Lost and Found in Translation: The First Modern Greek-Hebrew, Hebrew-Greek Dictionary Is Born

Despina Liozidou ShermisterDespina Liozidou Shermister

Despina Liozidou Shermister is my hero. My Greek Israeli heroine, who at the age of fifty six

gave birth to the first modern Greek-Hebrew, Hebrew-Greek dictionary;  Despina went through 10 years of extended labor, working 5 hours daily on the project, while also raising four kids at home. "It wasn't easy"  Despina recounts, " I gave up on a lot of things to do it, I gave up on holidays and I gave up on spending more time playing with my children, but I felt a sense of purpose,  and as a work from home mum, could combine the project along with raising my children. I am proud I persevered."

 A great accomplishment indeed and a much awaited contribution to the Greek and Hebraic people, two ancient civilizations who interacted with each other through the ages and despite their dialogue, had not invested the energy, resources and determination needed for a piece of work of that scope. 

Others envisioned this project before you too, I tell Despina.

Some twenty years ago, I had met Ruth Stanner, a respected Jerusalemite lawyer, and the granddaughter of Eliezer Ben Yehuda. I had met Ruth in her Jabotinsky street apartment, decorated in beautiful carpets and ethnic musical instruments. Ruth was then a pensioner, and I a young woman.

 I was taken aback to witness Ruth's hand-written dictionary on paper cards. Still, Ruth's dictionary was in a language that I could not relate, as it was not written in the Demotic spoken today.  And although after Ruth's passing my husband Elias and I had tried to assist her son Michael Stanner to publish Ruth's dictionary, we only managed to start the project but not to complete it.

-"I remember seeing two pages out of Ruth's dictionary and being asked by Yehiel Camhi a translator of Greek novels into Hebrew, whether I could help update and complete it," Despina relates. "But I had already started working on my own dictionary, and had set my rules, the way I wanted it to be and did not want to start all over again, as I figured that correcting someone else's work would be even harder than writing my own."

Despina Liozidou Shermister was already an experienced translator when she undertook her lexicon. She had already translated Papadiamantis, Kazantzakis and Chomenidis and when translating she felt "in my element."

-How did you start with translating?

- "Twelve years ago, I went trekking in the Himalayas for two weeks. There something opened up in me and I started writing in Greek. Upon my return to Israel, I told my friend and Hebrew teacher Haim Pessach and we started translating from Greek to Hebrew together. It was then that I fell in love with translation. I had lived through a long pause from using Greek in my life, as I had left Greece at the age of 17 to study and later teach dance in Paris and Barcelona. And in 1986 I came to Israel and joined Habima as a dancer and singer in Jerome Savary's "Cabaret."  It seems to me that I had disconnected from my mother tongue so that not to let myself feel nostalgic for all that I had left behind. And in the meantime, I had replaced Greek with French and Spanish to which Hebrew was later added."

- How did you manage to see the project through Despina?

-"It took endless patience, endless curiosity, endless love for the work, and endless purposefulness, and I found all that in me with this project." "It also took endless cooperation with professionals in the language and dictionary field."

In the lexicon's introduction Despina thanks the linguists Dr. Rubik Rosenthal and Dr. Nikos Mathioudakis for their cooperation. They each assisted Despina with the Hebrew and the Greek respectively.

And what are you up to these days?

-"It has been already four years that I have started working on the translation of the "Axion Esti," by Odysseas Elytis, the Greek Nobel Winner in Literature in 1979. I have also translated Elytis' Monogram which was published seven years ago in Hebrew, as well as Elytis' poem "The Concert of Hyacinths."" 

I google Elytis speech from his Nobel lecture dated December 8, 1979 and encounter the following "Dear friends, it has been granted to me to write in a language that is spoken only by a few million people. But a language spoken without interruption, with very few differences, throughout more than two thousand five hundred years. This apparently surprising spatial-temporal distance is found in the cultural dimensions of my country. Its spatial area is one of the smallest; but its temporal extension is infinite." I am struck as the exact same spatial-temporal distance is found between Israel and Hebrew. And to make it even more complicated than Greek, Hebrew transitioned from being Judaism's sacred language to being Israel's spoken and written language.

I look up the word bridge "gefyra" in Greek in my lexicon and find the Hebrew word gesher. And indeed this lexicon is to us Greek Israelis a bridge between our two languages, two cultures and two loves.  

From the bridge builders' perspective, we hope that the lexicon will assist people from both sides of the bridge cross to the cultural and linguistic land of the other, so that one day, more and more people will be traversing the landscape of Greek - Hebrew - Greek communication, cooperation, and cultural connectedness.

Despina Liozidou Shermister has crossed the bridge; from her native Greek to her adopted Hebrew and back, and opened up the way for others to follow. For this I tell her: Axion Esti (yishar coach)


To get your own copy of the dictionary ask at your local bookstore, I got myself a copy and cherish it!