Journeys Across Hospitable Seas: Translator’s Note to the Italian Translation of Moris Farhi’s Children of the Rainbow

by Isabella Zani
English translation by Wendell Ricketts

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As a travelling companion for these Children of the Rainbow, I had initially imagined a glossary compiled from my own research. The idea was perhaps not entirely without a certain logic: placed at the end of a book packed full of words borrowed from a multitude of different languages, of place names nearly or entirely unknown, of characters variously pressed into service from cosmogonies and mythologies of the most disparate epochs and lands, such a glossary might have proven useful to the reader. And yet it is true that unfamiliar terms are explained perfectly in the text; it is likewise true that the novel itself narrates the epic deeds and poetic truths of such legendary places as Ada Kaleh (to say nothing of other sites which are so “sadly familiar”). As for Moris Farhi’s protagonists, or even his walk-ons, to whom he has given such names as Adam, Buddha, and so on all the way down to Vulcan and Zoroaster, what matters is not so much the context in which they come to life or their precise literary positioning, but rather the immediacy with which they are able to evoke an intellectual thrill, a memory (vague though it may be), a spark of recognition.

No need, in short, for a glossary. Better perhaps to write a brief Translator’s Note, as a means of “clarifying problems or commenting on difficulties.” But what happens if the translator actually had no problems, encountered no difficulties? Can she say as much without the risk of sounding either intolerably arrogant or pathetically naive? The point of this observation is simply this: that it becomes awkward to categorize the demands of this translation as “difficulties”—or the demands of any translation, in all honesty, if the book is one that the translator has taken deeply into her heart.

It was not a problem, for instance, to comb the internet in search of Romani lexicons; nor was it a problem to discover that the word for “water” is paní and then to realize that this very word, pani, is one I have heard my two-year-old daughter use because her nanny is a native of the Punjab, the part of the world in which, it is believed, the Roma originated. Consulting printed and computerized sources (as well as the colleagues and friends that every happy translator cultivates) in order to be confident of the correct spellings of words in Romanian, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Turkish, and Hungarian, and even becoming accustomed to writing diacritical marks quickly and properly—these tasks did not pose a problem. It was not a problem to read web page after web page in order to confirm once-familiar concepts that had grown perhaps somewhat hazy—Phoenician and Greek deities, stories from the Bible, or clarifications of the nature of beings, concepts, and terminologies associated with Jewish custom, Hindu myth, or Nordic legend. The need to review the history and geography of the Balkans was hardly a problem. Similarly, it was no “problem,” though it was surely painful, to return to Birkenau, the concentration camp that specialized in the Zigeuner, and to re-experience the story of the extermination of the “gypsies” at the hands of the Nazis.

So what, then, is the point? One eternally risks speaking of translation in metaphors, and of these the metaphor of the journey is surely among the most threadbare. Yet Children of the Rainbow is, in fact, the story of at least three distinct journeys: Benedict’s journey in search of Branko, the Rom who lies within him, his one, crucial essence in the face of solitude, fear, and the anguished knowledge of his own infertility; the journey that leads Branko to discover and to recapture the holy book, the Gypsy Bible; and finally the journey of Branko’s entire people toward a free, untroubled, dignified life in Romanestan, that promised land where dreams and water flow.

Perhaps at this point, then, I might be safe in suggesting that this version of Moris Farhi’s novel in Italian does, indeed, represent a fourth journey—the one undertaken by the translator herself. In the first instance, she has let Farhi’s marvelously hybrid language take her by the hand and guide her, allowing her to follow each word as though it were a patrin, a sign along the road that is meant to show the way forward and diminish fear of a wrong turn, which is the translator’s travail. In the second, she has gone along with Branko and his Romanies, first in their search for the Book—masterfully conceived as a lyrical distillation of Everybook—and, later, in their discovery of a homeland. While the prophet and his children crossed forests and forged rivers, the translator has navigated the “hospitable sea” of words, learning with delight and awe what things there are in heaven and earth; and, at the end of the journey through a book that is itself made of many journeys, a new book was born: this one. What translator could ask for more?

In closing, I must not forget those who traveled with me: Mariantonietta Saracino for her constant faith in me, from the very start; my translator and non-translator friends on the mailing list, Qwerty, and on Facebook, especially Laura Prandino who let me “copy her homework” on Romani culture, Marina Morpurgo for her mountaineering expertise, Ileana M. Pop and Elisa Comito for the Romanian language, Alexandra Foresto and Andrea Rényi for Hungarian; and Professor Marco Brazzoduro, without question “the Roma’s best phral” in Italy, and all the Romani friends that he consulted in order to help me to be as precise as I possibly could. To each of them, my thanks come from the bottom of my heart.

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Figli dell’arcobaleno by Moris Farhi
Translated by Isabella Zani
Rome: Edizioni Lavoro, 2011

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