here is no doubt an inherent human need to put bad experiences behind us and move on. It’s been expressed by sages and self-help gurus alike and
could arguably be an evolutionary adaptation to the ‘slings and arrows’ that life throws at us. Yet, as anyone who has ever lived through a
traumatic experience knows, there’s an equally deep need to relive the experience in our heads and share it with others. But what of those truly
horrible crimes? The ones that are extraordinarily heinous and seem difficult to believe. What do we do, as humans, with those events in history that seem
to test our belief in humanity and make us question who we are? In other words, what happens to all those traumatic stories of ordinary human beings that
get swept up into the larger account of an era and relegated to footnotes or forgotten altogether while the ‘bigger picture’ is featured in the
pages of history books?
Sidney Shaievitz and I both came to the translation field in roundabout ways. We work in completely different languagesYiddish, Hebrew and Ukrainian for
him, Turkish for meand have never given up that “day job”, which in our case is the law. Despite the passage of years and great
distance, the two of us have ended up deeply involved in similar pursuits; the translation of documentation revolving around historical trauma. Sid and I
met in 1993 when I joined his firm, Shaievitz & Berowitz in Bloomfield, New Jersey as an associate attorney. I moved on to other positions, some in
other parts of the world and am now living and working in British Columbia, Canada, as the Information and Privacy coordinator for Kwantlen Polytechnic
University. Sid remains a partner with his general practice firm.
There is an inherent human need to put bad experiences behind us and move on.
Was there anything in your background that would have hinted at your gravitating to translation and historical trauma?
Sid: Professionally, no. I was a practicing chemical engineer for 18 years in the cryogenic and petrochemical fields before I became an attorney. I started
out in research and development and then moved onto process design of petrochemical refineries. As an attorney, I have a diverse private practice.
Personally though, there was an incident that was rarely mentioned in my family; my maternal grandfather was a victim of a violent death as a result of a
pogrom against the Jewish residents in his Ukrainian shtetl (town) of Felshtin. On February 17, 1919, he was stabbed to death in his home, one of 600
murdered victims that day. The event was so shrouded in mist in my family, I didn’t even know his name; my mother never spoke of it. It was only
after her death, that I felt the impulse to dig deeper. I came across a Felshtin Memorial book and found his name among the list of victims: Shlomo
Can you tell us more about the memorial book?
The book was published in 1937. It is a 670 page, first person account of what happened there by the Felshtin landslayt, compatriots living in the United
States. It is a detailed account of the horrific events of the pogrom, the grinding poverty of the shtetl and how Felshtiners adjusted to life in America.
It is written primarily in Yiddish with heavy doses of Hebrew and Ukrainian. It has three sections: “The Massacre,” “In the Old
Country” and “In the New Home”. It is said to be a model for the many memorial books written after the Holocaust memorializing the now
vanished way of life for the East European shtetl.
How did you go from reading it, to getting it translated?
Sid: In the process of trying to learn about the Felshtin tragedy, I saw what a tremendous resource the book was but the effort it took to translate it was
truly daunting. I felt I needed to make the book accessible to a wider audience. As a member of the first generation after the pogrom, I felt a duty to
future generations. I began to seriously look at getting the book translated in 1997. I was not, at the time, trained in any of the languages the book was
written in, other than having a superficial knowledge of Yiddish from my childhood. So I started out searching for competent translators. It hasn’t
been a smooth road. I don’t have to tell you how time-consuming, labor intensive, and therefore expensive, translation is. There is also a wide range
in competency and over time I’ve found myself taking on more of the work myself. Even when I outsource chapters for translation by others, I make it
a point to review each of the translations word by word. There are 77 chapters in the book. Being written in the first person makes each chapter very
Fatima: My path to translation has also been marked by a sense of compulsion and duty. The Turkish language is something I heard growing up with my
immigrant parents, but I started building my language skills when I spent a year studying in Istanbul at Bosphorus University at age 19. I later married a
Turkish man and then later still spent two years living and working in the Turkish side of Cyprus. During my years as a practicing attorney in New Jersey,
when many of my clients were Turkish, there was such a dearth of competent Turkish court interpreters and translators that I ended up getting approved as
one to help with the shortage. Turkish isn’t a high demand language in New Jersey, as compared with other languages like Spanish, but nevertheless
each year for the approximately 500-600 instances where Turkish interpreting was needed, there was a total of 3 Turkish language interpreters at the time
who had passed the State Courts administered competency test. I became the 4th in 2006. I am currently a certified Turkish to English translator with the
Society of Translators and Interpreters of British Columbia.
My road to the translation of historical trauma however had started earlier. It was some time in the year 2000, when an Armenian friend asked me if
I’d be interested in translating an entire book by a Turkish historian, Prof. Taner Akcam. It covered the topic of the Armenian genocide during the
late Ottoman period (From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide2004). If memory serves me, it was around 500 pages
long in the original Turkish. This friend couldn’t put in the time commitment it needed and since she was familiar with my language skills and
profession, suggested that I do it. I was asked to provide a sample translation, of the first 25 pages to the publisher. I couldn’t believe how much
effort it took to do that sample! Still, while I may have been naïve about how much work would go into translating an entire book, I was definitely
aware of how controversial the topic was in Turkey. I read the Preface to the book and did some research about the Professor first before agreeing to get
involved. I felt completely comfortable with his approach and philosophy. When the publisher later ended up going with another translator who they were
familiar with, I have to confess I felt a sense of relief because of the time commitment. Nevertheless, I was definitely intrigued by the subject and the
professor was interested in maintaining a relationship with me, as he needed help with short term projects, articles, speeches and the like. I jumped at
the chance. It’s been over 10 years and we have a very productive and positive collaboration.
Why did that particular topic, Armenian genocide, interest you?
Fatima: I’m not sure I have a short answer that will do it justice but I can trace the answer back to my mother. I recall many conversations around
the kitchen table where she would tell us stories about our family and their history in the town of Niksar, Turkey and the surrounding villages. Niksar is
considered part of North-Central Anatolia and is about a three hour drive south of the Black Sea. It is part of the province of Tokat which was once the
center of a thriving Armenian community that ended with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It is also part of the region that was the historical home for
Pontus Greeks, which I’m just starting to learn more about. Today, there is barely a trace of either heritage left in the area. Secondly, I have a
family connection to the Armenian community in Turkey that has traumatic roots, somewhat like Sid’s. I have a beloved uncle, by marriage to a
paternal aunt, whose parents were both Armenian orphans but who were raised as Turkish and Muslim. This is one of those family secrets that was both widely
known in our family, but only recently discussed more openly with others. My mother described to me, when I was quite young, what she knew of their past,
the fact that they knew nothing of their own biological families who were swept away by the tragic events of 1915 and, sadly, that it was something that
needed to be hidden from others because of the deep stigma that remains in Turkey, even today, for having Armenian heritage. The tragedy and injustice of
this history, particularly the part about “hiding” it and what that must have been like for them utterly disgusted me and so the subject was
something that had intrigued me for years.
What are the technical challenges of working in these areas and how do you cope with them?
Sid: Well, the book has been a monumental challenge. The Yiddish is somewhat archaic and misspellings are common. I started with one Yiddish dictionary. I
now actively use three Yiddish dictionaries, two Hebrew dictionaries, two Ukrainian dictionaries and a Russian dictionary1 Frequently, I can’t find
a word in the dictionary in which case I call upon others for assistance: other translators, Ukrainian speakers, Hebrew speakers, university professors and
Direct translation is often insufficient to fully explain what was written so I have had to conduct extensive research on the history, life and culture of
the area. To give just one example, the word chipkes is used in the book. “Chipkes” was a euphemism for the pogromists. It was the name given
to the hats word by the soldiers led by Bogdan Kh’melnitski in the rebellion against the Polish overlords in the region in 1648 to 1653 which
resulted in great massacres of the Jewish population. In order to better understand the book, I have had to learn about the assassination of Czar Alexander
II (1881) and the pogroms that followed, the rebellion of 1905, the Russian civil war and the Ukrainian uprising. I also became interested in learning
about the subsequent assassination of Semyon Vasilievitch Petlura in Paris in 1926 and the trial of Sholem Schwartzbard in 1927. I have ruminated over
certain words for days, months, even years. One key word has challenged translators as far as Lithuania!
Fatima: I’ve been called on to translate documents that were originally written in Ottoman Turkish, which was an amalgamation of Turkish, Arabic,
Farsi and even a little French and very different from modern Turkish. To make matters worse, it was written in a script that no longer exists, a hybrid of
Arabic and Farsi. Prof. Akcam has these documents transliterated into Latin script first, and because of his own extensive knowledge of Ottoman Turkish,
provides me with spot translations of words or phrases into modern Turkish to be helpful, but still the challenge of translation is, as you described,
monumental. The grammar, syntax and sentence structure of modern Turkish is difficult enough but Ottoman is completely unlike English. Like Sid, I am a
“collector” of dictionaries. I’ve lost count of how many. One of the best print dictionaries is the REDHOUSE Ottoman/Turkish –
English dictionary. There are also three excellent online sources of Turkish that I rely on2. I find my legal background to be invaluable when working with
Turkish statutes, court documents or property records from that era, which constitute a primary source of research. During my two years teaching law at
Eastern Mediterranean University in Cyprus, I became familiar with many Turkish legal terms that often have roots in Ottoman Turkish.
You’ve mentioned the technical challenges but what about the emotional ones?
Sid: The translation of the Felshtin book has become a passion for me. Although it is difficult and very taxing and time consuming, I look forward to the
‘work’. I’ve been traumatized at times, reading through the first person accounts of horrific cruelties. No matter how many times I read
the same material, I feel greatly saddened and teary eyed.
Fatima: I agree with Sid that the work becomes something you “have” to do. At the risk of sounding self-righteous, it’s almost a mission.
You feel that you’ve been presented with a duty that you’re compelled to fulfill, uniquely compelled in some way. Since I don’t handle a
lot of first person accounts however, I can’t say my experience of translating has been as emotionally difficult as Sid’s. For me the emotional
challenges have been different. In order to gain a better sense of the background to the Armenian story in Anatolia, I’ve tried to read other
materials and the personal stories can be quite emotionally difficult to process. Fethiye Cetin’s “My Grandmother: A Memoir,” and Peter
Balakian’s “Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir,” come to mind. Like me Balakian has spent a good part of his life in New Jersey, living a
suburban American experience that was in many respects no different than mine. What surprised me however was learning that he can trace at least some of
his roots to Tokat, Turkey; reading that really stopped me in my tracks. His relatives had a business there, I believe. It suddenly dawned on me that my
ancestors and his ancestors may have shared the same streets, the same shops, the same air, water, sounds….and yet look at the differences in our
lives and then again, the similarities. He and I, the grandchildren, end up in New Jersey of all places! But our ancestors experienced the end of the
Ottoman Empire so differently. That story of two families and two diverse trajectories both saddens me and gives me hope. The hope is that one day both
communities may see their shared humanity again.
How has the work affected you professionally and/or personally?
Fatima: The unfortunate truth is that while a lot of inroads have been made towards understanding how the Armenian genocide came about, it is still a very
divisive issue in Turkey and one that can create a lot of personal hardship for anyone who takes an activist role. I have to remain ever mindful of that.
That doesn’t change the fact however, that it’s opened up a window to a world that was veiled to me before and for that I’m very
grateful. I get a great deal of personal satisfaction knowing that I’m helping shed light on a subject that’s been such a taboo. It may feel
like you’re pushing a rock up a hill at times, but there’s a Turkish saying that my mother uses a lot, “damla damla göl olur”
translation: “Drop by drop, you’ll end up with a lake.”
Sid: To say that my life has been enriched by undertaking the translation project would be an understatement. I have since organized the Felshtin Society,
a New Jersey not-for-profit association and obtained recognition as a charitable organization under the tax code. I’ve networked with many others and
raised funds and met people I never would have if not for Felshtin and the power of the Internet. The Society has well over 200 families, including those
in other countries. Many of the landslayt can be considered part of my own extended family. We have met in New York City twice to observe the pogrom on its
80th and 90th anniversaries. We have our own website at http://www.felshtin.org, and we have performed genealogical research. In 2010, the Society had a monument
erected in Felshtin in memory of the destroyed Jewish community. I had the privilege of traveling to Felshtin (now Hvardeyskiy) with others to speak at the
dedication of the memorial. All of this because I made a commitment to have a book translated. My life has expanded to wondrous ways, and includes people
all over the world, descendants of Felshtiners, academics, linguists, rabbis and so forth, who contact me with questions about their ancestors or
information that they can share. I was even able to confirm the Jewish-Felshtiner lineage of a young woman in California so that she could be accorded a
It has stimulated me to learn more about the history of the region and has spurred me to develop my knowledge of Yiddish and Jewish culture. Mostly though,
it’s opened up my own family history to me and given me some insight into the burden that my mother bore as a young girl who had lost her father to
such tragic circumstances. That’s been priceless.
1 Dictionary of Yiddish Words That Originated in the Holy Tongue (Hebrew). Compiled by Yitskhok Niborski [Yiddish to Yiddish] Bibliotheque Medem, 1999;
Modern English-Yiddish, Yiddish-English Dictionary, Uriel Weinreich, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Shocken Books, New York; Yiddish-Engish-Hebrew
Dictionary, Alexander Harkavy, 4th edition, Hebrew Publishing Company, New York; The Megiddo Modern Dictionary, Hebrew-English, compiled by Reuben Sivan
and Edward A. Levenston, Megiddo Publishing Co. Ltd, Tel Aviv; A Dictionary of the Targumim, The Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi and the Midrashic Literature,
Hebrew to English, compiled by Marcus Jastrow, Hendrickson Publishers; Transliterated Dictionary of the Russian Language, Eugene Garfield ed, ISI Press,
Philadelphia, 1979; Ukrainian-English, English-Ukrainian Dictonary, by Leonid Hrabovsky; Dictionary, English-Ukrainian, Ukrainian-English, Kiev, Irleen
2 http://www.sozluk.net/zargana.htm, http://www.seslisozluk.com and http://www.osmanlicaturkce.com; REDHOUSE Turkish/Ottoman-English Dictionary, SEV Matbaacilik ve Yayincilik,
A.S., Istanbul, 1997.