Interpreting for the Rroma: Bridging Multiple Gaps

Interpreting for Romanian Rroma
Asist. univ. drd. Sorina CHIPER
Universitatea “Al. I. Cuza”, Iasi
One of the problems that Romania needs to solve with a view to the integration in the
European Union is related to minorities. Whereas, according to EU reporters, the situation of the
Hungarian and German ethnic minorities has much improved, the Rroma population is still a reason
of concern both for us, inside the country, and for the European Union.
Western Europe has been faced over the last decade with the migration of members of the
Rroma community coming from countries in the former communist block, and especially from
Romania. They have often been summoned in EU countries courts, and interpreters have always
been needed. I have therefore thought it worthy of interest to draw upon challenges that interpreters
face when they are commissioned for public service interpreting for members of the Rroma
community. The examples that I will use make reference to court interpreting between English and
Romanian in the UK.
Gypsy vs. Rroma: What are their origins?
Ignorance has hovered large on the issue of the gypsy or Rroma population origin. Initially,
the common assumption was that they came from Northern Africa, from Egypt. The noun
“Egyptian” is actually the root for the word “gypsy.” Only in the 19 th century did linguists
discovered, on the basis of similarities between Sanskrit and Rromani - the language spoken by
gypsies –, that they are of Indian extract.
Comparative and diachronic linguistic studies have contributed extensively to retracing the
gypsies’ history. They established that the gypsies’ ancestors, initially located in Northern India,
started migrating to the west in the 11th century.1 The reasons for the migration remain in the dark,
and are the subject of legends and folk stories. What is known fro sure is the itinerary that they
followed: across Persia, the Near East and North Africa to the Byzantine Empire, where they settled
in the East. From there, they separated into three branches that followed different routes. The lom
branch went to Caucaz, north west of the Black Sea; the dom branch went to Syria, Palestine, North
Africa, and from there to Spain; and the rrom branch migrated to central and western Europe
(Sarau: 1988, 11).
The Byzantines called the darker-skinned new-comers “athigganoi” – the untouchable. This
was the name originally given to a heretic sect. Its meaning was extended to refer to the gypsies as
well because their behaviour was similar to that of the heretics: they had their own customs and
traditions, they were very united as a group and would not adjust to Byzantine manners and rules.
The root “athigganoi” bred the names currently used almost all over Europe: ciganie (Poland),
ciganos (Portugal), czignyok (Hungary), ţigani (Romania), tsiganes (France), Zigeuner (Germany),
zingari (Italy) (Sarau, 23).
Linguists and historians have not fully agreed on a very specific date. Various scholars place the beginning of the
migration between the 9th and the 11th century. However, the most authoritative voice in the field at the moment,
Marcel Courthiade, drawing on chronicles written by Al-Utbi, established that they left around 1018 (Mircea Itu, Julieta
Moleanu, Cultura si civilizatie indiana, Credis: Bucuresti, 2001)
Over the years, host nations have developed negative stereotypes about gypsies, or “tigani.”
They are usually associated with high criminality rate, illiteracy, unsanitary living conditions, pagan
rituals and witchcraft. This is why the politically correct term, deprived of such connotations, is
now “the Rroma,” which makes reference to the historical rrom branch that spread across Europe.
The Rroma in Romania
In the Romanian Principalities the Rroma were first mentioned in 1385 in Wallachia and in
1428 in Moldavia, respectively, quite shortly after the first record of their existence in the Balkans
in 1348. Unlike other European states, whose authorities did not allow gypsies to remain on their
territory, the Romanian Principalities more or less forced them to settle by turning them into slaves.
They were used to work for the ruling Prince, for lords or for monasteries until the middle of the
19th century, when they were freed as a result of political action taken by participants in the 1848
revolutionary movement. Soon after their liberation, they resumed their nomad life and either
travelled across the Principalities, or moved on to Transylvania, and from there to Western Europe.
Almost a hundred years later, in 1942, marshal Ioan Antonescu, who held fascist views,
deported 250.000 Romanian gypsies – the dangerous and the non-desired ones – in Transnistria.
Half of them died there, and those who survived came back after the Germans left.
A turning point in the gypsy population’s social life in Romania took place under the
Communists. In the 60’s, the Party policy was to consolidate the national unity and to create a
homogeneous Romanian society. The communists, therefore, set out to “romanianise” the gypsies.
They forced them to cut their hair and change, at least in part, their style of dress; they registered
them with the local authorities and gave them identity cards; they forced them to attend schools and
serve in the army, and the state gave them a “civilised” place to stay, thus aiming to stop their
nomad life.
After the 1989 revolution, gypsies, or the Rroma, as they started calling themselves, took to
the road again. Many of them left the country either illegally, when they could not get a visa, or
legally, mostly after visas were no longer required. In the aftermath of the Revolution, common
targets were the UK, Germany and Spain, where they would ask for political asylum, on account of
persecution by Romanian authorities and of racial discrimination.
Currently, the public opinion is still biased. They are seen as the ones who have made us
infamous abroad, since articles or programmes broadcast abroad, dealing mostly with their begging
and crimes, mention them as Romanians and not as Rroma of Romanian citizenship.
The Trail of the Rroma: A Trail for Interpreters
As mentioned above, many members of the Rroma population have been summoned in EU
countries courts. According to the principle of the human right to a fair trail, courts have to provide
interpreters in cases where defendants are not inhabitants of the particular country where they are
sued. Interpreting for the Rroma is a very demanding process. The interpreter faces the task of
bridging multiple gaps: linguistic, cultural, cognitive and psychological gaps even.
First, the linguistic gap is complex in that interpreting is not done into and from the specific
dialect that the defendant speaks. There are a large variety of Rromani dialects and sociolects that
can, at points, be mutually obscure. It is not only that the dialect spoken differs on account of
borrowings from the language spoken in host countries. What is more, there are dialectal
differences between professions.
The first steps towards a unitary Rromani language were taken only in 1990 by adopting a
universal Rromani alphabet and by instituting a universal Rromani language. Since there are very
few speakers of this international language, interpreting is done in the Rroma’s second language,
which, in the case discussed in this paper, is Romanian.
Quiet often, the Rroma’s mastery of this second language is rather limited. This is so
because, for various reasons, they have not been exposed to much education. On the one hand,
some of them could not afford to go to school but on the other hand some others were not interested
in it, or refused it so as not to get in touch with the majority population, for fear of discrimination.
Second, legal terminology, the so-called “legalese,” irrespective of the language, is quite
cryptic to anyone who does not actually work in the field. A faithful interpreting activity, “to the
best of the interpreter’s ability,” striving for word for word rendition, would be of little use to the
defendant. The interpreter, therefore, is actually required to perform a double task: to interpret both
inter-lingually and intra-lingually, between legal English and legal Romanian, and between legal
Romanian and every-day Romanian, so that the Rroma can understand.
This process of inter-lingual and intra-lingual interpreting is parallelled by a process of
cultural translation. In the specific case of interpreting for the Rroma of Romanian nationality, the
process of cultural translation involves bridging the gap between the two legal systems.
The Romanian judiciary system follows the Roman model, whereas the British one is based
on case law. Also, the tasks performed by solicitors and barristers in the British system are
performed by a single person in Romania. There are also practices that have just introduced in the
Romanian judiciary system, and that persons outside the system do no know. Probation, for
instance, is very new in Romania. Interpreters, therefore, were faced with the impossibility of
providing an equivalent in Romanian. They had, therefore, to explain what probation means. And
even now that we have a word for this, explanations are still needed because the practice is very
new and little known.
Apart from these more or less objective factors that interpreters must have in mind when
they interpret for the Rroma, they should also be aware of the subtle influence of cultural
stereotypes. In Romania, most people have a low opinion of the “tigani,” as we call them, or
“romi.” They are regarded as thieves, cheaters, lazy, dirty, uncivilised, rude, smelly, uneducated.
These stereotypes can tamper with any conscious attempt at neutrality in interpreting. Interpreters
are human beings and not machines, and unconsciously they can reproduce the stereotypes in the
process of interpreting.
Given all the above-mentioned reasons, interpreting in a trial in which a member of the
Rroma community is involved is definitely a trial for the interpreter.
Interpreting between English and Romanian in British Courts
Just like in Romania, where many members of the Rroma community have had problems
with the Police, they have often been summoned in court in the Western countries where they
temporarily settled.
Until the year 2000, court interpreters were not necessary licensed ones. Translation
agencies would cooperate with members of the Romanian diaspora who did not necessary have
experience in interpreting in a legal framework, or in interpreting in general. The process, therefore,
was bound to be problematic.
On the basis of conversations with Romanians living in London who interpreted in courts,
and on the basis of my own short experience as a court interpreter, I have managed to identify
common tumble stones for interpreters, or blunders that they have made.
One of the common mistakes, for instance, made by inexperienced interpreters, was to
render “criminal record” as “record de criminal,” meaning that the defendant has established a
record as a criminal. This, of course, was far form being true, and it did not flatter the defendants,
neither did it encourage their hope for a fair trail!
Another “tumble stone” is the English terminology that designates the persons involved in a
trail. Interference from Romanian can cause very much confusion. “Defendant,” for instance, can
very easily be misinterpreted as “the one who defends,” and not the one who is being accused, and
defended. This is so because we have borrowed many words form French, where the suffix “-ant”
designates an agent. “Solicitor” and “barrister,” on the other hand, may confuse the interpreter who
is used to the Romanian judiciary system, where there is a single name for “solicitor,” “barrister,”
“attorney” and “lawyer,” namely “avocat.”
Probation, as mentioned above, has been introduced very recently in Romania. Romanian
interpreters, as they have confessed to me, had at first to ask for explanations on the meaning of the
term, and quite often they were also asked by probation officers to explain to the persons that they
interpreted for what “probation” is and what they were supposed to do.
In addition to this, the metric systems that Romania and the UK use are different. The
interpreter, therefore, should be able to convert data from one system to the other very quickly and
precisely. This skill proves to be very useful in cases involving car accidents, for instance.
Neutrality: To Be or Not to Be
Interpreters are expected to be neutral. However, there are various psychological factors that
can temper with any genuine attempt at neutrality. Apart from the cultural stereotypes mentioned
before, fear might also interfere. On the one hand, the fear of being associated with the gypsies can
lead to an interpreting style where the interpreters aim to show to the court that they are different,
rather than attempting to insure that the defendants fully understands, from the very beginning,
what is being said to them. On the other hand, there is the fear that the members of the extended
Rroma family who attend the court session might feel that the interpreter did not do a good job and
did not support the defendant’s cause sufficiently. The consequences could be threats, libel, or
revenge. I ignore to what extent this has actually happened but I have heard of cases when
interpreters were promised money in case they won the trial. What they felt was that behind this
prospective bonus there were also prospective damages in case the trail was lost.
The defendants and their family tend to perceive the interpreter as someone who is in the
system and not as an impartial mediator. As far as they are concerned, the interpreter’s tasks
overlap those of the barrister or solicitor who presents the case. This, obviously, places a lot of
pressure on the interpreter.
In addition to this, it is not only the defendants and their family that tend to burden the
interpreter but also the authorities. Interpreters are often required to help their “clients” comply with
the requirements of the probation officer. An interpreter told me that she once had to work with an
illiterate Rroma woman who argued that she would not be able to come and see the probation
officer when she would be scheduled because she did not know when that specific date would be.
This is why the interpreter was asked to phone her the day before or on the day of the interview to
remind her of that.
In other words, quite often, the service that an interpreter provides is much more complex
than the mediation between verbal messages. He or she is often required to collaborate with the
authorities and to go into lengthy expansions in the process of interpreting. Since both trails and
probation suppose several interpreting sessions and commonly the same interpreter is
commissioned for the task, a relationship can also emerge between the interpreter and the people he
or she works with. This is definitely a good outcome in terms of communication but it might raise
suspicions as to the interpreter’s desired neutrality.
To conclude, interpreting for the Rroma is a very complex task. It involves bridging
multiple gaps (linguistic, cultural, cognitive) and also struggling with negatively stereotyping the
Rroma and the goal of achieving neutrality. The process is now slightly smoothed by the
availability and the use of professional interpreters. In the UK, the authorities have enforced the use
of licensed interpreters, graduates of a special programme in public service interpreting offered by
Institute Linguists in London. It is also hoped that the implementation of educational programmes
for the Rroma, with EU financial support, will help solve the social problems that the Rroma cause
or that they are confronted with.
Mircea Itu, Julieta Moleanu, Cultura si civilizatie indiana, Credis: Bucuresti, 2001
Gheorghe Sarau, Rromii, India si limba rromani, Kriterion: Bucharest, 1998,
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