How Do You Say "Condom" in Albanian?
How do you say "condom" in Albanian? The answer took me more than a little research, since until recently, there was no such thing as an Albanian-English phrasebook for tourists. There was one official manual that offered such helpful phrases as "Which way to the Lenin-Stalin museum?" But since the fall of the Communist empire, they seem more than a little outdated. Finding no practical guide in the bookstores, I ended up writing one myself, along with some colleagues.
Before World War II, tourism in Albanian-speaking areas, both within the Albanian state and to the neighboring Albanian-majority regions in Kosovo and Macedonia, was virtually nonexistent, with travel risky because of banditry and related problems.
After 1944 the Albanian Communist regime, under the highly repressive and paranoid Enver Hoxha, barred individual tourists from the country. Hoxha's government published a "Handbook of English-Albanian Conversation" which was distributed to members of the occasional tour group and passed from hand to hand by Albanophiles, but it was useless for regular tourism. For example, since no Americans were permitted to travel to Albania, the book's list of countries (as in the phrase "I come from . . . ") found America absent.
Nor did the Hoxha-approved handbook include the simple phrase "I am lost," since members of tour groups were not allowed out alone, and therefore, presumably, would not have to worry about that. Instead, there was a translation of the request by "radical" tourists in the former Communist countries: "I would like to visit a state farm, a machine and tractor station, and a cooperative farm."
When I decided to put together a post-Communist Albanian-English phrase guide, with the help of some Albanian American friends -- even though my own command of Albanian was sketchy at best -- my first step was to search the bookstores for a phrasebook that might serve as a model; mainly, an example of a standard phrase list.
The Lonely Planet series, published in Australia, immediately caught my eye, for those guides covered languages even more exotic than Albanian: Quechua, spoken by indigenous people of the Andes, Thai Hill Tribe languages, Tibetan, and Pidgin (for use in Papua New Guinea). I contacted the main office in Australia, and they were interested in publishing what we could come up with. My main collaborator was a long-patient local advocate for Albania and its religious communities, John Sinishta. Sinishta has published the Albanian Catholic Bulletin in Albanian and English, mainly from the University of San Francisco, for more than a decade.
Our phrase list was to be included in a 350-plus page "language survival kit" for Mediterranean Europe. It would appear with the predictable Greek, Italian, Serbian and Croatian, but also with Maltese, Macedonian and Slovene. Phrase guides for the latter two languages were also in print for the first time -- evidence of the wide ripples from the fall of communism.
Meanwhile, conflict had broken out in the former Yugoslavia, covering areas where Albanian, Serbian and Croatian, and Macedonian are spoken. I began to view the project as a kind of "War Zone Phrasebook," with the possibility of especially high sales among U.N. peacekeeping troops, media correspondents and related wanderers into the inferno.
Of course, anybody who knows the Balkans would spot the presence of some potential hazards, as well, in those little pages. Serbs and Croats get violent, as everybody now knows, over tender issues such as the name of the language or languages they speak. Greece denies the very existence of the Macedonian Slav culture. One wouldn't want to think that pulling a phrase book out of one's pocket would get one arrested or shot, rather than promote international friendship.
The Lonely Planet publications emphasize the things you really need to know: what to say if you get in trouble with the police, how to say that you are pregnant or, on the other hand, want to use a condom.
This practical approach presented problems in our case, since Albania's Communist government strongly discouraged birth control. As late as mid-1993, Albania claimed no cases of AIDS, and a U.N. health representative in the capital, Tirana, said at most there may be "three or four." Condoms remained nearly impossible to find.
When I broached the topic of condoms to my Albanian American collaborators, they all blushed and some insisted such things were unknown in Albania, along with AIDS. But we finally found the equivalents, including "profilakteks."
'The Mediterranean Europe Phrasebook" came out in January. However, a new element has emerged in the landscape of Albanian linguistics.
Sinishta and most of the other Albanian American scholars who helped me on the phrase book had described to me how Hoxha's rigid communism had been felt in the areas of grammar and vocabulary, as well as in ideology and literature. Hoxha didn't just tell his people what to think and say, he told them how to say it. Before Hoxha, Albania had two dialects. In the north, which was Catholic and had a long tradition of popular literacy, the language was called Gheg. In the Muslim south, where education had long been in Turkish, the language was called Tosk.
The differences are relatively few, and seem minor to an outsider: Tosks say zeri for "voice," Ghegs say zani; in the north of Albania, potatoes are kertolla, and butter is burofresko, while in the rest of the country you order patate, and if they aren't already fried, you can put on some gjalp.
Hoxha, with the limitless cultural arrogance that characterized so many Communist rulers, commanded that the local dialects should be replaced by a "unified Albanian," a single "literary language" based on the southern Tosk variant, that would befit a united people striving to construct communism.
Eliminating Gheg dialect also meant suppressing Catholic intellectual traditions. Such was in line with the dictator's main obsession: destroying religion. Hoxha's regime was alone in the world in mandating compulsory atheism, by law, for its subjects. Catholic churches, Muslim mosques and Jewish structures were turned into movie houses or warehouses, or were left to decay in ruins. Priests were executed for baptizing children.
Sinishta and his Bulletin, here among the Albanians in America, struggled long and hard to keep the Gheg dialect of his northern people alive. They defied Hoxha in linguistic policy as they defied him in politics and in religious life. The Albanian section of Sinishta's journal was always written in Gheg.
And they were destined to enjoy a great triumph; the fall of communism allowed a complete rebirth of religion, and Sinishta himself recently traveled through Albania with Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, whose family is Albanian.
But even Sinishta concluded that "unified Albanian" had won out, and that our tourist handbook should mainly utilize it, since it would make foreign visitors' lives easier. In a resigned voice, he told me, "the young people consider the unified language to be a sign of modernity."
I argued with him, insisting that modern writers throughout the world had come to recognize difference, in language as in lifestyle, as a positive value. The readers of the future would, I said, honor those who preserved the country's literary traditions, not those who tried to suppress them through enforced homogeneity. I also pointed out that regional languages and dialects are undergoing a rebirth throughout the new Europe, in the west as well as the east, ranging from the Provencal dialect in France to Frisian off the North Sea coast.
Finally, we included a few double entries, with the Gheg variant alongside the "unified" standard. Kertolla/patate for "potato" was one example.
As spring came to Albania this year, Sinishta received news that the Catholic Church in Albania had adopted the Gheg dialect as the official language for use in Mass.
Lonely Planet told us that they plan to keep "The Mediterranean Europe Phrasebook" in print for 10 years. But perhaps, in half that time, a new phrasebook for the revived Gheg speech of northern Albania will be needed. That seems to be the Balkan bottom line: Difference may be difficult for some to accept, but it's here to stay.