Editing: My Balancing Act

Editing: My Balancing Act

by Rachelle Emanuel

Keywords: Holocaust literature, Hebrew/English translation, Hebrew/English transliteration, Ashkenazi/Sephardic pronunciation, Esther Farbstein, Rachelle Emanuel, Debby Stern, “second generation Holocaust survivors”


My journey into the world of editing began in 2003 after reading in Hebrew the recently published volume Be-Seter Ra’am (later translated under the title Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership during the Holocaust), by Holocaust researcher Esther Farbstein. I was well acquainted with Mrs. Farbstein, having been her colleague on the staff of Ulpanat Horev, Jerusalem, a girls’ high school. A few years earlier, she had left the school to open the Holocaust Study Center at the Jerusalem Michlalah College.

As a member of what is known as “the second generation (of Holocaust survivors),” since childhood I have always been fascinated by anything connected to the Holocaust, and read anything I could get my hands on. Being an observant Jew, I concentrated on memoirs which stressed spiritual resistance and preservation of the human image despite the horrific circumstances and surroundings. These memoirs often read as spiritually heroic tales and were lacking the historical context. To make up for this, I read such books as William L. Shirer’s then-lauded The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Now for the first time, in Mrs. Farbstein’s volume I was reading about the Holocaust experiences of the Orthodox community written by an ultra-Orthodox author, but from an academic point of view. I discussed the book with Mrs. Farbstein, who told me that she was planning to have it translated into English. In fact, she had already given excerpts to three translators and asked me whether I would be willing to give my opinion on the different translations. I readily agreed, little realizing that I was just being thrown into the deep end of a pool I had never swum in. After I voiced my opinion regarding the translator I felt was most suitable, Mrs. Farbstein requested that I “accompany” the translation. This accompaniment turned into a full-scale editing job, part of which I will attempt to describe in this essay.

Choosing a Translator

Mrs. Farbstein had given each of three translators two stylistically very different excerpts to translate. One was in narrative style, and the other was a complex discussion of halachic nature. I looked for an easy, flowing read in the narrative, and an absolutely clear rendition of the halachic excerpt—one that would be readily comprehensible for the halachically uninitiated reader. It was while making my choice that I realized to what extent a translator is a quasi-editor, and how an over-confident translator, who does not ask the author for clarifications, can distort the original. I will illustrate my point.

In one of the two excerpts, a survivor relates how emotionally difficult it was for him to have to desecrate the Sabbath when at work in the concentration camp. It is of course absolutely permissible and even obligatory to desecrate the Sabbath when in a life-threatening situation, but the survivor did not want to forget the inherent sanctity of the day and relates how he thought of a way of constantly being aware of the day despite the circumstances. He writes that this was the case even when he was forced to do “easy work, done while sitting down, although in terms of the Sabbath it was forbidden . . . a Torah prohibition.” What was the work involved? The expression used by the survivor in a letter written to the author years before was lefarek egozei meshi. It had to do with meshi – silk. One of the translation candidates, without batting an eyelid, decided that there must have been a mistake in the Hebrew and instead of the word egozei (nuts), translated argazei (crates)—accordingly, the survivor was talking about unpacking (lefarek) crates of silk. Well, unpacking crates is not something a Sabbath observer would want to do on his day of rest, but it certainly is not a biblically proscribed act—“a Torah prohibition.” It might be considered a rabbinic prohibition (which bears lesser consequences). The translator I chose for the job, Debby Stern, put a string of question marks there, querying the author as to what the meaning was. Later it would be my job to do some fact-checking and find out what was involved. From the fact that it was described as a Torah prohibition, I had the feeling that the work was taking apart silk cocoons. Unfortunately the survivor had died, but after some detective work I discovered that I was correct. The survivor, for whom Hebrew was not his mother tongue, had used the wrong word for cocoon.

This incident is brought here in detail to illustrate part of my job as editor: to check the translation against the original Hebrew with a fine comb for inaccuracies and to ensure that it reflected the intended meaning. It was a job that challenged my knowledge of various disciplines.

To date, I have worked on three of Mrs. Farbstein’s books, two of which were translated by Debby and were published by the same publishing house. This essay describes some of the editorial decisions made for the first of these. Debby’s translation skills, broad knowledge of history and Jewish topics, together with her modesty and readiness to query until the topic is clarified, not only made my job easier, but have resulted in two excellently translated books.

Target Readership

The first question I asked Mrs. Farbstein before we started was what target readership she envisioned. Her answer was one that would be a constant challenge and balancing act. She wanted the book to suit the sensitivities of the ultra-Orthodox layperson, as well as to be understood by and academically suited for the Holocaust researcher, Jewish or not, who needs to have Jewish philosophical and halachic terms clearly defined.

Editorial Decisions

The publisher was to be Mossad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem. This well-established publishing house has existed since 1937. It has published more than 2,000 books in all aspects of Jewish religious study. The translation of Mrs. Farbstein’s book was going to be their first volume published in English. This meant that there was no existing style sheet, and Debby and I would have to make one up as we went along. Our first decision was to use the fifteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style as our point of reference for stylistic decisions. We would follow their recommendations from the use of the serial comma to the formats used for bibliographic citations in the footnotes and for the bibliography at the end of the book. Our next decision was more complex and brings us back to the balancing act mentioned above: Which system of transliteration should we use?

There are two main ways of pronouncing Hebrew. Israelis use the Sephardic pronunciation, whereas most English-speaking Orthodox Jews outside Israel pray and study using the Ashkenazic pronunciation. Orthodox American publishers such as Artscroll and Feldheim use Sephardic vowels and Ashkenazi consonants. Publications that are more academic transliterate according to the Sephardic pronunciation, and this is what we chose to do. However, in order not to alienate the Orthodox readership by using a system completely foreign to them, we compromised on some of the consonants, deciding not to use the system of the Academy of the Hebrew Language throughout. In our translation you will find “h” and “ch” rather than “kh” to represent the guttural sound of the letters het and chaf respectively, and ”k” rather than “q” to represent the letter kuf. We used hyphens after prepositional, conjunctive, and article prefixes, and apostrophes to separate adjacent vowel sounds. We compiled a long list of transliterated words to ensure consistency throughout the book.

Another issue connected to our balancing act was when to translate a term and when to use the transliterated original Hebrew term. Publishers of books for the Orthodox readership generally transliterate more terms than academic publishers, reflecting the widespread integration of Hebrew terms into the spoken English of the Orthodox public. We decided to use the Hebrew terms when we felt that the Orthodox reader would feel uncomfortable with what s/he would consider to be the artificial anglicized version. I, personally, was also wary of the different connotations in the two languages, preferring, for example, to use the Hebrew term kedoshim for those who perished in the Holocaust rather than “martyrs,” with its Christian connotation. Of course, whenever we used a Hebrew term for the first time in a chapter we defined it either within the text or in a footnote, depending on whether or not the definition would suit the flow of the text. We also appended a glossary at the end of the book.

In accordance with The Chicago Manual of Style, we italicized all Hebrew words and terms unless they appear in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, such as “tefillin” and ”mezuzah.”

Another matter which had to be decided concerned eastern European place names. Many European towns have had several names due to border changes and multi-ethnic populations. Jews often gave different Yiddish names to their hometowns. For example, the Austrian town of Deutschkreutz belonged to Hungary until after World War I and was known as Sopronkeresztúr in Hungarian. The Jews called it Tzehlim, Yiddish for the kreutz (cross) part of the name. We tried to be consistent, calling the towns by the names used at the time, but added a note with the alternative names. Where we were concerned that survivors or their families might not recognize names, we gave the Yiddish name in parentheses. In addition, eastern Europe is full of towns with very similar spellings. We made every attempt to figure out which place was meant, but sometimes this was an impossible task.

To Conclude

What I have described here is a small part of my job editing Mrs. Farbstein’s books. We listed each of our decisions in a rather messily drawn-up style sheet which we constantly referred back to. The name of the game is consistency. Feedback on the translations has been extremely positive, and I get a thrill every time I see Mrs. Farbstein’s volumes in translation on bookshelves of Orthodox acquaintances or in use by academics in the libraries of universities or Yad Vashem. It seems that we managed our balancing act.

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