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Young Roma writers find inspiration in Amanda Gorman's poetry

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A new book by poet Amanda Gorman speaks of the quest for justice and equality. Those values sparked a controversy in Europe over whether her translator should be diverse. In Hungary, they include translators from Europe's largest and most stigmatized minority who are working on an edition due out this spring. Joanna Kakissis reports from Budapest.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Rozalia Galambica first discovered Amanda Gorman on YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMANDA GORMAN: When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

KAKISSIS: It was a clip of Gorman at President Biden's inauguration reciting her now famous poem "The Hill We Climb."

ROZALIA GALAMBICA: Amanda is standing in the middle with her yellow coat, and everyone else is in black. The way she performs her poem, you are listening to her, and everything makes sense.

KAKISSIS: Galambica, who's 20 years old, says this poem seemed to speak to her own experiences as a Roma in Hungary.

R GALAMBICA: You know, when you experience hate every day of your life - and you just feel every word of the poem.

KAKISSIS: The Roma are one of Europe's largest ethnic minorities and its most marginalized. They were known for years as gypsies, a term Galambica says is loaded with the racism she faced growing up in Hungary.

R GALAMBICA: You are not enough. You won't be able to have a career because you will have children at 16 or 15. My brother - his teacher told him that it doesn't really matter if he studies because he won't be able to get a good job, and he will be no one in life.

KAKISSIS: The Roma migrated from India to Europe more than a thousand years ago. More than 12 million live in Europe today and are European citizens, yet many live in impoverished villages, shut out of good schools and the job market.

R GALAMBICA: Someone who doesn't know what it's like to be different in this kind of way, it will be hard for them to understand what Amanda might have thought when she wrote the poem.

KAKISSIS: Galambica is now one of Gorman's Hungarian translators.

(CROSSTALK)

KAKISSIS: She and three other Hungarian Roma are working on a translation of Gorman's bestselling new book, "Call Us What We Carry." The translators got the assignment after their mentor, Kriszta Bódis, read about criticism over who should translate Gorman's work.

KRISZTA BÓDIS: (Through interpreter) Literary types were debating whether someone's race should be a factor. Some said it's the knowledge, not skin color, that should count. It all started in the Netherlands.

KAKISSIS: Gorman's Dutch translator, a white nonbinary writer, quit last year after critics said the job should have gone to a Black writer. Then the Catalan translator, a white man, was dropped. European translators said they were getting dragged into American identity politics. But in Hungary, Bódis, who runs a nonprofit for Roma education, saw an opportunity.

BÓDIS: (Through interpreter) Most of the translators here are middle-aged white men. So I told the publisher, we have these wonderful young writers who are Roma.

KAKISSIS: One is 18-year-old Peter Galambica, whose sister we met earlier.

PETER GALAMBICA: I feel like the hill we're trying to climb is to put a stop to Romani people being looked at as criminals and as jokes and like we're clowns.

KAKISSIS: Another translator, Noemi Kala, who is also 18, says her classmates in Budapest don't realize that stereotyping hurts.

NOEMI KALA: They don't know what it means for me, for the Romani's people. They just do it. And when they read poems like this, I really hope that they see what they did. (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Noemi reads a translation of "The Hill We Climb" to the others.

KALA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Bódis also assigns research on the Black American experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROWN BABY")

NINA SIMONE: (Singing) I want you to go with your head held high.

KAKISSIS: This week, the translators listen to Nina Simone's song "Brown Baby."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROWN BABY")

SIMONE: (Singing) I want you to live by the justice code.

KAKISSIS: Rozalia Galambica Zooms into the translation session from university in the Netherlands. She says her classmates there think she's Spanish or Greek.

R GALAMBICA: I'm just scared to say that, yeah, I'm a Hungarian Roma - you know? - because I'm not sure about how they would handle it.

KAKISSIS: She finds strength in the last lines of "The Hill We Climb." She reads her translation.

R GALAMBICA: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GORMAN: For there is always light, if only we're brave enough to see it. If only we're brave enough to be it.

R GALAMBICA: Chills (laughter).

KAKISSIS: Why do you get chills?

R GALAMBICA: I think it just describes that everything is possible.

KAKISSIS: Including, she says, this translation of one of her favorite poets, which is set to come out this summer.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Budapest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.