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Jewish Social Studies 7.2 (2001) 149-168

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Translation and Westernization: Gulliver's Travels in Ladino

Olga V. Borovaia

The translator is a writer of his people and his time.

--Irzhi Levy

Aleksander Ben Ghiat's translation of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is an important literary document as well as a valuable resource for the student of Sephardic social and intellectual history, and my goal in this article is to provide a philological analysis of it. 1 Ben Ghiat was a prolific writer. He was born in Izmir, Turkey, and received his education there, first in a meldar (a Jewish religious primary school), then in one of the schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU). These schools were opened in the Ottoman Empire after 1860 by French Jews, whose goal was to bring Western cultural values, progress, and moral education to their Oriental co-religionists. The AIU saw its work as a civilizing mission. The general system of teaching imitated those principles dominant in nineteenth-century Republican France. At first the teachers came from Paris, but later they were recruited in the Middle East and instructed in France. For the most part, they were themselves graduates of the AIU schools.

The language of instruction was French, but other languages were also taught, along with science, religious instruction, and vocational training, especially to girls (whose curriculum was somewhat different from that of boys). Ladino was banned as jargon, the despised language of cultural slavery. Yet the rabbis who participated in teaching [End Page 149] spoke Ladino, and all of the students and local teachers used it at home; it was their everyday language. Hebrew was usually taught as a dead language. Turkish was indispensable for Jews if they wanted to become social servants and make a career outside of their own community. However, the AIU schools were never able to provide good teach-ers of Ottoman Turkish, which was very different from the quotidian Turkish sufficient for small commerce. Young people educated in the AIU schools were exposed to French literature and other texts translated into French, though the reading lists had to be approved by the AIU's Central Committee. 2

As a graduate of an AIU school, Ben Ghiat had an excellent command of French in addition to Ladino, Hebrew, Turkish, and Greek. He belonged to the group of young intellectuals--journalists and writers--whose dream was to promote progress and emancipation of the Sephardic community in the Ottoman Empire, which was then going through the process of Westernization. One way to achieve this goal was to educate the community by writing and translating "useful" materials in the language that would be understood by everybody. In 1884, Ben Ghiat became co-founder of the literary magazine La verdad ( Truth), which existed only a few months. Then he worked for El telegrafo (The Telegraph), writing and translating both poetry and prose. In 1897 he founded his own newspaper, El meseret ( Joy), which came out at least weekly in Izmir for about 25 years and had a literary supplement. After the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, he started two new papers, one of which, El mazalozo (The Lucky One) dedicated at least half of its pages to belles-lettres. Ben Ghiat also wrote for his wife's French-language newspaper Les annales (The Annals). 3


A crucial aspect of Ben Ghiat's literary activity was translation. The linguistic situation in the Sephardic community in the second half of the nineteenth century was complicated, because so many languages were being used. French was the most prestigious: it was the language of international diplomacy, lingua franca of the Levant, and, most significantly, the language of Western culture. The Jewish middle class became Francophone to such an extent that some community leaders and intellectuals preferred to speak French even at home. Another popular Western language was Italian, introduced through the Dante Alighieri schools, which began before those of the AIU. Hebrew was the liturgical language. Turkish, Armenian, Greek, Bulgarian, and other co-territorial languages were indispensable for professional activities, such as...


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