Let those who say our language is impoverished eat crap [literally halva]. Is there a language richer than ours, which borrows from every possible language? To tell someone "Be quiet!"— in how many languages do we tell it to him?: Shetika!, Silans!, Mudera!, Kurto!, Sopa!, Molche!, Pyedrelomos!, Sus! (La Aksyon, December 5, 1938)
Published in a leading Jewish newspaper in Salonica on the eve of World War II, this colorful passage highlights the hybridity of languages—a phenomenon particularly accentuated in this instance. The author indicates that synonyms for "be quiet" in Judeo-Spanish (also known as Ladino and Judezmo) derived from "many languages"—Spanish, Hebrew, French, Greek, Bulgarian, and Turkish; Judeo-Spanish, from this perspective, constitutes a language comprised of many languages. This Judeo- Balkan or Judeo-Ottoman linguistic pastiche, which readily absorbed and domesticated loanwords, rendered boundaries between vocabulary inside and outside of the language particularly porous. The linguistic fusion inherent in all languages, but particularly visible in Judeo-Spanish, as in Yiddish, also provoked intense debate regarding the value and legitimacy of the language itself: should texts be translated into this hybrid tongue? Are those composed in such a language worthy of translation into others?
A standard designation for the language in American English, as adopted by the Library of Congress, the term "Ladino" refers to the process of translation itself, to the act of bridging cultural codes or sets of verbal signs. Ladino stems from the verb, enladinar, which means to render into a Latin-based language—that is, Judeo-Spanish—as opposed to the sacred tongue, Hebrew. The first texts rendered into Ladino, such as the Bible, in the sixteenth century, included word-forword, or calque, translations from Hebrew. The most famous work of Ladino literature began to be published in 1730: the Me-'am lo'ez, a Hebrew-titled series of rabbinical commentaries that made traditional Jewish teachings accessible to the Ottoman Jewish masses, including women, in a language they could more readily understand. The author of the first volume, Jacob Khuli, explained his process: "All the words of this book are translated from the Gemara and midrash. So that whatever is [written] there in the sacred tongue [Hebrew], I translated into a European language [Ladino]."
Embedded in the project of the Me-'am lo'ez was a paradox. Khuli indicated that the language of his book, Ladino, was essentially foreign to him and to his readers. It was, as the title indicates, from "a foreign nation"; it was franko ("European"); it was, in effect, not a Jewish language but rather one adopted by Jews amidst their wandering in exile. But in order for common Jews to access Jewish teachings without knowing Hebrew, Khuli begrudgingly recognized that they could only do so in the purportedly non-Jewish language that they had come to speak. The act of rendering Jewish knowledge into Ladino, this allegedly foreign tongue written in Hebrew characters, ironically legitimized it as a Jewish language.
The success of the Me-'am lo'ez paved the way for additional publication enterprises. A nineteenth-century neologism coined by Western observers and linguists to identify the vernacular of Ottoman Jews, the term "Judeo-Spanish," which emphasizes but two of the language's defining components, came to be adopted and naturalized by a new cohort of writers: Jewish journalists. Instead of fretting over their constituents' lack of understanding of religious texts, these new secular authors, inspired by the educational activities of the Paris-based Alliance Israélite Universelle, sought to ensure that their readers gain access to European literary, political, and cultural trends. They therefore "translated," "summarized," "imitated," "adapted," "arranged," or "rewrote" French, Italian, German, or English works and tailored them to local tastes. Characters in the adaptation of Gulliver's Travels, for example, drank raki (the anise-based aperitif). Judeo-Spanish writers also adapted major political treatises, from Marx to Herzl's The Jewish State. Some writers rendered Ottoman law codes and histories into Judeo-Spanish in an effort to instruct their readers on how to become good Ottoman citizens. Other publishers translated American immigration laws and manuals that introduced prospective migrants to English and Yiddish—the purported American Jewish language. These translation initiatives dramatically impacted the nature of Judeo-Spanish. Newspapers developed a stilted, westernized register of Judeo-Spanish, replete with Gallicisms, sometimes referred to as Judeo-Fragnol. Taking cues from journalists, some rabbis even created "modern" Judeo-Spanish translations of sacred texts, such as the liturgy for the High Holidays, in order to awaken their congregants' "sentiments of piety and devotion" otherwise absent from the chanting of incomprehensible Hebrew prayers.
The introduction of Western cultural and ideological trends into the Ottoman Jewish world also brought a critique of the status and value of Judeo-Spanish. Anxieties no longer emerged because it appeared to be a "foreign tongue," the issue that had preoccupied the author of the Me-'am lo'ez, but now in an era of modern, purist nationalisms, because it came to be construed as something less than a language—a bastard tongue unworthy of literary creation. European and American observers disparaged not only this bastard tongue but also orientalized and diminished the entire culture of Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire: "In the 'old country' they had no cultural life of their own worth speaking of. They had no common body of customs and traditions, no common literature, no knowledge of or curiosity about their past . . . They had been a back-ward people in a backward country . . ." (The Forward, July 25, 1926).
The Sephardic Jewish elite, internalizing the critique of their own culture, denigrated their language and viewed it as insufficient for the exigencies of modern life, perhaps suitable for derivative literature but not for original creation. As one journalist lamented, "Our language is nothing more than a jargon, an absolutely corrupt dialect and nothing more . . . a language that is not a language, an idiom with neither father nor mother and born on the afternoon of Tisha be-'Av" (La Vara, February 22, 1935). Seduced by a myth of the grandeur of medieval Spain, this writer advocated that his dialect be Castilianized— that non-Spanish and "oriental" elements be removed so that it may be "returned" to its proper European status. Others argued that the idiom be replaced altogether by the language of the state—Turkish, for example— or a language of European prestige, such as French. Leaders of the Zionist movement in the former Ottoman realm instead advocated for the adoption of what they perceived to be the true Jewish national language, Modern Hebrew. Ironically, Jewish intellectuals engaged in sophisticated polemics over the "language question" as well as myriad political, cultural, and economic themes in Judeo-Spanish, the very language they deemed incapable of the task.
Others defended their lingua madre, such as the author with whom we began, who viewed the multiple linguistic elements comprising his Judeo-Spanish as a source of strength. They sometimes referred to Judezmo or Djudyo, terms that identified the language as specifically Jewish. The Ottoman authorities agreed with this characterization by referring to Judeo-Spanish, not Hebrew, as Yahudice (Jewish). The perception of the language as distinctly Jewish also resulted in humorous situations. When Argentine film arrived in the Balkans, those Jews who flocked to the cinema believed that they were viewing "Jewish" films because all of the actors appeared to speak "Jewish"—no subtitles were needed.
Pro-Judezmo activists, who eschewed nationalisms and embraced a cosmopolitan perspective, saw the hybridity of Judeo-Spanish as endowing its speakers with ready-made connections to their neighbors that formed the building blocks of intercommunal cooperation. In places like Salonica, home to the largest Judeo-Spanish-speaking community, Jewish socialists promoted Judeo-Spanish as the language of the Jewish proletariat and designated it as the official language of social and economic discourse for the Socialist Workers' Federation. Other activists, like journalist Sam Lévy, argued that those fluent in Judeo-Spanish were already on their way to understanding Turkish, Greek, Bulgarian, French, Italian, etc. This kind of empowering message emphasized that Judeo- Spanish possessed the capacity to translate the foreign into the domestic, to transform its speakers from outsiders to insiders in a variety of contexts. Translation became a process of building cultural bridges that contributed to the creation of a legitimate literature in Judeo-Spanish, including an array of original works. To further facilitate these linkages, Judeo-Spanish promoters created a number of multilingual dictionaries and began assembling a major Ladino library at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in order to elevate the prestige of their language.
Mass migrations, assimilation, and ultimately, the destruction of the Holocaust, contributed to the dissolution of the Judeo- Spanish cultural world during the twentieth century. Now, in the twenty-first century, we have entered a third phase in Judeo- Spanish translation. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, authors rendered Hebrew sources into Judeo-Spanish, even if they initially perceived the latter as a "foreign tongue." From the nineteenth into the twentieth centuries, a second phase of translation involved bringing modern European cultural trends into the Judeo- Spanish milieu that also introduced a new anxiety about the target language: that it was not a language at all, but rather a bastard tongue to be abandoned. Still others viewed it as a worthy vehicle for literary production and for building intercultural bridges. Now, in the twenty-first century, most of the estimated five to six thousand Judeo-Spanish publications remain unknown and inaccessible. While a few new translations of classics into Judeo-Spanish continue (The Little Prince, 2010; The Odyssey, 2012), a third phase now involves a move in the opposite direction: out of Judeo-Spanish into more accessible languages, such as English. A flurry of recent initiatives have borne fruit: a translation of the first known Judeo-Spanish memoir; Sephardi Lives, a documentary history comprised of translations of 150 sources from Ladino (and a dozen other languages); and online projects, such as the Sephardi Studies Project at Stanford, which offers translations of key Judeo-Spanish texts; and the University of Washington's new Sephardic Studies Digital Library and Museum, which offers digital versions of Judeo-Spanish sources along with annotations and anticipated translations. These endeavors seek to make Judeo-Spanish source materials accessible, in the original and in translation, for students and scholars, specialists and community members, in order to spark awareness of and interest in the Ladino cultural world and the multiplicities of Jewish experiences. One who asserts that Judeo-Spanish constitutes an impoverished language lacking literature may finally be told: Shetika! Silans! Mudera! Kurto! Sopa! Molche! Pyedrelomos! Sus!