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  • Daniel Santacruz

Ladino romanzas give a new twist to old ones

Updated: Dec 17, 2023

By Daniel Santacruz

What motivated 14 translators from seven countries to translate a Spanish–language children’s book written a genre that is almost unknown today into Ladino?

Speaking in Ladino, several of the translators and editors recently got together on the Youtube channel of the Buenos Aires-based Centro Cultural Sefarad (CCS) to discuss the translation of the book, Romances de la rata sabia, written by the Spanish scholar Paloma Díaz-Mas, an expert on Sefardic literature and Spanish romanzas, or ballads, and a member of the Royal Spanish Academy.

A romanza is a poem that tells a short tale following a very specific format. Each line has eight syllables and the vowels of the even lines must rhyme.

Published by the Madrid-based publisher Bookolia, the 16 romanzas of the book are a new take on medieval Spanish ones. Some of he characters are lost animals, contaminated rivers, a warrior girl and imaginary countries, as well as a well-read rat who writes romanzas in her home: a library.

According to Rachel Amado Bortnick, who spearheaded the translation project and is the

founder and an editor at Ladinokomunita, an online Ladino platform with subscribers in

Europe and the Americas, she received the book as a present from a friend in December of 2021 and fell in love with it.

“It was easy to read and I loved the topics, the poetry, and that it was for children,” she said. “It would be great to translate into Ladino, I said to myself.”

In September of 2022 she posted a request in Ladinokomunita looking for volunteers to translate the book and received an enthusiastic response from all over the world, she said.

The translators hail from the United States; Argentina; Mexico; Canada; Spain; Israel; and Turkey.

An editorial team was formed in March of this year, headed by Amado Bortnick and Rina Benmayor, professor Emerita in the School of Humanities and Communication Department at the California State University Monterey Bay and also an expert on Sefardic romanzas.

Meeting via Zoom twice a week for more than an hour over a three-month period, team edited every romanza line by line. The reason why Spanish words were used when Ladino ones didn't fit the format, like alero (eave), leer (to read) and others, is explained in footnotes in Ladino.

Asked what motivated her to write the book, Díaz-Mas said she started writing the romanzas “for fun,” inspired by old Sefardic romanzas but adapted for current situations.

For example, she said, she changed the character of an old romanza, La chika guerrera (The warrior girl), a girl who dresses to go to war, to a girl who wants to play soccer, but who is not allowed because she is a woman.

Díaz-Mas finished the manuscript, but didn’t know how to go about publishing it. Thus, she approached a Spanish professor at the University of Navarra, in Spain, Concha Pasamar, who

Author Paloma Díaz-Mas.

is also an illustrator, and showed it to her. The finished book, with Pasamar’s illustrations, was sent to the editors at Bookolia, which published it in 2021.

“The book is a result of my specialty on Sefardic romanzas,” Díaz-Mas said. “I am pleased to know that it brought together so many people.”

Despite the frequent disagreements between translators over words and regional expressions, translating the book “was an interesting learning process,” said Liliana Benveniste, an editor at CCS and one of the translators.

“We learned about romanzas, rhymes, Spanish and words,” she added. “If we didn’t know a word, we would look it up in English to see how it could be translated.”

The Ladino title of the book is Romances de la rata savia.

Bookolia is interested in publishing a bilingual edition, Spanish-Ladino, but it costs money, said Amado Bortnick. “Many people are interested in the project and want to become part of it, but we need money to see it become a reality.”

To support the publication, send a check in dollars to: Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood Foundation, c/o Romansas Publication Fund, 67-67 108th Street, Forest Hills, NY 11375. To donate by Pay Pay, the account is

December 2023

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