Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman, DHL, and Gabriel E. Padawer, ScD, z”l, are the two translators responsible for the new English edition of Martin Buber’s Der Weg des Menschen nach der chassidischen Lehre (The Way of Humanity: According to Chasidic Teaching). In this excerpt from the book’s introduction, they discuss the origins of Buber’s classic work and why they decided to undertake this translation project.
In April 1947, Martin Buber (1878–1965) delivered a six-part lecture with the title “Der Weg des Menschen nach der chassidischen Lehre” (The Way of Humanity: According to Chasidic Teaching) to the Woodbrookers at their convention center in Bentveld, Holland. The Woodbrookers (Vereeniging Arbeidersgemeenschap der Woodbrookers, Association of Workers Community of Woodbrookers), a Dutch religious-socialist workers’ organization with connections to English Quakers, and Martin Buber were no strangers; Willem Banning (1881–1971), Protestant pastor, cofounder, and some-time leader of the Woodbrookers Workers Community, had known Buber for many years and had been influenced by Buber’s socioreligious and philosophical outlook. When it became known in 1947 that Martin Buber would visit Holland as part of a seven-country lecture tour organized by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Woodbrookers invited him to be their featured speaker at a specially organized educational conference…
From his earliest years, Buber had been fascinated by the legends, traditions, and mystical teachings of the eighteenth-century Eastern European Chasidic rabbis. He chose a legendary tale from the Chasidic masters as a theme for each one of his six lectures and then expanded on these six tales to show their relevance to mid-twentieth-century thinking and sensibilities… A “Notice to Members,” found in the archives of the Woodbrookers Workers Community (now housed at the International Institute of Social History, in Amsterdam), notes that Martin Buber delivered his address on Sunday, April 20, 1947, in two sessions (at 10:30 in the morning and 4:00 in the afternoon) to an appreciative audience of about 150 listeners.
One of these auditors was Henri Friedlaender, who was a skilled calligrapher, graphic designer, and some-time poet who previously had published his writings on his own small press, Pulvis Viarum. Friedlaender was so much taken by Buber’s lectures that he approached Buber and was able to persuade him to let Pulvis Viarum publish the lectures as a German-language monograph with the title Der Weg des Menschen nach der chassidischen Lehre (The Way of Humanity: According to Chasidic Teaching). Friedlaender augmented Buber’s German lecture notes with a glossary explaining lesser-known terminology and place names and published it at the Pulvis Viarum Press in 1948. To this day it is the only one of the sixty-odd lectures delivered during Buber’s seven-nation tour to have been published (and later translated into many languages) as a stand-alone monograph…
We decided to undertake a new English translation, based on the Pulvis Viarum 1948 German-language publication, for several reasons. The first was that the original (1950) English translation had been all too faithful to its German urtext, frequently resulting in complex and overlong sentences, with many nested clauses and parenthetical modifiers that were difficult to comprehend. One of us has had firsthand experience teaching the 1950 English text to young adults; they frequently had difficulties with the material and soon lost interest.
The second reason for a new translation was that we believed Buber’s work deserved a more scholarly presentation, including numerous notes about historical figures (included in the notes and glossary), references to biblical quotations, and explanations for some of Buber’s literary allusions based on themes from early twentieth-century Western European culture that would be unfamiliar to contemporary readers.
Third, we gave due regard to the importance of making our text gender-neutral, while preserving the literary and stylistic character of the work. To do this, we adopted the simple device of eliminating every occurrence of the pronouns he, his, or him, by transposing the sentence structure from the third person singular to the first or second person singular or else from the singular to the plural. Only direct quotations from external text sources were allowed to retain their gender-specific pronouns.
This translation developed over time. Our understanding and appreciation of Buber’s ideas deepened in the process. Our aim was to make the text and its ideas accessible to readers with an English sensibility by employing colloquial American English speech and usage. At the same time, we made every attempt to find English words or phrases that mirrored as closely as possible the meaning, both explicit and implicit, of Buber’s original German, so that Buber’s poetic melody and rhythm would not be “lost in translation.”
 Martin Buber, Der Weg des Menschen nach der chassi- dischen Lehre (The Netherlands: Pulvis Viarum, 1948).
Rabbi Bernard H. Mehlman, DHL, senior scholar at Temple Israel in Boston, Massachusetts, teaches midrash and homiletics at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Formerly, he was Distinguished Lecturer in Judaics at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Gabriel E. Padawer, ScD, z”l, who emigrated to the United States as a refugee from Nazi persecution in 1938, was a registered professional engineer, a Fellow of the National Science Foundation, and a lifelong student of Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy.
Rabbi Mehlman and Dr. Padawer are the translators of the new English edition of Martin Buber’s The Way of Humanity, now available from CCAR Press.