Partial title page of El bukyeto de romansas. Light brown page with black Hebrew type and a black spine. Text is a geometric border around it and some decorative line breaks.Partial title page of El bukyeto de romansas (ST0005; courtesy Isaac Azose).

By Makena Mezistrano

How long does it take to learn to read an endangered Jewish language in an uncommon script? In just four weeks, students in our summer Ladino Language and Culture course have developed the skills to begin reading and translating original Ladino documents.

Professor David Bunis, the course instructor and leading expert in the Ladino language, creates a collaborative, virtual classroom where students work together to translate Ladino texts word by word. One of the texts we recently examined was a song from the 1926 booklet El bukyeto de romansas, a compilation of 32 Ladino songs thematically related to brides and mothers-to-be. The particular song we translated is known by its first line, “El amor es fuerte” (“The love is strong”). 

Taking turns, each student read and translated one line of the song. All were reading the text in its original rashi Hebrew script, just as the readers of El bukyeto de romansas once did nearly a century ago. Many had not learned rashi letters prior to the class.

In between translations, students asked questions that revealed their own academic backgrounds. Those intimately familiar with Spanish, who account for over half the class, asked technical questions: Why were certain grammatical prepositions used over others? How can we see divergences from Spanish that show us that Ladino is its own unique language?

Page from a songbook with the song El amor es fuerte written in Ladino in Hebrew rashi characters. The text is divided into columns. Type is black and the page is a light brown parchment color.

Text of the Ladino song El amor es fuerte (“The Love is Strong”).

One student wondered why the song was separated into columns. Professor Bunis suggested that this form may have been inspired by the rabbinic texts upon which Ladino publishers often based their books: Traditional rabbinic literature often did not use commas to separate sentences, so formatting the text into columns helped punctuate the text without them.

Others were more curious about the song’s melody. All the songs in El bukyeto de romansas are organized according to makam — a Middle Eastern musical mode — but how did Sepharadim know how to sing in a particular makam without any musical notations accompanying the text? The answer is that makam was a form of oral tradition passed down throughout generations of Sephardic Jews, and a tradition that Jews learned in the Muslim context of the Ottoman Empire. In the case of El amor es fuerte, the song is to be sung with the makam known as rast

In less than a day, the class had created a translation of El amor es fuerte, which can be found below. Their work is one example of how formal Ladino instruction at the University of Washington can generate new resources to enhance accessibility to original Ladino texts — in the (virtual) classroom and beyond.

The love is strong
strong and burning

Like a serpent

[The serpent] puts itself in front
like a matador [to kill]

It threatens with death
to its lover

The love is strong
and also jealous

Neither day nor night
it does not allow rest

[The love] nullifies happiness
and takes out joy.

Whoever is beaten by love
falls in a deep well

The love is like
a sly fox

It gives an aroma
like a rose

But its interior
is very poisonous

The love! The love
The love?!!!

To only mention your name
gives me fear

The love, the love!
The love! The love!!!

To only mention your name
gives me fear
El amor es fuerte
fuerte i kemador
Komo un serpiente
Se mete de enfrente
komo el matador
Menaza de muerte
a su amador
El amor es fuerte
i tambien selozo
Ni dia ni noche
no disha repozo
Balda la alegria
i kita el gozo.
Ken de el se harva
kalye en ondo pozo
El amor parese
a una rapoza
Da una golor
komo una roza
Ma su enterior
es muy venenoza

El amor! El amor
El amor?!!!
De mentar solo tu nombre
mi da miedo i temor
El amor, el amor!
El amor! El amor!!!
De mentar solo tu nombre
mi da miedo i temor

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