Davide Reviati’s graphic novel Spit Three Times is a coming-of-age story set in the rural outskirts of Ravenna, Italy. A group of teenage boys assimilate into the adult world alongside a big family of Sinti (or Romani) of Slovenian origin, who, for the most part, interact with the Italian community without ever blending in. The two groups don’t clash so much as grate, between curiosity, misunderstanding, and repulsion. There is no one protagonist, but rather an ensemble of characters and a chorus of voices that depict a slice of Italian life in all its historical depth and social complexity.
Reviati’s dialogue is mimetic, formally and visually. The letters on the page run together to indicate rapid, slurred, or incomprehensible speech; slant for anger; or elongate for worry, like raised eyebrows. These sorts of visual effects can be reproduced in the lettering, but where the translating thickens is with the use of various registers, indicating teen slang, local dialect, uneducated speak, and Romani accents. Rendering accented speech is a delicate matter: it’s a fine line between sounding different and sounding dumb, and the linguistic features that reveal non-native speech or a specific place of origin in one language will obviously be very different in another.
It is hard to overstate the level of discrimination that Roma face in Italy, where slurs and stereotypes against them are commonplace and many live in dilapidated “camps” on the edges of the cities. The line “they’re not made to live in houses like we are” at once encapsulates a mainstream mindset and a discriminatory social policy that has effectively excluded a sizable minority population from participating in civic life while also alluding to an understandable diffidence in the “gadje” (non-Roma) and difference from their culture. My hope in translating Spit Three Times is that it will contribute to understanding not only Roma identity and history, but the way that prejudice develops and ferments and the difficulties of valorizing a minority culture in the face of a dominant, and domineering, majority.