The Odyssey: A Ladino Translation

La Odisea: Trezladada en ladino i ebreo del grego antiguo por Moshe ‘Ha-Elion i Avner Perez (in two volumes)

Jerusalem: Yeriot Press, Vol. I, 2011, 431 pp.; Vol. II, 2014, 409 pp.

Reviewed by Bension Varon1

Anyone familiar with Jewish history knows that when Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 they carried with them the knowledge of their everyday language, which they preserved, with some adaptations, as Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish. The year 2015 saw the publication of a groundbreaking work in that language, namely, the second volume of the translation of Homer’s Odyssey from Ancient Greek directly into Ladino.2  This constituted a landmark event not just for speakers and lovers of this historic language but also for linguists in general.

The Odyssey, of course, is the companion of (or sequel to) Homer’s Iliad, which tells the story of Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin), its hero, king of Ithaca, who joined the Trojan War to help retrieve Helen, abducted by Paris. It tells the arduous return journey of ten years that Odysseus undertook to be reunited with his son Telemachus and his wife Penelope, and to kill the boisterous suitors who had been courting his wife in his absence. Most readers of the Greek classic are familiar with the lethargic eaters of lotus, the one-eyed Cyclops, the tribe of giant cannibals, the Sirens, the six-headed monster Scylla, and the whirlpool Charybdis, which Odysseus encountered, and with the story’s happy ending.

Volume I of the same work was published in 2011.  Both volumes contain, side by side, Ladino as well as Hebrew translations of the Odyssey by two different translators: Haelion, of the Ladino text, and Avner Perez of the Hebrew one. The Odyssey had been translated into Hebrew before—by the Russian-born Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernikovsky (1875-1943). But this is the first time that a Ladino translation was attempted. This review, therefore, focuses on the Ladino translation. The two translators jointly dedicated their work “kon estima i afeksyon” to the late Yitshak Navon (1921-2015), fifth past president of Israel, and the first Sephardi to hold that position. The dedication coincided with the former president’s 90th birthday.

An undertaking of this order requires readers to possess more than a cursory background on both its genesis and its author. To start with the latter, Moshe Haelion is an Israeli Sephardi of Greek origin born in Thessaloniki (Salonika) in 1925. In 1942, when he was barely seventeen, and before he could finish high school, he was shipped with his family to Auschwitz. His family perished there quickly; he was its sole survivor. During the balance of the war, he made the tour of three other concentration camps, mostly in Austria, and participated in at least two “death marches.”3 He was liberated by the American forces at Ebensee, a sub-camp of Mauthausen in Austria, in May 1945. Soon after liberation, he left for Palestine on an illegal refugee ship which was captured by the British. He was sent to a detention camp, Atlit, near Haifa.  He then fought in Israel’s War of Independence, during which he was wounded. After the establishment of the State of Israel, he received officers’ training and graduated with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Moshe Haelion remained affiliated with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) until his retirement in 1996. In the intervening years, he completed and advanced his interrupted education, earning a Master’s degree in the humanities from the University of Tel Aviv.

After retirement, Haelion split his time between community service and writing, which he loved. His community service was aimed at Israel’s Sephardic community, which was growing—and aging.  His writing dealt initially with his life—pre-Israel life.  He wrote a book about it in Ladino, later adapted to English.4 He also composed poetry about his Auschwitz experience and other subjects, a long biblical poem, and an original biblical play. In addition, he engaged in translating diverse literary works, including Greek classics, into Ladino, aided by his knowledge of Ancient Greek which he had acquired during his high school education in Salonika.

Avner Perez, the author of the parallel Hebrew translation of the Odysseyu, is an Israeli scholar of Hebrew, Greek and Ladino in his own right. He is also the force behind and director of the Maale Adumim Institute in Jerusalem—a documentation center of the Ladino language and heritage. The center aims not just at the preservation of Ladino manuscripts but also at the diffusion of new works on the Sephardic culture and language. In their parallel introductions to their first joint volume on the Odyssey, Haelion and Perez present differing accounts of the Ladino translation’s genesis. Haelion states that the idea occurred to him in 2006. Later, in an interview he gave to the newspaper Haaretz, he said that he had been working on a translation of Homer’s Iliad—a task which he found too demanding, due partly to the work’s length, and which led him to redirect his effort to the Odyssey.5 Perez, however, claims to have suggested the endeavor to Haelion himself.  One cannot make too much of the different claims. Haelion and Perez were and are close collaborators and friends. It is beyond doubt that Perez strongly encouraged Haelion to embark on the project and put his considerable intellectual and material resources (books and other) at his disposal.6

To say that translating the Odyssey—indeed, Homer in general—into any language is not an easy task would be a huge understatement. There is no better confirmation of this, in my opinion, than the fact that there have been at least thirty notable translations of the Odyssey into English, the last one in 2014.7 It would not be surprising if another one were not under preparation as I write. The inevitable inference is that there is, or can be, no definitive translation of the Odyssey. There is no such thing as an objective or literal translation. The reasons for this vary.

The Odyssey is an “epic poem.” (The word epic suits the Odyssey just as much as the Odyssey has come to define the word epic.)  It dates from the end of the eighth century BCE, and it is in Ancient Greek—a combination of several dialects of it, and an often ambiguous language. The poem is composed of 24 books (Haelion calls them “kantes”); one can think of them, rather, as episodes of a long story. And long it is. The Odyssey is gigantic, consisting of 12,200 verses, or lines.  Each line is 17-18 syllables long.  The poem is rhythmic in form, namely in the form known as ‘dactylic hexameter’.  Each line is made up of six units, or ‘meters’. Each meter consists, in turn, of three or four syllables.  Syllables can be either strong (accented) or soft. The strong are also referred to as long, and the soft as short.  The rhythm is produced by accentuating the first syllable of each unit, which results in a pattern such as this (h for hard, s for soft):

hss – hss – hss – hass – hss – hss

The rhythmic system allows deviations from the pattern—or ‘poetic liberties’--which are too technical to describe here.  Despite the deviations or freedoms allowed, reproducing the rhythm was a difficult task, but a must. The Odyssey and the Iliad were intended primarily to be recited. Putting them into writing took years, even centuries. It is the poetry’s rhythm that gave it its musicality and contributed to its attraction—and memorization.

The difficulties of translating the Odyssey go beyond the structural factors. The poem is nearly three thousand years old and, quite literally, about a different world. It has more than one hundred characters—gods or god-like, human, and animal.  Their interactions cover a broad range of emotions and deeds—love, hatred, fear, greed, jealousy, rivalry, vanity, crime, betrayal, heroism, and glory. Nearly half of the poem is in the form of dialogue. Behavior is shaped by the politics, social structure, morality, mores and conventions of the times.  Moreover, nearly all characters have their own goals and ambitions and engage in hiding the truth, cunning and disguise. It is difficult to determine what the numerous characters as well as Homer himself mean or have in mind throughout the long epic. This, more than the linguistic aspect (that is, word equivalency) explains the existence of multiple translations of the work into the same language. Similar factors account also for the availability of numerous versions (retellings) of the Indian (Sanskrit) epic poem Ramayana dating from the 5th to 4th century BCE.8

Haelion faced all of these difficulties, plus one: namely, finding the Ladino equivalents of maritime, agricultural, and musical terms which abound in the Odyssey—terms which, in some cases, refer to objects and species that no longer exist or which are not in use today. (I shall return to this aspect shortly.) But he brought numerous qualifications to the task.  He studied Ancient Greek in high school, and he expanded his knowledge of it later in life by undertaking translations from it.  Unlike most other scholars of the classics, he also knew Modern Greek. (I am not sure whether this helped or not, although I believe it must have.) In readings, speeches and interviews (some of them available on YouTube, which I have watched), Haelion demonstrated a rich knowledge of and fluency in Ladino—pure Ladino, with minimal foreign words—and an extraordinary ease of communicating in it. He composed not just prose but also poetry in Ladino, rhyming, rhythmic poetry. On the personal side, he displayed the twin qualities of perseverance and patience, essential for a task such as translating the Odyssey. His poetry is generally sad, although he is not a sad person. He is modest yet self-confident. Most importantly, he has a record of high standards. He displayed this in the course of his work on the Odyssey. After completing the translation of Volume I in three years, he was dissatisfied with his work and took another year and a half to bring it to the level he wanted.

Haelion dealt with the challenge of establishing the Ladino equivalents of old or strange words in Ancient Greek by consulting the oldest and rarest documents in Ladino he could find (including an 1873 translation of the Bible into Ladino), with the invaluable help of Avner Perez and his documentation center.  He used all the dictionaries of Ladino available. He also benefitted from Perez’ contemporaneous translation of the Odyssey into Hebrew--a language he knew well. One wonders, however, why Haelion did not consult any Spanish translation of the Odyssey, of which there are several, including two completed in the last decade. Ladino, after all, sprang from and is largely Spanish. A translation of the Odyssey into it was more likely to lead to or suggest Ladino equivalents than a Hebrew translation.

Haelion’s translation follows the Greek text closely, line by line; that is, every line of the original is translated so as to take up one line. It is also in the rhythmic pattern—dactylic hexameter—of the original. Structurally, it is the mirror image of it. I do not know Ancient Greek. Therefore, in the balance of this review I shall not pass judgement on the accuracy or authenticity of the translation. I shall focus mainly on the extent to which Haelion’s translation stands up as a piece of Ladino epic literature—a Ladino Odyssey.9

Haelion’s Odyssey opens as follows (Kante I, lines 1-10):

Kontame, Muza, del ombre astuto k’estuvo errando
mucho dospues k’estruyo la santa sitadela de Troya,
i vido muchas sivdades de djente, i supo sus sensia,
i sufrio muchos males en su korason en las mares,
i perkuro de salvarse i a kaza trayer sus kompanyos.
Ma no salvo sus kompanyos malgrado ke lo dezeava,
porke a kavza de su lokeria se dependieron;
bovos kriados, los kualos los bueyes de Elio Iperion
se los komieron, i el les vedo el dia del retorno.
Algo esto konta i a nos, dioza, fija de Zeus.

For the interested reader, I have included in an annex another excerpt from Haelion’s translation. It consists of the opening words of Odysseus before he recounts, after the facts, the adventures that have brought him to the verge of being reunited with his wife, which take up the rest of Homer’s poem.

The Odyssey is no ordinary story; the Ladino Haelion uses is, therefore, no ordinary Ladino either.  It involves the choice of words, which, though perfectly correct, a current Ladino speaker has to get used to from the beginning. These include the words dioza for goddess, diozes for gods, and nimfa for nymph. Another practice which causes a jolt throughout is the use of the word yerno for suitor (like the multitude who courted Penelope in Odysseus’ absence) instead of the common meaning of groom. (This is attributed to the choice of words by Tchernikovsky in his Hebrew translation.) A number of other oddities result from the exigencies of the meter, or rhythm. For example, syllables are transformed from long to short (or the reverse) to fit the meter either by swallowing (suppressing) a vowel, as in sta for esta or by adding one, as in aresponder for responder.  All composers of rhythmic poetry, not just translators, face the same problem and deal with it similarly.10 The meter also puts a premium on the knowledge and use of synonyms—if one word doesn’t fit, its synonym may—as with oyir and eskuchar, for hear; bella and ermoza, for beautiful, and kavesa and testa, for head. I found that whenever something sounded odd, more often than not the culprit was the meter..

The Ladino of Haelion’s translation is both genuine and remarkably pure. The first is suggested by the frequent use of a set of Ladino words which have come to distinguish Ladino from its maternal Spanish: ambezar (instead of aprender) for learning; meldar (instead of leer) for reading; responder (not contestar) for answering; merkar (not comprar) for buying; trokar (rather than cambiar or mudar) for changing; and menester (not necesidad) for need. Haelion also uses an expression which is typically both Ladino and Sephardic, namely, Guay de mi, which stands for “I am sorry you’re hurt; I feel your pain,” the sort of thing a mother would tell her child who is hurt in a bicycle accident, to comfort him, as my mother told me. A current Ladino speaker will have little trouble to identify with much of Haelion’s language.

It is well known that over the centuries Ladino has absorbed hundreds—perhaps a thousand or more—words, terms and expressions from other languages such as Hebrew, French and Turkish. This has, therefore, become a quick and ready test of purity. In my quick reading of the Haelion text, I could identify less than two dozen foreign words. Even if the number were twice or even thrice that, the incidence would be considered minimal for a text running more than 12,200 lines. As I suggested earlier, the recourse to foreign words may be attributed more to the meter than to the absence of Ladino equivalents. For the benefit of the curious, the foreign words include mazal and hohma (wisdom) in Hebrew; and boy (size), temel (base), dushman (enemy), and the ubiquitous ama (but, yet, still) and haber (news, happenings) in Turkish.

Different readers of Haelion’s translation will be pleased or surprised by different words they encounter after a long time–since childhood, like myself—or for the first time. I was struck by words I heard from my grandmothers, but not since, such as: afalagar (to comfort), estremeserse (to tremble with fear), taniar (to play an instrument), ovedeser (to obey respectfully), afrisyones (sufferings, persecution), and chorro (a jet or gush of water.) It was also a pleasure to reconnect with the poetic sounding enfloreser (to bloom), perales and mansanales (pear tree and apple tree, respectively).

* * *

We owe Haelion so much, it is difficult to know where to begin. Let me start with the Ladino language—the star of his translation and the focus of this review. Haelion has taken not only a giant step toward preserving the historic language, through his linguistic “archeology” and research, he has also significantly expanded its vocabulary.  In addition, through his profound knowledge of its grammar, syntax and morphology, he has demonstrated the multiple capabilities of Ladino, for example, by transforming the active into the passive, nouns into verbs, adjectives into adverbs, etc.

For this reviewer, even before starting to read the translation, a test of the task’s success was the preservation of the Odyssey’s lyricism. Haelion deserves high marks for that. I read some of the translation aloud (I recommend that others do the same) and had portions read to me. I felt as if I was listening to my illiterate (or mono-literate) grandmother (Ladino was the only language she spoke) recounting me the epic. A test of a good translation is whether the work could have been written originally in its translated language and form. Haelion’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey largely passed this test for me. What he has produced is not so much a translation of the Odyssey into Ladino, as it is a Ladino Odyssey—an Odyssey in Ladino.

Perez emphasized that Haelion’s Odyssey demonstrates the “potential” of Ladino. True. But how about the incentive to produce such works? No one can disagree that the audience for the Ladino Odyssey is extremely limited. But this misses the point. Some years ago I heard it said that if humankind had pursued only knowledge that is useful, there would have been no civilization. Haelion’s Odyssey is not just for Sephardim of our generation but for knowledge lovers of future generations.

Perez—the strong force behind the translation—could not stop praising the end result. He called it a regalo (gift) to Ladino lovers, which it no doubt is. But overpraising can be misinterpreted; it can sound exaggerated or defensive and is unsuited to a modest man like Moshe Haelion. Rather than engaging in it myself, I shall merely say “Thank you!”

If I have a wish or regret, it is this: not having met Haelion. Were he sitting in front of me right now I would ask him what he thought of Odysseus in whose company he spent nearly ten years of his life. I would continue with another question. In 2000, the late American-British author, journalist and literary critic Christopher Hitchens participated on C-Span in a panel discussion of a new English translation of the Odyssey by Stanley Lombardo. During the discussion, Hitchens was asked if the Greek epic was relevant to today. He replied in the affirmative and went on to explain the reasons. I would have asked Haelion the same question.

* * *

Unintentionally, the completion of Haelion’s translation of the Odyssey into Ladino coincided with his 90th year of life.


Extract from Haelion’s Translation: Opening Paragraphs of Kante IX
(Lines 1-28)

En respondiendo estonses, le disho el astuto Odises:
“Rey Alkinos, el mas renomado entre todos los ombres,
es, en verdad, una koza muy buena d’oyir un poeta
komo este, k’a la de los diozes su boz asemeja.
I kon esto yo digo, un mas grande alkanso de gozo,
ke kuando la alegria aferra los sivdadinos.
I los ke pransan adientro la kaza oyen al poeta,
stando asentados en orden, i mezas delantre de eyos,
yenas de karne i pan, i kon vino, un moso un djarro
inche, i va, i a todos, al torno, les inche los kopos.
Esto, de todas las kozas, es la mas mijor, me parese;
ma el korason me pusho, sovre mis dolorozos apretos,
de preguntarme, afin key yo, stando yorando, sospire.
Ke te dire en primero, i ke vo kontarte al kavo?
Muchas dolores me dieron los diozes ke biven al sielo.
Antes de todo, afin ke sepash, vo dizirvos mi nombre,
i vo dospues, kuando me salvare del dia sentesiado,
ser vuestro amigo, aunke yo moro en tierra leshana.

  Yo se Odises, fijo de Laertes, ke se konosido
por mi astusia por todos, i arriva del sielo mi fama.
Es en Itaka ke moro, ke se ve de leshos; i tiene
una montanya, Neriton, ke ruiyen sus sharas del aire;
i muchas izlas a su derredor, una serka la otra,
Sami, Dulihion, i Zakintos k’esta kon shares kuvrida.
Ama Itaka es yana i sta en la mar al Oeste,
londje de todas – ke stan de la parte del sol i del Este –
tiera penyoza, ma bravos mansevos grandes, i dulse
mas de mi tierra no puedo yo ver en el mundo entero.


1. Bension Varon, a retired economist, is a Ladino-speaking Sephardi born and raised in Turkey, who writes frequently about his cultural and linguistic heritage.

2. The copyright is dated 2014, but the book came out in 2015.

3. Death marches refer to the forced marching, toward the end of the war, of prisoners from camps near the front to camps inside Germany, for a variety of reasons.

4. Moshe Ha-elion, En los kampos de la muerte, Edision del Instituto Maalle Adumim, 2000; and The Straits of Hell: The Chronicle of a Salonikan Jew in the Nazi Extermination Camps Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Melk, Ebensee, rev. ed., Mannheim: Biblopolis, 2009.

5. Nir Hasson, “Holocaust survivor revives Jewish dialect by translating Greek epic,” Haaretz, March 9, 2012.

6. Some observers have advanced that Haelion was attracted to the Odyssey by the parallel between Odysseus’ return home and his own return to a normal life. The observation is without foundation.

7. Barry B. Powell, The Odyssey, Oxford University Press, 2014.

8. See A. K. Ramanujan, “Three Hundred Ramayanas,”

9. I have used two other translations of the Odyssey not to check or rate Haelion’s work but merely as general reference. They are those by Robert Fitzgerald into English, first published in 1961, and José Luis Calvo Martínez into Spanish, published in 1996.

10. The reader may excuse my providing an example from my own literary background. The celebrated Ottoman poet Nedim (1681-1730) was famous for his beautiful poems on Istanbul, which he composed in the rhythmic system called Aruz. Under that system, a syllable ending with a consonant was considered long, and one ending with a vowel was deemed short.  On one occasion, while Nedim was composing one of his many poems on Istanbul, the word Istanbul did not fit the rhythm; the rhythm called for the first syllable to be short (end with a vowel) rather than long. So, he changed the reference to his beloved city without hesitating from Istanbul to Sitanbul.

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800