Alexander Germano: Unsettling Age (From Russian Romani)

Alexander Germano, who wrote both in Russian and Romani, was one of the earliest Rom poets to compose in Romani and commit his own work to writing by his own hand. It is thanks in no small part to early Soviet support for minority vernaculars that he was able to find such success in doing so. Early Soviet Romani scholars and lexicographers would often tout the fact that, as Alexei Barannikov put it "в нашей стране благодаря ленинско—сталинской национальной политике советской власти цыганы имеют свою письменность и литературный язык" (in our country thanks to the Leninist-Stalinist national policy of Soviet rule, the Gypsies have their own writing system and literary language.) Barannikov could not, of course, foresee how soon the Soviet State would begin relentlessly, and in some ways brutally, cracking down on minority languages, in a reversal of its erstwhile policy of tolerance and even encouragement.

Born in 1893, the son of a Czech man and a Moravian Romani woman who then moved to Orel, Russia, Germano was a prodigious autodidact of commendably insatiable curiosity who, after a prolific literary life in Russian, learned Romani in adulthood, through long interaction with Russian Roma after moving to Moscow, three years after being demobilized from the Red Army. Though he wrote about Romani subjects in Russian, he also catalyzed the rise of a Soviet Romani literary language with his short stories, poems, plays and translations.

It is sometimes suggested and even stated as outright fact, that Germano was the creator of the Cyrillic orthography used for Romani, but this claim exaggerates his role to the point of fabrication, and erases the work of others.

Still, Germano's role was nothing short of seminal.

He was instrumental in founding Romen, the first Romani-language theater in the world, in Moscow, which would ultimately serve as an inspiration to found similar Romani theaters elsewhere after the break-up of the USSR, such as the one founded in Kiev in 1994 six decades later.

Though he was a great formal experimenter, and a virtuoso of interesting verse-forms, Germano's subject matter was quite restricted in scope. The main subject in his poetry —what I've read of it thus far — is the change from the old to the new life of Russian Roma, and the tensions and contradictions entailed thereby. He often castigates tradition, but is sympathetic, within the limits of what he could get away with saying, to those who ended up as casualties in the shock of modernity.

Here's my take on the poem: it describes a Rom who has not accepted a settled life, as the Soviet government was encouraging the Roma to do. The cultural integration of the Roma was the ultimate goal behind the promotion of the literary language which Germano was key in pioneering. The aim was to naturalize the possibility of a settled life for the Roma, complete with their own theaters, literature, radio programs etc. Rom groups that had agreed to sedentarize were given various legal protections against discrimination, financial aid, and also farm collectives, often in unknown or scarcely charted areas.

The Rom here is unable to simply settle down in the new collectives, a fact which has brought a life of hardship and pain, as Germano has it. Many of Germano's poems are exhortations to the Roma to abandon nomadism and take up the Worker's Cause. Indeed, I have found that the theme of the Rom wandering camps, ignorant of the greatness of integrated Soviet living, is a commonplace of Soviet Romani poetry, to the point of being a rank cliché. The reasons for this are obvious enough. The images involving blowing wind, the pain of itinerancy, the cold of the road...these too could easily become cookie-cutter components of the line which Romani poets, subsidized by the Soviet state, were expected to tow. It is productive, however, not to let that thematic oversaturation color the reading of Germano's poetry. Failing to take the poems on their own terms, if one is also deaf to the subtleties of formal manipulation, one is liable to miss what makes Germano's work worthwhile.

This poem, on close reading, I take not to be a condemnation of nomadism, or at least not only that, though that may be the safer surface reading beneath which Germano slipped something else more personal. The Rom here is not just itinerant, but solitary. Not merely apart from sedentary society, but apart from any society. The Rom is referred to in the singular, in contrast with the pluralized Roma who now live in warm dwellings. He is resource-bereft enough that he may go hungry, and even in his hunger he passes by a farm collective. There must be a reason, but we are left uncertain as to why. Perhaps the farm collective he passes is not Romani, and therefore would refuse him? Perhaps, if it is, they might not accept him as being "Rom enough" or not "committed" enough? Just as the Roma who were still itinerant would not accept him for being too deviant. Alienated both from Romness (romanîpé) and from non-Roma, it is a more lonely version of — paradoxically — the old itinerancy which calls out to him. Thus the "old ways," the "things of yore" (phuranîpé) maintain a stubborn (nárto) articulation in this man's complete unbelonging. He is not itinerant because he likes it. He remains marginal because everything else, anything else, would require concessions he cannot, or will not, make. What those concessions are, we are left to speculate about. The solitary Rom who stands estranged both from settled, collectivized early Soviet life and from the close-nit network offered by itinerant groups is a figure of interest, sympathy and self-identification for Germano in his prose, and one need not look long through his biography to see why.

Unsettling Age1
By Alexander Germano
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Romani

Black night falls. Hard blows of wind.
Snows fall on the road.
In a wagon still a nomad
Rom is bitten cold.

Raging through the camping fields
Freezing cold grows stronger.
The dark Rom passing near a farmstead
Goes on by in hunger.

The Roma safe from pangs of old
Live now in warm homes. 
Traveling all roads the restive 
Rom still camps and roams. 

1 — The poem as it first appears in Jav Pre Stréga: Gilja (Moscow, 1934) is untitled. The title given here, which is not rendered literally in my English translation, appears in the poem's second printing in the collection Gilja (Moscow, 1935). For comments on the Romani title, and why I rendered it the way I did in English, see the notes after the original text below.

2 — i.e. a Soviet kolxóz. 

The Original:

Нарто Пхураныпэ
Александр Германо

Рат калы. Балвал пхурдэла.
Пэрла ив про дром.
Про урдо инкэ мразола
Екх фэлдытко ром.

Пиро фэлды холясола
Мразо зорало,—
Ром кало мамуй колхозо
Джяла бокхало.

Акана рома дживэна
Дро татэ кхэра,
Нарто ром инкэ лодэла
Пир сарэ дрома.

Nárto Phuranîpe
Aleksandr Germano

Rat kalî. Balval phurdela.
Perla iv pro drom.
Pro urdo inke mrazola
Jekh feldîtko Rom.

Piro feldî xoljasola
Mrázo zoralo,—
Rom kalo mamuj kolxózo
Džala bokhalo.

Akana Roma dživena
Dro tate khera,
Narto Rom inke lodela
Pir sare droma.

Textual Notes:
For many of my Romani translations, I'm including various lexical notes. Both to "show my work" and because I want the reader to be fully aware of the limits of my knowledge, and of my strategies for dealing with them.

Nárto: an interesting word of Baltic origin (c.f. Lithuanian nartus)  apparently restricted to northeastern dialects. It seems to have a semantic range covering obstinacy, waywardness, capriciousness, pig-headed willfulness, as in nárto graj "restive, unbroken horse" or nárto čavoro "unruly, stubborn child" but also insubmission and doggedness.

Phuranîpé: this word means "antiquity, times past" according to Barannikov. In some related dialects the sense is "old age", and in others "old stuff, rags, things in need of replacement" is attested, and I've found a couple uses in Russian Romani poetry where the latter sense seems to be to the point e.g. me sčurdáva phuranîpé saro pestîr. With nárto, there seems a subversion of expectations in the title. One might have expected nárto phuripе "stubborn old age" or nárto phuro "stubborn old man" and thus "stubborn old times" would subvert a cliché. This is what inspired me to pick a title in English that would read multiple ways and subvert commonplaces.

Félda: Baltic Romani term for "field, camping land." This word is used a good deal by Soviet Romani poets in reference to itinerancy.

Feldîtko Rom: one of the "Camp Roma" i.e. Russian Roma who retained a camp-based itinerant life.

Te lodes: the original core meaning is "lodge, dwell, reside" (as it is, or rather was, in Welsh Romani.) In Baltic Romani dialects, there is a semantic extension of this term specific to itinerant life, and moreover specific to the traditional itinerancy (which used to be) practiced by Roma who spoke these dialects. For example Sergievski and Barannikov gloss the word as: жить; становиться табором, and idiomatic uses are given that show the word's semantic association with nomadic living, for example píro féldî me lodávas "I wandered about the fields, I lived itinerating among the fields." Later lexica often gloss it simply with the sense кочеваться "wander nomadically."

Note on Romanization:

This and all future Romani texts originally written or published in cyrillic, will be accompanied by a transcription in Roman characters. I have made a few choices which may bear explanation. The following is an elaboration of my principles for transcribing North Russian Romani, and only North Russian Romani.

I mark iotation/palatalization generally with <j> rather than a diacritic as in <adjáke, адякэ> rather than <aďake>. If followed consistently, as a mechanical rendering of the cyrillic, this would mean that many Russian loanwords — particularly those with cyrillic <е> — would wind up deformed from forms more familiar or intuitive for users of Roman characters. For example, the adverb "secretly" <секретно> and the name of St. Petersburg <Петербурго> would wind up as <Pjetjerbúrgo> <Sjekrjétno> rather than, say <Peterbúrgo, Sekrétno>. This seems like it would be ridiculous.

Functionality is the goal. It seemed inane to seek complete consistency at the expense of common sense. Many Russian loanwords — particularly proper names and terms with widespread international cognates — will be rendered with a view toward maximal transparency for a maximum number of Latin-alphabetized readers familiar with one or another form of Romani. The words for record, decree and decade <рекордо, декрето, декада> I thus render as <rekordo, dekreto, dekada > and not as <rikordo, dikrjeto, dikada> or <rjekordo, djekrjeto, djekada>. Other Russian loanwords will be handled in whichever way I think most serves the purpose of intelligibility. Thus the word for "time", <времё> (and also <время>) I might be inclined to transcribe as <vrémjo, vrémja> rather than <vrjemjo> since this would make it more transparent in terms of e.g. Slovenian vréme or Romanian vreme. 

It made little sense to me that the more unmarked vowel in terms of phonology should be the more marked in terms of graphemes, and so I have transcribed cyrillic <э> with <e> in all cases, rather than <ê> as is done on e.g. ROMLEX. (The vowel itself ranges anywhere from mid-front [ɛ̝] to close mid central [ɘ̞] depending on environment.) However, I have followed the latter in using <î> rather than <y> to transcribe <ы> (/ɨ/) for four reasons. The first is that <y> is used in some other, English-based, orthographies of Romani to represent the palatal glide and the iotations I represent with <j> and so confusion might arise. Secondly, /ɨ/ and /i/ often alternate, and — depending on one's analysis — could be understood as positional variants of the same underlying phoneme. Thus it would make sense to represent both with related symbols. Third, the use of <î> in Romanian to represent the same sound means that it will be familiar to some Roma who do not read Cyrillic but might recognize the vowel. Fourth, Roma who do not have any /ɨ/ sound in their dialect will still find the <î> recognizable as (in most cases anyway) corresponding to their dialect's /i/ in cognate words.

It also made little sense to observe superfluous distinctions on orthographic principle. Thus for transcribing North Russian Romani, I leave palatalization before <ч, дж> unmarked, as it can be inferred automatically and to mark it would simply deform it from orthographic shapes that Latin-alphabetized Romani-speakers would be more used to. Thus <чяво> is <čavo> and not <čjavo>.

Because this Romanization, unlike the texts originally in Latin characters (which I reproduce exactly as I find them, inconsistencies and all), is meant for people who don't know the dialect in question, I mark non-final stress wherever it might be difficult to infer based on morphology.  

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