When not to rewrite

In recent months I was involved in two projects where I itched to improve the original writing. One was a non-fiction book about the bible and its interpretation; the other was the memoirs of a Jewish man who lived in Poland and Russia during World War II and survived to tell the tale – and what a tale it is!

In the first book, which I shall call BAIT (the Bible As I see It), I was asked to translate a couple of chapters from Hebrew to English, with the intent of sending the sample to a publisher abroad who had expressed an interest.

The second book, which I shall call J's Memoirs, was originally written in Polish, then translated into English and edited (sort of); I was asked to do further editing, mainly with regard to all the "weird" Polish names.

In both cases, I was tempted to do far more than I was asked, and in both cases, the client put a definite damper on me.


Case #1 – BAIT

The writer, an elderly gentleman, came from a religious family, but early on in childhood became disenchanted with the god known as Jehovah and would have nothing further to do with him. Nonetheless, later on in life he found himself drawn to the Bible and read it very carefully, trying to figure out its power over people, and to what extent it should be taken at face value. A huge, ambitious attempt, to be sure; one which he approached with gusto, a critical eye and ear, and considerable imagination.

The two chapters I read and translated were unusual, unorthodox, interesting, and at times funny. But one thing was very clear: the author was not an accomplished writer, and if he wanted to hook a publisher, the two chapters would benefit greatly (in my opinion) from some polishing.

How presumptuous of me!

The client, upon reading my first draft, foamed at the mouth. How dare I put words in his mouth, and add a sentence that wasn't in the Hebrew, and change his words! I was merely a translator, and my job was simply to convert his Hebrew text into correct English – no more, no less. With ill grace he accepted a few changes I proposed on the grounds that the non-Israeli, non-Jewish reader might misunderstand. Any other improvements of his prose were contemptuously thrown out the window. Last I heard, he hadn't found a publisher.


Case#2 – J's Story

The story itself was fascinating, if you ignore the beginning that describes in detail the layout of J's family home, the neighbors, the aunts and uncles, etc. J didn't have to invent any adventures or quirky characters to make his story interesting. His struggle to survive during the war comes through in his short, matter-of-fact sentences. He does not hypothesize or philosophize, he just tells it as it is, or was. Like the author of BAIT, he was not especially good with words, not a born storyteller. It would have been more "fun" for me, more "creative", to add some color to his prose, to make his sentences more elegant or sophisticated. But his widow said a flat "no": she wanted to maintain the authenticity of her husband's voice. I was expected to correct the grammar where necessary, add the absolute minimum of clarification, and make sure the English spelling of Polish names was logical and consistent. We also agreed which names had to be left in their original Polish spelling, e.g. Janusz Korczak, Wladyslaw Gomulka, Grzegorz Dzierzgowski, and others. But, considering that the target audience was mostly the writer's American family, there was no justification for maintaining the Polish spellings of names of Jewish writers such as Sholom Aleichem or David Frishman. Another consideration, of course, was how members of the family currently spell their name; if a branch of the family spells its name Brodecki, say, rather than Brodetsky, so be it.

Moral of the story: Before you embark on heavy editing or rewriting, make sure you know what the client wants and expects, and-- preferably -- why.

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