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obituary: Sacha Rabinovitch

Sacha Rabinovitch, known to some people as the mother of the distinguished novelist, playwright and critic Gabriel Josipovici, was a gifted and fascinating literary figure in her own right.

She and her son had an exceptionally close and loving relationship, unusual in this day and age - conventional people spoke behind their hands of untoward influence. But Rabin-ovitch, like her son, scorned the conventions. These two strong, austere but generous and affectionate characters, always respectful of each other's autonomy and creativity, lived together in a mutual support system, personal and professional.

The son's brilliance may have outshone the mother's in terms of primary output, but she was never in his shadow. Both spoke their minds and were the first to detect a weakness in a piece of writing or an argument of the other.

In terms of Jewish ethno-cultural origins, Sacha Rabinovitch was an unusual mixture. Her mother's mother's family were Cattauis, members of the Cairo Jewish elite, some of whom could trace their ancestry back 2,000 years through rabbinic lines - or so the wife of Edmond Jabes, herself a Cattaui and a cousin of Rabinovitch, told me. (Our respective views on the importance of Edmond Jabes as a writer led to one of the few major disagreements between myself and Sacha Rabinovitch).

Rabinovitch's maternal grandfather was from Ferrara and, like Jabes himself, Sacha Rabinovitch had an Italian passport. But her father was an Ashkenazi Jew, a Russian doctor from Odessa who had settled in Cairo after fighting in the Russo-Japanese war. She had TB as a child, which doubtless accounted for her spare and wiry frame, but she survived - to marry Jean Josipovici in 1934. Jean's father Albert had written a novel, Goha le simple, famous in its time, which was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt the year Marcel Proust won it - 1919.

They moved to France, to Aix, where they met the novelist Jean Giono while doing post-graduate work. In Vence, they associated with Andre Gide. Later on, as Jews, it was obvious that they would have to leave Europe. The last possible passage back to Egypt was due to set sail on 8 October 1940. But Rabinovitch's son was born that day . . . What is more, her husband had gone off with someone else, and thus she found herself alone with Gabriel, and in a very dangerous situation.

But in 1943, with the help of friends they made for La Bourboule, a spa town in the Dordogne, where Gabriel remembers her carving him wooden toys, and wooden letters so he could learn to read. A visit from her husband eventually resulted in the birth of a daughter, but the child died five weeks later.

After the war was over, Sacha and Gabriel finally made it back to Egypt, where she worked at and he attended an English-style public school - Victoria College, alma mater of King Hussein and Edward Said. But even before the Suez crisis many Jews felt they had to leave Egypt. Rabinovitch's dream anyway was that Gabriel should go to Oxford - and so they left, and so he did. Notwithstanding various complications with the Egyptian authorities and the British Home Office they settled in London where she worked as a shop assistant, and renewed a passionate love affair - now as reader and writer - with the English language.

After Gabriel graduated she joined him in Oxford, and then they moved to Lewes where they lived, with various animals, for the next 30 years. While Gabriel taught at Sussex University and embarked on his distinguished career as a writer, Sacha Rabinovitch embarked on her own Anglophone career as an excellent translator and well-respected poet - a remarkable and characteristic transformation, and a defiance of the law which states that you translate into your mother tongue, and you write poetry in your mother tongue.

She translated books by very difficult French writers such as Maurice Blanchot (The Sirens' Song: selected essays, 1982) and Marthe Robert (Origins of the Novel, 1980) , and several novels of the great Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia (including The Moro Affair, 1986). She also translated Paolo Rossi's Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science for which she won the Florio Prize for the best Italian translation of 1969. Two volumes of her poetry were published by small presses - Heroes and Others in 1982 and Poems in 1994. Poems by her were also printed in publications including the Independent and the Jewish Quarterly, where her last poem appeared a week before her death from "old age", according to her death certificate.

She is buried, like her beloved Paul Valery, in a cemetery by the sea, in her case the Hove Jewish cemetery. She was tired and ill and - unafraid - ready to "drop the body" (as some Indians say). On her 80th birthday I was proud to publish a poem of hers in my MenCard series: ("I cannot keep up / with myself anymore, / and will still be wandering / on the way / when I lie at rest / in my cloak of clay") but, other than our lively discussions about French literature, my abiding memory of this indomitable old lady - who lived for her son without neglecting her own needs - is of a 10-mile walk over the Downs with good friends when she was already 80.

Sacha Rabinovitch, translator and poet: born Cairo 9 December 1910; married 1934 Jean Josipovici (one son and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved); died Brighton 23 March 1996.