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Bible Ladino for Homer: Moshe Ha’elyon’s Odyssey

March 9, 2012

Homer’s Greek Odyssey can now be read in Ladino (or judeo-español) and in Shephardic Hebrew in a single volume thanks to Moshe Ha’elyon.

Ha’elyon is a native of Thessaloniki, Greece, where as a boy he studied Ancient Greek in school to read the Odyssey and the Iliad. There, from the mid 1920s up to the early 1940s, he also spoke Ladino in his home and with others in his community. Then, in July 1942, his community and his family were rounded up by the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz. Nir Hasson for Haaretz reports today, “Most of his family was killed on the day they arrived,” and Moshe “was the sole survivor in the family”; he “survived 21 months in Auschwitz, two death marches and a number of Nazi concentration camps.” Hasson compares Ha’elyon to the epic Greek hero, and we see a comparison to the epic Greek poet Homer as well: “Odyseus was the only survivor of a shipwreck. Ha’elyon tried to reach this country on an illegal immigrants’ ship and was caught by the British. He was also wounded in the War of Independence when the jeep he was riding turned over. In recent years, having retired, he wrote his own odyssey in the form of an autobiography and epic poems.”

As if his own story isn’t incredible enough, here’s the story of Ha’elon’s passion and practice of translation of the Odyssey. Isn’t it fascinating how his Ladino epic finds some of its language in the Bible in Ladino translation?

[H]e divides his time among Holocaust survivors’ commemoration groups and writing in Ladino.

The idea to translate “The Odyssey” was given to him by Ladino scholar Avner Peretz. “He said he hadn’t finished high school because the war started, but he admitted that he studied ancient Greek, and the seed was planted,” Peretz said.

Ha’elyon actually began with “The Iliad,” but stopped because the text was longer and “a little more difficult.”

The translation took Ha’elyon almost four years, dealing with numerous difficulties along the way. “Ladino is a spoken language. Suddenly I had to find words from realms that don’t have words, like agriculture, seafaring, names of trees, etc.”

He found the words in Peretz’s Hebrew-Ladino dictionary and in the Bible in Ladino, among other books.

“I didn’t make up any words. I have documentation for everything,” he says.

He also had the challenge of maintaining the rhyming and rhythm of Homer’s original. During translation, and even when reading it now, Ha’elyon said he drums his fingers, which helped him maintain the cadence – Dactylic hexameter, lines of six (“hexa” ) feet, each of which is a “dactyl” – i.e., finger-shaped, with one long part, or syllable, and two short ones.

Ha’elyon placed Peretz’s translation of “The Odyssey” into Hebrew alongside his Ladino one, which make his work not only the first-ever translation of “The Odyssey” into Ladino, but also the first into Sephardic Hebrew.

Now Ha’elyon plans to return to his Ladino translation of “The Iliad.” “I learned how to work; from now on, every line I write, I won’t need to touch,” he says.

This week is the launch of the first of the book’s two volumes, at the Castel Museum in Ma’aleh Adumim. The book is dedicated to Israel’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon [the Founder and Chair of the Ladino Culture Authority], on his 90th birthday.

You can find the rest of Hasson’s report on Ha’elyon and this project here.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2012 8:49 am

    First of all, thank you for posting this fascinating article. Ha’elyon’s story reminded me a bit of the outstanding novel Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels—the story of a young Jewish boy who escapes Poland in 1940 and spends the remainder of the war hidden in Greece, becoming a poet.
    When I got to the bottom of the article, I was extremely surprised to see that the book launch is basically around the corner from where I live. Maybe my Hebrew is the problem, but I haven’t been able to find the event listed anywhere else, and this mention doesn’t include a date and time. I even called the museum this morning and they don’t seem to know anything about it. Does anyone have more information on when this talk will be? I would love to go.

  2. March 19, 2012 2:05 pm

    Did you find the answer to your question? I sure hope you were able to go to the talk at the book launch!

    Thanks to your mention of it, I’ve just started reading Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces. From the criticism I’ve read, the novel does seem to be similar to Ha’elyon’s life story in several ways.

  3. March 20, 2012 9:33 am

    Unfortunately I never got there.

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