Gendarmes taking census forms to an encampment of itinerant gypsies in their caravan, Paris, 1895

Lost in translation

Do not dream of comparing Roma history with the Jews


This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It is not until literally the last page of the book, first published in 2011, that the author concedes that the Roma originally entered Europe 600 years ago “under false names, concealing their origins and telling tales about why they had to leave their homelands”. He mentions this, absolutely appropriately, in comparing the impact of the original Roma immigration to “Europe’s reaction to the African and Arab migrants arriving on its shores” at the time of the book’s publication — a migration and a reaction that are today greatly magnified.

A cogent book on European societies’ reactions to other cultures — including proper historical analyses, reflecting on the present situation, featuring the long-standing social islands of Roma (and indeed Jews) dwelling in their midst, and at least partially seeking to isolate them from their neighbours through their customs and taboos — would be timely and interesting. Unlike this one.

Europe and the Roma: A History of Fascination and Fear, Klaus-Michael Bogdal, tr. Jefferson Chase (Allen Lane, £35)

In August 1992, a mob attacked the Central Refugee Shelter in the Lichtenhagen district of Rostock, Germany, which held over 200 Roma from Romania; the mob later went on to attack a neighbouring building sheltering 150 Vietnamese refugees. Fortunately, no one died. The literary historian Klaus-Michael Bogdal, researching this nearly 20 years later, was moved to consider, “what did such hatred for people who are so utterly unknown come from?”

This book, which originally had the more appropriate title Europa erfindet die Zigeuner (“Europe Invents the Gypsy”), is the result. It is essentially a non-analytical literary history of how Romaphobia has been reflected in written and printed sources, almost entirely in disdain and ignorance, since the Roma first began to appear in Europe. In some 450 pages, Bogdal treats us to extensive synopses of a variety of European (mostly German) sources (chronicle, fiction, pseudo-anthropological) featuring Roma.

He does this without anywhere properly contextualising the Roma within European history, without providing us with any insight, explanation or understanding of the Roma themselves, their culture or their attitudes towards others. He resolutely rebuffs any parallel with other forms of social discrimination that have, after all, infested European (and all other) societies since ancient times, on the simplistic grounds that the Roma have consistently and uniquely been deliberately cast by European culture as bottom-dog.

Do not, by the way, dream of comparing their history with the Jews. When it comes to Nazism, we are informed (without any evidence) that for Roma policy, “as was not the case with anti-Semitism, it was necessary to … go beyond existing anti-gypsy prejudice” — just as we are earlier (equally blandly) informed that in the origins of antisemitism Jews were “accused of exploiting their economic power as part of a conspiracy to achieve world domination”, whereas gypsies “weren’t even good enough to be considered a race”.

This book is already hopelessly out of date in its attitude

The book could indeed serve well for students seeking to crib extracts from obscure German literature for essays supporting the message that, when it comes to the Roma, “We are all guilty”. They would need to put up with the AI-style translation: a particularly egregious example is seen when Bogdal comments on Austen’s Emma that “Fainting somatically recapitulates how Harriet, as a typical nineteenth-century woman, previously presented herself”. They would also need to cope with multiple errors of spelling, word-coining, presentation and fact (e.g. “George Sands”, “museal”, prose unexplainedly broken up in the format of blank verse, the Lichtenhagen riots mystifyingly described on page one as directed solely at Vietnamese).

It’s difficult to understand why Allen Lane is publishing this book in some sort of English prose twelve years after its debut — and why, in deciding to print it, they have not apparently thought it worthwhile to employ an able proofreader. In any case, the book is already hopelessly out of date in its attitude. Bogdal’s pompous statement that “the idea of Europe will necessarily … be measured by how it deals with Roma” illustrates how in ten years the “idea of Europe” has itself become flustered.

As he offers no solution beyond inducting the Roma wholesale into “European” criteria of education, culture and identity, he is in fact quite as patronising or elitist as the many writers he condemns. It is quite in order, of course, to point out errors made in the past, but self-righteously calling out literary history does not by itself solve the problems of the present.

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