbé
Čupnî i gren ame kamása
Patjása dro jekh bolîbé

Devel i beng niči na déna.
But xoxade patrja amen.
Jone aménge xasj keréna
I podriskírna džiiben

Avéla te dživas adjáke
Vavir kerása džiibe.
Nane e-baxt pre félda,
Čurdása péskro lodîpé.


Line 8:

I wonder if the other meaning of bolîbé, "baptism" is relevant here.

Line 12:

This line contains some Romani wordplay. Te podriskires is "to undermine" and the line podriskírna džiiben translates as "and (they) undermine (our) lives." However, this echoes, the better to subvert, a far more mundane phrase podrikírna džiiben "they support, maintain our lives."

Du Fu: Expressing What Struck Me (From Chinese)

Expressing What Struck Me
By Du Fu
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original in reconstructed 8th century Chang'an Chinese

The blades of war  are still not laid to rest 
 Where are my sister  and each of my brothers today? 
I wipe away tears  wept blood stains my robed breast 
 I comb my hair  strands fill my face with grey
Low is the land here  vast, the wilderness 
 Distant, the heavens  laggard, the twilight river
Sick and decrepit  how can I last much longer?  
 I'm sure I'll get  no chance to see you ever 

The Original:
(Medieval Chinese transcribed using a slight modification of David Branner's system)

遣興      khán3by hèng3
杜甫      duó1a  puó3c  

干戈猶未定,  kan1 kwe1 you3b3a dèing4
弟妹各何之。  dèi4 mèi1a kak1 ghe1 tsyi3d
拭淚霑襟血,  syek3 lwì3c tram3b kem3x hwat4
梳頭滿面絲。  sruo3b dou1 mán1 màn3by si3d
地卑荒野大,  drì3c pi3by hwang1 yá3 dè1
天遠暮江遲。  than4 ghwán3a muò1 kong2 dri3c
衰疾那能久,  srwi3c dzet3b né1 neng1 kóu3b
應無見汝時。  èng3 muo3c kàn4 nyuó3b dzyi3d

Meng Jiao: Failing the Imperial Examination (From Chinese)

Meng Jiao had one of the most chronically sad lives a man of his privileged station could have, short of something like living in a warzone. He failed the examinations repeatedly (though he passed on the fourth attempt), lost his wife, had all of his sons die young, spent his life in embarrassingly low posts, and died completely unhappy. If you gave his life story to a fictional character, people would call it implausibly tragic. It shaped him, however, into something new as a poet, thanks in no small part to the tutelage of the sympathetic Han Yu who, though quite an asshole in some ways, was willing to push the envelope of language. He wrote things unlike anything anyone else had done. Many of his contemporaries found his deliberate harshness and turns of language to be rather weird. (Hell, I find him weird sometimes, and occasionally downright incomprehensible.) 

Failing the Imperial Examination
By Meng Jiao
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

It's hard for a dawn moon to keep up its light  
 Hard on a sorrowing man are the things he feels
Who said that all things flourish come the spring?  
 Could he not see the frost upon the leaves? 
The lordly eagle — his potency lost — falls ill   
 The little wren gets borrowed plumes to fly
Rejected once — and rejected once again  
 The things I feel: like stab-wounds from a knife

The Original:


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