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.

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