The Bible Guy blog was started as a way for me to continue writing and teaching about the Bible, though I must spend much of my time doing other things. The main task that’s been occupying me for the last 13 years — outside of my podcast and the part-time teaching I do to try and earn a living — has been the Commentators’ Bible, an English-language version of the traditional Hebrew page with the biblical text in the middle, translation along or near the top, and various commentators on the other three sides.
Recently on Facebook a friend asked the following question: “I’ve often wondered about your workflow. Who is responsible for laying out the pages and what tool do they/you use to keep everything in sync?” The answer to those two questions will end up being somewhat longer than it makes sense to post on Facebook, so I’ll discuss them here and post a link on the Commentators’ Bible Facebook page.
My friend’s a computer guy and (I believe) is interested in doing some Hebrew-English publication of his own, so I’d better answer the second question right away: I have no idea what tool is used to format the pages of the Commentators’ Bible. That’s all done — beautifully — by a company in Tel Aviv called El Ot. I was very happy last December to receive an e-mail from Koren Publishers in Jerusalem asking how we’d achieved the remarkable page flow that the Commentators’ Bible uses. But it’s all transparent to me, thanks to El Ot. I would add that the changes I suggest at the page-proof stage are quite minor. In general, everything’s right on the page where you want it to be. I have no idea how much human intervention is required in this process.
With all respect to El Ot, however, it’s not merely their skill that makes the Commentators’ Bible so remarkable. The basis for everything is the amazing page design by Adrianne Onderdonk Dudden of blessed memory. My wife spoke to her daughter at the afternoon of learning that the Center City (Philadelphia) Kehillah held when the Exodus volume first came out, and (if I understand correctly) this was the last project she worked on before dying of lung cancer. She had done a lot of work for JPS — I remember being struck by the cover of a book about Salonica and discovering it was hers — but she wasn’t Jewish and had no previous familiarity with the traditional Miqra’ot Gedolot kind of book page. I explained to her what I wanted and gave her some Hebrew pages as an example.
The result is what you see: a page that’s absolutely crammed with information, but feels open and welcoming to the reader. It’s very easy on the eyes. Without calling attention to itself, the design clearly distinguishes the two translations on top of the page from the commentaries on the sides and below. The (subordinate) “Additional Comments” have their own area at the bottom of the page.
Now on to my “workflow” (hoping that I actually do understand what this term means). It’s summertime right now, so I try to work on the project more or less a full day every day from Monday through Thursday. Toward the end of the day, I start to run out of gas (and in the winter it’s dark), so I devote that time as well as Fridays and Sundays to other projects and to various chores and errands. (At the moment I’m also trying to start each day by reading a chapter or article of the kind I’m too wiped to read after a day’s work.) During the school year, I’ve been teaching all day on Mondays and Wednesdays so I could have Tuesdays and Thursdays free for the Commentators’ Bible. Now that I’ve been laid off from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I’ll have Monday and Wednesday mornings to work on it too, unless I manage to find something else part-time to fill those hours.
For the actual translation, everything starts out as a Microsoft Word file. There are other options nowadays, but that was the obvious thing to do back in 2001 when I started on the project. It’s single-spaced while I type, space-and-a-half when I’m ready to edit.
Most Jewish editions of the Torah are made so that they can be used in a synagogue setting, which means that the crucial division is not between chapters but between one parashah and the next— the English term of art, I believe, would be “lectionary.” That’s the section of the Torah that is read in synagogues during any particular week (leaving holidays and other special occasions aside). So I work on the Commentators’ Bible in the same way, doing one parashah at a time. That means my Word docs are organized into numbered folders for each parashah in the book I’m working on at the time. Right now, that means
• 01 Bereshit
• 02 Noach
and so on up to
• 12 Vayechi.
I first create a Word doc with the Old Jewish Publication Society translation, which I grab off the web. JPS has electronic files they can use for the current (“New”) JPS version, but apparently not of the original 1917 one. I do some light editing to change British spellings to American ones, double-hyphens to dashes, single quotes to double, and the like.
Next, I go through the commentary of Abarbanel and create a doc that contains his questions about the parashah. I want the questions to appear in chapter and verse order, so (as with all the commentators) once in a while I need to move things around a bit. Abarbanel wrote an entire commentary on each book of the Torah, but he framed it as answer to a series of questions, which he places at the beginning of each parashah. So (though even his questions need some editing) I needn’t read through his entire commentary to get the questions. Reading them serves the same purpose for me that I hope it will serve for my readers: getting me prepared for the kinds of things that prompted the commentators to do their work.
Then, I launch into the main commentators on the page—in chronological order: Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Kimhi (special guest star for Genesis only), and Nahmanides. The Word docs I create for them have whatever notes I’ve made during earlier volumes to remind me that (for example) Nahmanides will refer to a particular comment in another book. For Genesis, as you can imagine, I have a fairly extensive list of these.
At this stage, I translate each of the commentators fairly quickly, not worrying if there’s something I don’t catch, a reference I can’t confirm, or a word choice that I know is wrong. A double star (**) will serve as a reminder that there’s something here I know must be fixed. All of these translations are done from the Etz Hayyim edition, simply because it’s clearly printed, easy to read, and supplied with some basic notes. These four (now, five) files comprise what I think of as the “first draft” of each parashah. By the time I’m translating Nahmanides I will often go back to make corrections or add notes to Rashi and Ibn Ezra, since they have to match what he says about them.
Then I go back to do a second draft of each of the main commentators. This time, the base text I’m using for each commentator is the best available text of the commentator (as summarized in the Back Matter of each volume). Sorry to disappoint those who expected that, by Genesis at least, the Commentators’ Bible would be based on the versions in the new Ha-Keter edition published by Bar-Ilan University Press. They wouldn’t respond to our calls and e-mails.
I do the first draft by typing directly into my computer — most definitely not the way I was ever able to write anything before 2001. (In fact, it was the Commentators’ Bible that enabled me to write my first drafts by typing, something I was never able to do before.) But the final version still has to flow from my hand through a pen onto a page. So I print out the first drafts, highlighting each ** in yellow (as pictured below) …
… and get to work. I don’t just focus on the highlights, but read the entire commentary again, from the base text, and check it against my translation. At this stage I’ll use all the available research tools, including previous English translations and their notes. I sometimes catch egregious errors in my work at this stage, but I also sometimes discover that the available commentaries are not necessarily authoritative. Once in a rare while they are actually following a mistake made by an earlier commentator (or his publisher). As I explain in the “Principles of the Translation,” following the most precise text doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to reconstruct that text from my translation.
When all this is done, I turn to the “Additional Commentators,” again in chronological order. Since I now own copies of almost all of these, I mark in yellow highlighter pencil (these stopped being available, but not before I acquired a lifetime supply) the texts I intend to include. I don’t wait until I’ve done them all, but finish each commentator and then enter his comments into a single Word doc that contains material from all of them. I sometimes decide at this stage that one of the comments I’ve marked is too complicated or too repetitive to include, so I mark it with an “x” (because I’ll come back to check these texts at the end of the process). When this file is complete, I’m done (for now) with the parashah and begin a new one.
When, finally, I’ve finished each parashah, I go back to the very beginning. At this stage — again working parashah by parashah — I print out all the files and simply read them, to see:
• Does what I’ve written make sense?
• Is it in good English, spelled and punctuated as I want it to be?
• Will it be comprehensible?
• Does it sound like the commentator whom I’m impersonating in that particular section? (Early in the process, I once had Ibn Ezra say “Admittedly…” But then I realized that Ibn Ezra would never “admit” anything.)
At this stage, I only consult the original text if I’ve written something I can no longer understand or that gives me pause in some other way.
Finally, I make sure the Front and Back Matter for the book is the way I want it. I’ve made sure while working on the translation that glossary entries and other explanatory notes are updated as I find them called for. The acknowledgments and dedication are finalized at this stage too.
When everything’s done, I transfer the MS to JPS. For Exodus, if memory serves, I printed out the whole thing and rode it over to 21st and Arch on my bicycle; for Deuteronomy, I just dragged all the files onto Dropbox. So far, I’ve managed to turn in each volume in August of the year it was due (I made all the deadlines Dec. 31st). We’ll see whether I can still do that for Genesis.
Now that JPS books are published by the professionals at University of Nebraska Press, everything is on a strict schedule, so turning the MS in early doesn’t advance the publication date. (Deuteronomy will be out next year, in 2015, though I turned it in during the summer of 2013.) Copyediting gives me another chance to read through the entire book; again the copy-editor works with me parashah-by-parashah. We’ve just finished that process, for Deuteronomy. At some point I’ll get page proofs, and again I’ll read every word (though only slight changes can be made at this stage).
Finally the book’s published and in the subsequent August I’ll get my first royalties. I started the Exodus volume in 2001 and it came out in 2005. It was still under JPS at the time, and they paid royalties in April (or, if they felt like it, May), so I worked on the project for the first 5 years, till 2006, without seeing a dime from it. But that first dime sure was nice to get…