The best SBL presentation I attended this year, hands down, was by Shira Leibowitz Schmidt. It was entitled “Translating Biblical Verses in Rabbinic Holocaust Memoirs.” One of the particular translation values she talked about was “holocaust” for some words that many modern Bible translations render as “whole burnt offering.” Many Holocaust survivors dislike “holocaust” as a translation value for obvious reasons.
I don’t know a lot of modern translations, of the Bible at least, that use “holocaust” as a translation value, so that translation issue didn’t completely account for why the presentation was so engaging for me. Throughout the presentation Schmidt showed videos of interviews with Holocaust survivors. In addition, she told many stories about her experiences personally being involved with interviews of the survivors. Many of the stories that she told involved a particular incident with a bar where as the Jewish people were being brought into camps if they were not tall enough to reach the bar they were sent to the gas chambers and the lengths that some of them went to either to reach the bar or bypass the measurement altogether.
I was engaged for the whole talk. I was horrified at the stories she told. And, I learned random interesting things about translation as well. For instance, I learned about the difficulty of translating a rabbi quoting a line from Esther with feminine endings to refer to himself. How does one capture that complexity in translation?
For those interested in looking at the translation work that Schmidt was involved with, check out The Forgotten Memoirs: Moving Personal Accounts from Rabbis who Survived the Holocaust. I’ve already ordered my copy.