n the summer of 2004, a catchy Balkanic disco tune took Europe by storm, thumbing its nose at the staunch proponents of nothing-but-English (with a pinch of Spanish maybe) as the lingo of worldwide hit singles. While Dragostea din tei ("Love under the Linden Tree") topped the charts in two original-language versions1, kids everywhere sang nu mă nu mă iei ("you're leavin' me behind") as though they'd always spokenbelieve it or notRomanian!
That same year, two Eurovision Song Contest winnersa Ukrainian hard rock group and a folk ballad from Serbiaalso signaled a reckless New Europe propensity for exporting local music in the vernacular. A trend that could only warm my linguist's heart!
Then I stumbled onto the website of a leading Romanian industrialist. Its Carpathian Mountain backdrop was delightfully authentic. But the text was English only, and to add insult to injury, mother tongue Romanian ranked last in an online display of key staff's communication credentials. "Remember the haiduci2," kept repeating a stubborn little voice in my head.
Since the early 1990s, Central and Eastern Europeans have eagerly copied the West by embracing a monolithic language habit that nets millions of dollars per annum for big brand English courses. "Better bilingual than professionally dead" is a typical justification for such anglomania. German publisher Michaela Hueber, herself an experienced polyglot, compares English to a compulsory program in ice skating, unlike free-figure second languages that high school students can themselves select.
In France, decades of bowing to the write-in-English-or-perish principle have cost some engineers their feel for technical French (c'est quoi un field bus en français?). As a FR-EN translator, I see source language phrases that increasingly shun prepositions in favor of cascades of Anglo-Saxon-like adjectival nouns. Bucharest grammar expert Narcisa Forăscu3 points to similar phenomena in Romanian, where certain declensions dear to this close cousin of Italian teeter at the edge of a linguistic melting pot.
Enter the haiduci. Embedded in the best-selling pop message4, along with Picasso and snippets of amorous cell phone banter, this word is now familiar to anyone in Europe below age 25. Roughly speaking, a haiduc is a renegade knight, a well-meaning bandit, a sort of local Robin Hood. Such heroes led maquis-type skirmishes against the country's Stalinist regimes, from 1945 to 1965. They also embody the long resistance of their language to wave upon wave of would-be oppressors. A tradition that, in this century, may be perpetuated by the translators Romania has trained for the Euro-Atlantic institutions and its own swiftly expanding business community.
Mihai Eminescu's Linden Tree in Iaşi
"Minor languages need a new marketing angle," says my friend Gheorghe Doca, creator of learn-it-yourself Romanian manuals. And how do they vie with a linguistic heavyweight? "As complete cultural packages," he contends, "because no one wants to talk a utilitarian business code over dinner." Tell that to the man in the street in Slovenia or Holland, for example! One Briton I know invents fake Flemish identities on trips to Amsterdam, so that people will converse with him in Dutch5. The slightest hint of an accent in any European city triggers the automatic English reflex.
Global music moguls probably scoff at the brief foray of Romanian into an all-Anglo entertainment niche. But there are truly dark sides to the single-language-for-everything coin. Like the malaise it causes in countries torn between cherished specificities and the scope afforded by a superspeak, albeit less than perfect... Witness indeed the error-ridden variants of English proliferating across cyberspace, in song lyrics and on cutting-edge technology forums. Pessimistic linguists speculate that such "hybrids" will someday replace all other languages, reverse-flowing even into once pure, native English spheres.
Yet Dragostea din tei spinoffs (in German, Chinese, Spanish, but also English...) never mustered the universal clout of the original version. Young Romanians who heard contestants sing it on French TV show Star Academy delighted in the boost it was giving their image. By the happiest of coincidences, in November 2004, Romania's parliament passed a law requiring that all texts of public interest to its citizens be translated into the national language6. And guess what? The Internet showcase of that industrial complex in the Carpathian foothills today advertises its wares in Romanian, too.
Romania's history of multilingualism in commerce, literature, art and science has understandably encouraged its webmasters to target export markets first. But European Union membership is heightening the country's pride in its now official EU language, which also totals the largest number of speakers in southeastern Europe. Forty Romanian translators currently work in DGT7 offices in Brussels, Luxembourg and Bucharest, subcontracting to a further 50 accredited freelances and agencies. Professional training programs such as the University of Iaşi's masterat de traducere şi interpretariat practice regular exchanges with their western counterparts. And last year, the Institutul cultural român, which oversees an international network of 15 cultural centers, awarded 30 scholarships to both budding and veteran translators of Romanian in Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, the Ukraine, etc.
Although O-Zone1 disbanded in 2005, fans out here would certainly welcome another techno megahit īn romāneşte, again proving that a lesser known culture can have planetary appeal without losing its linguistic identity. My deepest wish is that future generations of children not be brought up in franglais, Deutschenglisch, or, for that matter, romgleza (their Romanian equivalent). So I'm raising a hopeful toast: Să trăiască haiducii! Long life to you-know-who!
1 Recorded by O-Zone, a group based in Republica Moldova, where Romanian is also spoken, and by Haiducii, a dance act formed in Italy by Bucharest-born singer Paula Mitrache (the song was number one in several Latin language countries, but also in Ireland, Austria and Sweden; it likewise ranked high in some South American charts).
While the title Dragostea din tei is widely thought to refer to the linden tree associated with national bard Mihai Eminescu's 19th century poetry, a native speaker quoted in Wikipedia states that "love from the linden tree(s)" can mean "love at first sight". Note that tei is both the singular and plural indefinite article form of linden tree in Romanian. The preposition din has numerous meanings.
2 The masculine noun haiduc (sing.indef.) is declined haiduci (pl.indef.), haiducul (sing.def.), haiducii (pl.def.)also see Bokor, Gabe, Gender and Language in TJ, April 2007.
3 in her book Dificultăţi gramaticale ale limbii romāne, Editura Universităţii din Bucureşti, 2001
4 The first line, first verse reads "Alo, salut, sunt eu, un haiduc". Various renderings of the complete text in several languages can still be found on the web.
5 Floyd, John, Englisch, Englisch, über alles! in Language International 4.2, 1992, p.13
6 Legea privind folosirea limbii romāne īn locuri, relaţii si instituţii publice (Nr. 500/12 noiembre 2004). The law waives the translation requirement, in certain cases, for languages used by Romania's national minorities (see www.us-english.org, under "US English FoundationOffical Language LawsRomaniaAct on the Use of the Romanian Language in Public Places, Relations and Institutions").
7 DGT: the European Commission's Directorate General for Translation.