Moj Dilbere (S*) and the perils of translation – Bosnia, etc.

*S is for Song. So? A song and/or melody has a life independent of whatever dance it may be attached to. Why that’s important is explained here.

Moj Dilbere is one of the most beloved songs of Bosnia and surrounding regions, a prime example of Sevdalinka. It is also known world-wide, even among those not aware of its roots. I’ve found over 200 YouTubes of performances! Below is a rendition considered by some Bosniaks to be the best, though there are many fine interpretations.

Silvana Armenulić, released 1990? (she died in a car crash, 1976)
Chords for the Silvana Armenulić arrangement.

For Sheet Music, click:

Wikipedia says Moj Dilbere “has been in Bosnia since Ottoman times. The exact authors are unknown and Moj Dilbere is considered to be a traditional song. The song is sung from the perspective of a female in the Ottoman Empire.”

Moj Dilbere is a good example of the perils of trying to translate the meaning of a song from one place and time (Bosnia hundreds of years ago) to another (the West, here and now). On Dec 4, 2019, a discussion was begun on the EEFC listserve with this seemingly simple request. “

“Our group is finishing up our first CD. We’re trying to include a brief synopsis of the lyrics for the songs. The best we can find for Moj Dilbere is essentially “My darling, where are you off to? Why don’t you take me along to the bazaar and sell me off to a merchant for a stash of gold?” Is there a better translation? A bit more to the story that makes it sound less horrid to 21st century ears? Sometimes just being the accordionist who doesn’t have a clue what the words mean makes it easier to appreciate the beauty of the songs  :-)”

Herein lies a dilemma: You’re an entertainer. You want to make people feel good while playing the music you love, yet remaining true to the sources of your music.

What follows is 23 entries by 10 people over 3 days discussing the fine points of the perspective of the singer (man or woman?); the gender of words; the use of tenses; multiple translations of the same word (‘doro’ can mean both ‘door’ and ‘horse’); nuances of a word’s meaning in Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegran, and Turkish; and poetic license – “I’ve worked as an interpreter, but not a poet”, “But it’s poetry, and not all poetry has a simple explanation. (“If I wanted to say it exactly and clearly, I would have written an essay, not a poem.”).

The song’s lyrics tell of a woman’s love that is so powerful that she suggests being exchanged for gold to be put on her lover’s door (or horse). It doesn’t make sense to me. Some suggested interpretations:

“I have always interpreted the song to be a woman singing about such deep commitment/love to this man that she is willing even to be sold off so that he can have live his life even more beautifully- in other words, that she would give everything for him to have total happiness, even if it is about something (relatively) frivolous like a more lavish front gate. There are hints here of tragedy/sacrifice in deep passion.”

“She wants to be seen as a gold piece on his horse’s neck “doro vrata”- symbolic right. She wants for everyone to know about her feelings (ik – their and devotion to be seen by all at a bazaar) as the precious gold on his possession (horse here).”

These interpretations inhabit the realm of poetry – suggestions of the strength of her love, but not necessarily to be taken literally – she isn’t really saying she wants to be sold. However the music is so powerful, and melancholy; the melody also conveys desperation, bitterness, resignation – vastly more complex than pure intense passion. I have recently discovered a much more complex and subtle interpretation of Moj Dilbere‘s lyrics in a Master’s thesis by Nada Miljković, a Yugoslav-born Muslim living in the USA.

I recommend reading the entire thesis to fully understand Miljković’s reasoning. Below are excerpts:

“…As mentioned earlier in this paper, the song “Moj Dilbere”, meaning, “My Darling”, is very popular and sung by the biggest pop stars, both male and female. The simple lyrics are the following: “My darling, where are you going? Take me with you. Take me to the old part of town, to the bazaar. Sell me for two pounds of gold. With this, gild the front gate of your palace.“ The song, as with most songs, can have multiple readings and translation. Most simply put, the woman is asking her lover to sell her so that she will be forever in his mind. The ultimate sacrifice for love is oneself, complete submission. Another interpretation is that her love is so great that she would rather live on as a symbol, never to tarnish, rather than grow old in his presence. Her youth will fade and she will be unworthy of her lover. Her worth of love will evoke, will dazzle him, forever reminding and blinding, every time he goes home….

….As mentioned above, Sevdalinke are complicated both in performance and historical background, as well syntactically. The lyrics of Sevdalinkes are written from both the male and female point of view and sung by either, without changing the lyrics or gender. For example, the song “Moj Dilbere”, a very popular Sevdalinke known throughout the Balkans, including Turkey, is definitely from the female point of view and yet is sung by men. From the beginning, the music was distinguishable between women and men not by the lyrics but by the delivery. Women sang the songs as more internal expression, subdued, subtle and refined. On the other hand, the men sang the songs loudly, lewdly and with abandon. This performance can be seen as a metaphor of the two different power positions. It is emblematic of the all-powerful male, cavalier in his actions, and the subservient docile female. A woman sang these songs because her heart forced the song out of her throat so as to not drown. A man sang it with zealous abandon.

The songs of Sevdah, modeled after the Koran, can be read on multiple levels and in various contexts creating many translations. Sevdah is open to different narratives and yet bound to the pain and a long tradition of patriarchy. The songs in the appendix were chosen to be included in Balkan Song because of their cross-region origins while maintaining the expression of greater cultural chauvinism. “Moj Dilbere” sings of selling oneself so to always be a reminder to her lover. It can also be read that this song inverts the master\slave narrative by the woman freely submitting herself since inevitably she will have no agency. By giving herself for gold so that her lover will be in constant remembrance of her self-sacrifice, she acts by her own volition.

This song begs the question, why would someone sell her self instead of just being? The answer may lie in realm of the subaltern, someone that does not have agency. The patriarchal hegemonic rule has objectified the woman as far as it can go and still maintain social acceptability. She is going to be sold off whether she likes it or not to whomever, whenever. By making the deal herself, she makes a choice where it seems there is no choice.…”

Nada Miljković includes this ‘story’ of Moj Dilbere, without clarifying whether it is a traditional legend about the song, or whether she made it up to illustrate the conditions and choices facing women in Ottoman times.

Once the music took root and evolved as a Bosnian tradition, the many cultures of Sarajevo made their distinct sound from the Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Bosniaks, local peoples many of the mercantile trade that converted to Islam. Sevdah is also connected to people of the Sephardic Jewish and Muslim migration. Along with the Jews, upon expulsion from Spain, many Moors came to Sarajevo as well.

Moj Dilbere: There once was a very beautiful cultured girl. She was not of the Balkans. Her family had come from far away from the West. They spoke both Arabic and Ladino, the language of Spain. They were Muslim before they came to Sarajevo. She was known to have a voice of a songbird. She loved her neighbor, a boy she had known from childhood. He loved her as well. Her father was a good man and loved his daughter. Only he had a terrible problem with cards playing and gambling. One night, playing Tabla, the father had a winning streak that was the best of his life. He was unbeatable. His friends lost over and over, constantly changing seats as they lost all their money. The father drank heavily. He had to do a shot every time was bragging of his winning a stranger sat beside him. The stranger told the father that he would beat him. The father laughed and replied that would never happen. Of course, the father lost, everything. With nothing left, he still wanted to keep playing, foolishly believing that he would win. He told the stranger, he would bet his beautiful daughter. The stranger accepted the bet and won. The girl, hearing the gossip that flew like fire, knew her fate. She begged her lover to sell her at the bazaar for two pounds of gold so that he may gild his front gate.

Nada Mamula, 1962?
Safet Isović, 1988.

Moj dilbere, kud se šećeš    (shectesh)            My sweetheart, where are you going?
Aj što i mene ne povedeš    (Shto)                    Why don’t you take me with you?
Aj što i mene ne povedeš

Refrain. 2x
Što te volim, ah što te ljubim     (Shto)             How I want you, how I love you,
aman, aman, Bože moj              (Bozhe)           Oh, oh, my God!

Povedi me, u čaršiju                (Charshiju)        Take me to the old part of town
Aj pa me prodaj bazardžanu   (bazardzhanu)   Sell me at the Bazaar
Aj pa me prodaj bazardžanu

Refrain. 2x

Uzmi za me, oku zlata                                       Get for me an oka* of gold 
Aj pa pozlati dvoru vrata                                   And then gild the door of your courtyard.
Aj pa pozlati dvoru vrata                                   *("oka" is an old Turkish measure of weight, about 2 pounds)
Refrain. 2x

Alternate refrain translation:
Što te volim, ah što te ljubim,   Why do I love you? Why do I kiss you,   
aman, aman, Bože moj              Help me, my God.
Lyrics as sung by Safet Isovic, and Nadya's and Zoran's 101 Candle Orchestra (below).
Most YouTubes leave out the refrain "Što te volim", etc, or substitute an instrumental break using the same melody, or substitute other lyrics.  
Sazlije Sevdah Živinice  The saz is the traditional instrument for accompanying Sevdah, but not usually 12! Mostar Sevdah Reunion
Toše Proeski, the Macedonian “Elvis of the Balkans” (BBC) also died in a car crash, aged 26.
Szapora; UK-Balkan band with singers from Sarajevo. Bosnian singer Zerina Cokoja with Turkish DJ Mercan Dede
vamosbabe, vocals & waitswatcher, instruments
Nadya’s and Zoran’s 101 Candle Orchestra, Sidney, AU.
Turkish/Albanian singer Yeşim Salkım.

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