Santino Spinelli: Gypsy Curse (From Abruzzese Romani)

The Romani dialects of the Southern Italian group are interesting to me for two reasons.

The first and long-standing reason is that, like all Romani dialects, they bear witness to the migratory history of their speaker communities. They appear to be early arrivals from the Balkans. There is a conspicuous lack of Slavic and Germanic loanwords (except, of course, for Germanic etyma borrowed by way of Italian Romance) which sets these dialects apart from the Sinte varieties spoken by Italian Roma farther north. The Roma that speak these dialects seem to have come to Italy by sea from the Balkans across the Adriatic, rather than a circuitous land route through central Europe and across the Alps as did the Roma of north Italy. The classification of these dialects within Romani as a whole is unclear. They have at least as much in common with northern dialects as they do with Balkan Romani. They show interesting patterns of influence. There are some striking archaisms attesting to early separation from core Romani, alongside some striking innovations resulting from prolonged and sustained contact with the local Italian Romance varieties, which set them apart from "core" or "common" Romani, such as the loss of contrastive aspiration, the cliticization of object pronouns and, extraordinarily, in Abruzzese Romani, the complete loss of nominal case-inflection.

The second reason, which I have more recently discovered, is the poetry of Santino Spinelli, who writes in Abruzzese Romani. Spinelli is one of the most prominent of modern Romani poets, and I find his work brilliant. This poem, evoking the Romani genocide, which inverts the gadjikani cliché of being "cursed by a Gypsy", is the first of several of his that I plan to translate eventually.

The poem translated here, like many others of Spinelli's poems, has previously been translated into English and other languages, but always by translators who can't read Romani, and always solely on the basis of Spinelli's Italian self-translation.

In fact, near as I can tell, self-translated Italian versions, and second-hand translations thereof, seem to form the basis for discussions of Spinelli's work as a rule. I think this is impoverishing, though understandable given how rarely non-Roma study Romani. When faced with such eloquent lines as, in another poem of his, sunò dukkaddò sunò trašianò, it seems such a pity not to give the texts their due as texts in Romani?

This seems to happen a lot with self-translating poets who write in Romani, and indeed generally with self-translating poets whose primary creative medium is a minority "exotic tongue", like Welsh, Basque or Berber, which require some effort on the part of speakers of major languages who wish to learn them. The self-translation into a more major, more mainstream, language can easily become license to quietly disregard the "lesser" language. One could be forgiven for wondering whether some people thought "if there's anything that didn't or couldn't make it from Romani into the languages I can read, then it's probably not worth hearing anyway."

In any case, I thought I might give my own take on this poem. It does not correspond entirely literally to the Romani. I do not pretend it does. Then again, neither are Spinelli's Italian self-translations transparent proxies for the Romani text. Nor should one expect them to be, given in light of the creativity, complexity and sometimes sleight of hand involved in self-translations produced by poets such as Joseph Brodsky (Russian to English, and English to Russian), Rabindranath Tagore (Bengali to English), John Donne (English to Latin) or Grahame Davies (Welsh to English.)

Some full disclosure is in order.

Spinelli uses his dialect in ways distinctive enough for specialists who work on Romani to remark upon them (Yaron Matras in an article on Romani possessives mentions a line of Spinelli's which is peculiar in using a modified noun in an external possession construction.) Even leaving that aside, poetry in Abruzzese Romani is a bit hard for me to understand with complete certainty with reference to the versions of Romani I have studied more. The grammar of Abruzzese Romani is peculiar to be sure, but it isn't particularly hard to get used to once you know what you're dealing with.  The real issue is that cognate lexical items in different dialects may undergo divergent semantic developments which, though not a great barrier to general comprehension, can seriously affect the sense of a poem. I can get the sense, or what I think is the sense, but I'm never quite sure if an expression in the poem means exactly, or only, what I think it does. (Think of Racine's line from Les Plaideurs Et vous ferez l'amour en présence du père and imagine how it sounds if you take faire l'amour in its modern instead of its 17th century sense. Now imagine that multiplied by a thousand.) I have consulted some scholarship on Abruzzese Romani (i.e. what I was able to access with my Internet connection and the online journal subscriptions of people I know.) But the resources at my disposal fall considerably short of my zeal to learn new things, and some of the works I'd like to have at my disposal are simply impossible for me to get my hands on at this time.

I have also consulted Spinelli's own Italian translations (his two collections are bilingual) of his Romani poems. But I set myself to translate from the Romani, not the Italian. Spinelli's Romani texts are more interesting to me than his Italian self-translations. It is in the Romani texts where the resources of language seem to me to be more fully exploited.

Gypsy Curse
By Santino Spinelli
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Cold dark skinned hands turned up at the sky,
turned up at the world above
swamp mire covers the head
smashed down,
the body sounds a muffled cry...
Who heard? None heard a sound.
A powerless people
led to the killing grounds...
Who spoke? None.
Who saw? None.
Carcasses rising 
from the dead swamp muck,
festering faces bared to the sun,
with a finger pointed
at everyone 
who stood silent. 

The Original:

Kusibbè Romanò
Santino Spinelli

Šurdè vašt kalè šdinè ku thèm,
panì milalò a čiarèl u širò
sa tritimmè,
ni lùk a šunèp pandindò,
nikt a šunèl.
Ginè bi nafèl
ku mirribbè ’ngirdè,
nikt a dikkià
nikt a vakirià.
Mulé riǧǧidè
andrè u panì milalò,
xalè muj angiàl ku khàm,
u ’ngustò a sìnnl
angiàl ki kòn
u kwit a ćilò!

Lexical notes:

vašt kalè: dark, black hands. But the semantic dynamics of kaló mean that the sense "gypsy hands, Rom hands" is also hovering in the background.

šdinè ku thèm: I have mentioned elsewhere how the word them takes on an enormous semantic range in common Romani, which differs somewhat according to dialect. In Abruzzese this word, as in Burgendland Romani, can mean "sky, heavens." The sense "world, land" however also exists in Abruzzese Romani, according to Giulio Soravia. Thus in this line the world, and the heavens, are indicted collectively as one. Incidentally not only does Spinelli himself use thèm in the sense "world" elsewhere, but he exploits the polysemy of thèm in his performance piece, Pri ni Thèm Fiddèrë where one of the spoken passages begins O thèm mèngrë /a kammèlë ni sunó / ni thèm fiddèrë / ta lačhó pri sassaré. "The heavens (=thèm) /bid us dream / of a better world (=thèm) / fairer for all...."

panì milalò Literally "filthy water." It is not uncommon in Romani to refer to different types and bodies of water (sea, river, bog etc) with the word panì accompanied by an appropriate modifier. The referent seems to be swamp, mud, mire, muck or something of the kind. (c.f. Spinelli's self-translation: pallude.)

ginè bi nafèl: the term connotes not only "helpless, defenseless people" (as per Spinelli's self-translation populo inerme) but also "innocent people." 

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