From the Ladino

It is rare these days that a book the mailman brings on his early afternoon round gets read by evening. But just that did happen this week with Marcel Cohen’s In Search of a Lost Ladino — Letter to Antonio Saura, most ably translated by Raphael Rubinstein and published by Ibis Editions in Israel. True, the book is not very long — a bit over 30 pages of text — but then, as it is a bilingual edition, I read it twice: once in the English version by Rubinstein, and once in the original Ladino. To actually have that text in Ladino, and to realize that I can read & understand it — what pleasure! And what a surprise: the Spanish that underlies Ladino is very comprehensible, a near classical Castillean, with an added nomadic vocabulary, witness to the post 1492 exilic wanderings.

Cohen’s Sephardic roots link him to Ottoman Empire communities, and especially to Istambul, so that Turkish terms, as well as some Greek words — the Salonica Sephardic community & its extermination under the Nazis is remembered — and some Hebrew, fertilize the text throughout. Rubinstein has added a 7-page glossary which makes the reading all the more active & nomadic as one goes from the English text to the glossary and on to the Ladino text to see how the Turkish term functions in the Ladino sentence (where it doesn’t stand out as much as in the English and is musically more integrated). But in the English text it has of course a further function: that of situating the text at the necessary level of strangeness which keeps the reader from forgetting that she is reading a translation. And for once this is not only the translator’s conscious choice, but the original author’s — who is himself the first translator, and not only in that he (who usually writes in French) can be said to have “translated” a story “back” into his childhood language by composing in Ladino. In a way, Cohen has “translated” the story into its orginal language by returning it to Ladino.

Cohen wrote the text in 1981 and a dozen years later translated it himself into French at the request of a French publisher. Notes Rubinstein in his excellent introduction: “What’s immediately striking about the French version… is that Cohen chose not to translate certain words, leaving nuggets of Ladino embedded in the French text.” That translation becomes the model for this one, and the French version also included the glossary that Rubinstein translates. Ideally, as Rubinstein, also notes, this book should have included the French translation to make up the full story — for the text can be viewed as easily as the “story” of the wanderings of a language through time & places than as Cohen’s autobiographical “story.” Here the “complete” book is (in a defintion I have elsewhere applied to poetry itself) the sum of all the versions it gives rise to.

Here is the complete fifth chapter, or letter:

Death speaks through your mouth… In fact, Antonio, I’m already dead. In universities today, all sorts of students, linguists and the merely curious, are interested in Ladino. Entire books are devoted to the history of the Sephardim. How could I not seem like a fossil on display at a museum? Of course, everyone is extremely kind. Evrything is perfectly organized. The mousafires approach politely and read the little label placed behind the glass that protects me. What does it say?

“Interesting specimen of a Sephardic man, miraculously discovered in Paris in the second half of the twentieth century. As you can observe, this sample is in perfectly preserved condition. Speaking Spanish rather poorly, from simple lack of practice, he still understands it without the least difficulty. Notice above all his hair, which is not dark like a Turk’s. And note how his skin is very pale. This proves that he belongs to the group of dolichocephalic humans inhabiting the Iberian peninsula at the time of the Catholic kings. Visitors wishing to listen to the snippets of fifteenth-century ballads he still retains faithfully in his memory should exercise respect and patience, since this specimen has a horror of appearing ridiculous. Don’t forget that this rare specimen is a creature of a solitary nature.”

(Note to the visitors: “This French-born Constantinopolite has the curious habit of subsisting only on steak frites and red wine. It’s therefore inadvisable to offer him thos sunflower seeds and fustuks that monkeys in zoos are so fond of.”)

from the Glossary:

Mousafire: (Turkish) foreigner, visitor
Fustuk: (Turkish) pistachio nut

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