Interpreting Romani – A Canadian Overview

By Deborah Folaron, PhD

Active interpreters of Romani in Canada, Ronald Lee, Nazik Deniz and Dafina Savić, explain the ins and outs of interpretation for a little known community.

A too common situation

The phone rings at a busy translation agency, one of the many around the world fielding hundreds of calls daily for multilingual translation and interpreting projects. “I need a Romani interpreter,” says the caller, “to translate for a meeting later this week.” The project manager accepts the project and proceeds to set in motion the well-known script of searching through the database to find a qualified interpreter and coordinating the details of payment, location, and scheduling for the interpretation event. The day arrives, and shortly after the scheduled meeting begins, the agency receives a frantic call: “The interpreter you sent is for Romanian, but we need Romani!”

About Romani

Misunderstandings like this are not uncommon when it comes to translating and interpreting in the Romani context. It is not common knowledge that Romani (or Romanes) is in fact both a spoken and written language, albeit one that has not yet – like many of the other 7000 world languages –been officially codified and standardized for use globally. It is not widely known that, despite the historical absence of a Roma homeland or nation-state and lack of formal educational infrastructure in Romani, there are over 60 ‘dialects’ of the language in use around the world. And, although Roma stories – often framed as ‘problems’– seem to frequently make the news, the public at large is generally unaware that millions of Roma reside and participate culturally in the national lives of countries that span the globe, from Australia to Argentina to Canada to Russia. In Europe, they collectively comprise the largest ethnic minority group.

Under the Radar

Translation and interpreting (T&I) activities always spring up out of tangible language and communication needs, be they for official policies, market-oriented goals, or public services. They emerge in the context of bridging linguistic and cultural differences between diverse groups for undertakings that range the spectrum from art to activism. For communities carrying out aspects of their daily lives in languages and cultural traditions that are not dominant on the world stage and which do not benefit from ready access to resources for their sustenance, the translation and interpreting initiatives that do arise organically often pass under the professional and academic T&I radar. This is no less so for Romani translation and interpreting. Three active interpreters within the communities of Canada share their insights here on interpreting Romani.

Ronald Lee

Ronald Lee, residing in Ontario, has worn many hats throughout his long career: journalist, writer, author, pedagogue, mentor, activist, musician, translator, terminologist, lexicographer, and interpreter. Affectionately known in the Roma community as “Kako (‘Uncle’) Ron,” he was conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by Queen’s University in 2014 for his lifelong work. Among his many projects, he currently translates from English into Romani for RomArchive, a “digital archive of Roma” supported by the German Federal Cultural Foundation. His work as a Romani interpreter for individuals and families needing communication assistance in social and immigration services spans decades. His knowledge and experience in the domain have given him insight into, and an intimate understanding of the needs and challenges faced by interpreters within the Roma communities.

The diversity of national languages and Romani dialects spoken by Romani peoples and the range of fluency in each by their speakers, Lee explains, always constitute a challenge for interpreters and the clients they work for. To begin with, both non-Roma and Roma alike have problems in appropriately identifying and defining the Romani dialects needed for interpretation, and the interpreters sought are sometimes mismatched for the job. Indeed, he has often been asked to verify the dialects and translations of interviews and recordings carried out in Romani. In addition to dialect misidentification, there is the matter of specialized terminology and evolving vocabulary. Technical or domain-specific terms requiring interpretation may be misunderstood or unfamiliar, as may Romani terms not yet coined or in circulation, thus creating both a translation and terminology challenge for the interpreter. Linguistic difficulties also emerge from the 1000 year historical evolution of the Romani language itself, with its dynamic capacity to absorb non-Romani vocabulary from other languages in which the dialects have been and continue to be in contact.

As Lee expounds:

“Instead of using the standard ‘thematic’ (inherited Indic/Asian/Anatolian Greek) items in Romanes, speakers are using more ‘athematic’ (borrowed post-Anatolian European language) items from the host languages. What Ian Hancock refers to as ‘core vocabulary’ is too often replaced by non-standard borrowings in foreign host languages, like the equivalent of American Romani speakers using English language-based borrowings – such as Laikiv te playiv e gitara instead of Plachal ma te bashavav e gitara (‘I like to play the guitar’). When these borrowings are Polish or Bulgarian, for example, Romani/English speakers are lost just as Romani/Romanian speakers would be upon hearing the American English utterance.”

Linguistic diversity is not the only challenge. Cultural traditions and practices, some of which are not uniformly shared across the Romani spectrum, also keep the interpreter on guard. As Lee points out, “There is the issue of gender when interpreting for some Romani clients, as women may not feel comfortable discussing certain personal matters with male interpreters, or some unease among both genders when discussing certain topics considered mahrime (‘unclean’). Instances of Romani hospitality and gestures of friendship and gratitude can also potentially lead to familiarity, which is discouraged in interpreting.”

Nazik Deniz

These sorts of unique challenges for Romani interpreting have inspired Nazik Deniz, former executive director of the Toronto-based Roma Community Centre, to take concrete action. Hoping to organize and structure interpreting services more formally so that the Roma communities’ diverse linguistic and cultural needs can be met, she founded the World Romani Dialects Interpretation Bureau. As a start, the bureau’s recently assembled team of dialect-interpreters provide Romani interpreting services for a federal government agency. “The needs of the Roma communities are great,” says Deniz. While some needs are similar and shared in common with other minority or immigrant groups, others revolve around a specific, unique linguistic situation and historical context.

The complex linguistic, cultural heritage of Roma translates into strengths and challenges for interpreting. The root of commonality serving as the historical foundation of Roma identity collectively branches into many diverse Roma groups individually. Every community experiences their interpreting needs differently, depending on the Romani dialects and national languages actually spoken by its members, and on the various national contexts from which they emerge. “A profound understanding of a particular Roma community’s needs,” says Deniz, “is vital, and circumstances can be very fluid, especially when immigrants hail from different countries. What affects Roma in Europe, for example, affects the composition and dynamics of our communities residing here. We are all Roma, but our history and migrations have also made us linguistically and culturally diverse. It is in our organizing for this translation and interpreting diversity that we are able to encourage movement towards unity.”

Ensuring the competence of interpreters is a high, albeit not always easy, priority. Official certification for a standard Romani does not exist, although testing in some dialects can be conducted. Romani interpreters obtain certification for the other, non-Romani languages they speak – in one or both of Canada’s official languages and any of the languages spoken by Roma in the community, for example Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Croatian, etc. When interpreters are called in to interpret on behalf of an individual or family, the project coordinator must consider both the appropriate Romani dialects and the national languages of the speakers, as the dialogue and dialects themselves are often influenced by those languages. Furthermore, as Deniz explains,

“Outsourcing interpreting jobs to interpreters who are fluent only in the national languages of the Roma individual or family but unfamiliar with Roma culture or a Romani dialect can bring serious consequences. Negative images and stereotyping about Roma abound and sometimes inadvertently lay beneath the surface within the interpreting process, creating a cultural bias that doesn’t reflect Roma reality in the interpretation. It is critical to ensure that interpreters have a true understanding of the Roma community from within.”

Dafina Savić

These observations are very familiar to Dafina Savić, founder and executive director of the Montreal-based, not-for-profit organization Romanipe. Fluent in (Vlax) Kalderash Romani from a young age, along with French, English, Serbian, and proficient in a host of other languages, Savić has been interpreting Roma needs in the medical, legal, educational, government, immigration, and humanitarian sectors. “In order for communication to take place,” she notes, “the individuals and families you interpret for must trust that you will interpret faithfully for them and not make mistakes through bias or a misunderstanding of the language or culture.” She relates how, in the hands of the wrong interpreter, mistakes have been known to happen, with incompetence leading to a refugee applicant’s file appearing to lack credibility or a child being improperly diagnosed.

Her comments also echo the need for interpreters to be particularly attentive to Roma diversity. “At the level of general conversation, individual Roma from different countries who meet up together will be able to understand one another, but as soon as the discussion becomes more specific and in-depth, then individuals will borrow from the other languages they know or have been educated in,” she says, “and for medical, legal, immigration, and more complex situations, those other languages are always involved.” In fact, linguistic dexterity on the part of the interpreter is very important. “Interpreting for Roma means not only speaking a Romani dialect but also being familiar with the words borrowed from the languages an individual or group is in contact with, because many technical words don’t yet exist in Romanes.” The tendency to view Roma as one homogeneous group, she reiterates, has itself contributed to misguided interventions when dealing with the community at large.

Linguistic and cultural dexterity, as well as an understanding of Roma history, are all critical in the process of bridging differences while interpreting. As Savić explains,

“It is important to know that simply being Roma and speaking one version of the Romani language does not automatically make us fit for interpreting. One needs to be linguistically aware and culturally sensitive while interpreting across different beliefs and practices. Acceptance as a Roma interpreter can bring greater ease, but you must always strive for understanding and communication. There are even diverse understandings of what Romanes is: for example, some Bayash Roma from Croatia speak an old version of Romanian which they understand to be Romanes, so at times I’ve had to interpret from old to new Romanian. In reality, it is an historical legacy; Roma slaves were forbidden to speak Romani. Today they identify this language as their Romanes mother tongue. Knowing the history of the Romani language is really important; many people are still unaware of it!”

Interpreting has a special role to play in connecting and bridging linguistic and cultural differences, ensuring that meaning and the channels of communication are as clear as they possibly can be. As Savić, Deniz, and Lee have all observed, informal interpreting among Roma can be very “community oriented,” with family members and friends contributing their many language skills to interpret information so they can make vital decisions about their livelihoods. Although dictionaries, glossaries, and language learning books in various Romani dialects and languages continue to emerge, and although a dialect like Kalderash enjoys broader geographical scope, the reality for Romani interpreters is multilinguistic and multicultural. Its growing professionalization speaks to the integrity of the interpreters who know their communities well and who seek to organize and apply interpreting best practices so that the needs of the communities can be fulfilled. As the world in all its linguistic and cultural diversity continues to globalize and communicate across borders, there is much we can learn from our Romani interpreters.

Deborah Folaron is a professor at Concordia University.