Interview by Rabbi Sholom Yaakov Chazan, Beis Moshiach
P., a typical American fellow, became involved with Chabad at the beginning of the 70’s. He attended shiurim at the Chabad house and enjoyed hearing the shliach’s explanations about life and man’s role in Creation. The shiurim were given in English, of course.
At one of the shiurim, the shliach said that he planned on going to the Rebbe in another month, for the big Yud-Tes Kislev farbrengen. When P. asked the shliach what a farbrengen is like, the shliach said that all his shiurim were based on the Rebbe’s sichos that were said at farbrengens.
P., who always wondered where the shliach got all his original ideas from, decided that he had to go together with the shliach to the farbrengen in 770 so he could hear things directly from the source, from the Rebbe himself.
The shliach was happy to hear that his mekurav wanted to join him. They went together and the shliach described previous farbrengens with the Rebbe, the deep ideas, the niggunim, and even the difference between the niggun for a sicha and the niggun for a maamar. There was just one thing the shliach forgot to mention, and that was that all the fascinating ideas would be said by the Rebbe in Yiddish.
Since P.’s knowledge of Yiddish consisted of about only ten words, you can imagine how he felt during the farbrengen. He was excited to see the Rebbe, and the sight of the crowd of Chassidim listening avidly to the Rebbe was impressive, but when he realized that he wouldn’t understand a word of the farbrengen, he felt terrible. He was right there, in the Rebbe’s presence, yet he couldn’t understand him.
B. is also an American, and he went through a similar process as P., though with one difference. He began to get involved with Chabad at the beginning of the 80’s. When he heard from his shliach about the Rebbe’s farbrengen and he wanted to go along, the shliach was happy to include him.
When they arrived in Crown Heights, an hour before the farbrengen, the two of them went to the kollel near 770, where B. got a little radio with an earpiece, for two dollars. When the farbrengen began, B. could hear the Rebbe with one ear, while with his other ear he was able to hear a simultaneous translation of the Rebbe’s talks. When the farbrengen was over he thanked the shliach profusely for bringing him to the Rebbe’s farbrengen.
This resulted in further progress in the fulfillment of mitzvos and the learning of Chassidus, and B. soon became a Chassid. He regularly attended the Rebbe’s farbrengens on special occasions and he listened closely to what the Rebbe said, as it was translated.
When I saw the small black transistor on R’ Moshe Kugel’s desk I was moved, since it brought me back in time to the Rebbe’s farbrengen where I would see mekuravim holding it, or old-time Chassidim who, for whatever reasons, did not know Yiddish. Now, as I saw the tiny earpiece and the larger transmitter, they looked forlorn there on the table, as though waiting for the complete hisgalus of the Rebbe MH”M, when, if it will be necessary, they will once again be used to translate the Rebbe’s words into all possible languages.
I spoke to Moshe because he was the one who, with a small gadget, enabled hundreds of people to understand the Rebbe at farbrengens, thus bringing the Rebbe’s message directly to hundreds and thousands of Chassidim and mekuravim.
Who came up with the idea of the simultaneous translations of the Rebbe’s farbrengens?
R’ Dovid Leib Grossbaum. He initiated a number of big projects, such as the Vaad Sichos B’Anglis (Sichos in English). Since he wouldn’t take this step without getting the Rebbe’s approval, he wrote to the Rebbe about it. Days and weeks went by without a reply.
In the meantime, he spoke about it with a wealthy person, a mekurav of his brother, Zalman Aharon Grossbaum in Toronto. The person loved the idea and wrote to the Rebbe about it. Within a short time he received this reply: “This is under the purview of the secretariat.” We spoke to R’ Leibel Groner and he said he thought the idea was wonderful.
How did you get involved?
Since R’ Dovid Leib knew me as someone who has a knack for technology, he told me about the idea so I could figure out a way of doing it. I told him I would go to the United Nations, where the tour guides’ talks are transmitted wirelessly to small gadgets that every member of the group holds. I would check it out and see how we could copy the idea for the Rebbe’s farbrengens.
I went to the UN and saw the machines and how they work, but after I called one manufacturer, I found out that it had two disadvantages: 1) it could only broadcast and receive at very short distances, 2) the cost of each one was $150. That was expensive in those days and since our plan was to have several hundred of them, it wasn’t realistic for us, certainly not for bachurim in 770 who couldn’t afford it.
I concluded that the simplest and cheapest way was to buy a radio transmitter that would broadcast on a set channel and to buy transistor radios that we would tune to the channel we were using. That way, we could broadcast a simultaneous translation.
The problem was that we didn’t want the channel we would broadcast on to be received on just any transistor, because then people would come with regular transistor radios to 770. You could hear that over the speaker and not just with an earphone, and if the earphone would be detached from the radio, then the translator’s voice would be audible to all and disturb the farbrengen.
Another problem with regular transistors was that people coming from the outside to hear the Rebbe’s farbrengen, could decide to switch channels to hear the news, and we certainly couldn’t allow that in 770.
So I looked for the technical means of broadcasting on radio waves that were beyond the usual range of ordinary transistors, but at the same time, would be close enough to the radio wave spectrum so I could manually change the transistors I would buy so only they could pick up the channels that we would broadcast. It was somewhat complicated, but I knew that with a little technical expertise it could be done.
I got my uncle, R’ Yaakov Rubin of Boro Park involved. He is an electrical engineer and one of his employees engineered for us a radio transmitter that operated on a normal radio frequency that was beyond the range of ordinary transistor radios, and that enabled me to begin experimenting.
Since the radio transmitter we had constructed was not powerful enough to broadcast from one end of 770 to the other, I had to connect an antenna to it and extend it around the walls of 770. I became quite familiar with the upper part of the walls of 770.
After all my efforts, I saw that the transmitter was so weak that despite the wire all around 770, we would not be able to get a good frequency.
I didn’t want to bother my uncle again and I began studying the field myself. So I learned about short wave radios which broadcast on very powerful waves, which for certain technical reasons are not used on ordinary radios. There are many fans of short wave radio that use it around the world, and I was able to go to a store that caters to these hobbyists and to buy a good transmitter at a reasonable price.
After I bought the transmitter I had one more little obstacle – transforming the regular transmitter radios that cost about $10 each, into short wave radios. After some attempts, I was able to do it.
Which was the first farbrengen simultaneously translated?
We received the Rebbe’s answer that the secretaries should decide, shortly before the Chai Elul 5747 farbrengen. Since we hadn’t overcome all the technical problems yet, I decided not to wait until the radios would be ready but to begin translating in a more primitive way, through direct wire hookup.
Before the farbrengen, R’ Dovid Leib arranged with all the men who had a permanent place on the first benches facing the dais, to vacate the bench for this experiment. Prior to the farbrengen, I ran a cord from the broadcasting room to those benches and I attached twenty plugs for headphones.
The first translators into English were R’ Levi Wineberg and R’ Alter Ben-Tzion Metzger. They sat in a small room in the library on the first floor of 770 and by using R’ Chaim Boruch Halberstam’s monitor and earphones from the broadcasting room, they were able to see and hear the farbrengen and to translate into English. The translation was transmitted via the headphones directly into the ears of dozens of mekuravim who sat on the first bench and heard the first simultaneous translation in Chabad.
The experiment was even more successful than we had hoped. The mekuravim, bachurim from Yeshivas Tiferes Bachurim in Morristown, were thrilled to finally be able to understand the Rebbe. At later farbrengens, Erev Rosh Hashana and on 13 Tishrei, I had already prepared fifty headphone plugs, and of course, all were grabbed up.
Then came the night of Simchas Torah 5738 and because of the Rebbe’s illness, there were no farbrengens. The Rebbe then began speaking from his room into a microphone and this was heard over the sound system in 770.
Since all the Chassidim were hearing the Rebbe over a loudspeaker, we decided to do the simultaneous translation over the sound system in the kollel building near 770. Hundreds of people crowded into that room during the broadcast, which only drove home to us how important it was to arrange a system whereby we could broadcast to hundreds of radios during the Rebbe’s farbrengen in 770.
When did you first start giving out transistor radios?
When we held the broadcasts in the kollel at the beginning of the winter 5738, we asked for a nominal sum and this money helped us buy the short wave radio and a few hundred transistor radios. Within a month I was able to transform about two hundred radios, and when we heard that the Rebbe was going to farbreng on Yud-Tes Kislev, we decided to inaugurate the wireless system.
250 Chassidim sat at the Yud- Tes Kislev farbrengen, Anash and mekuravim, holding transistor radios and with earphones in their ears, listening to the Rebbe and a translation of what he was saying. For many of them, this was the first time they were able to understand what the Rebbe was saying, then and there, at thefarbrengen.
It was only translated into English?
At first, we only translated into English. Then we got requests to translate into other languages. From the technical standpoint, we had to find another few frequencies and broadcast each language on a different frequency. We had to find translators for other languages. At the Yud Shevat 5738 farbrengen, we translated into English, Ivrit, and French.
Was it possible to switch from the Hebrew channel to the English channel?
No. Since we didn’t want people to play around with the radios in the middle of the farbrengen, we removed the dial that switches channels. On the radio set to the English language broadcast, you could not switch to Hebrew, or vice versa. We also removed the built-in speaker so that if an earphone was removed from the radio, the voice of the translator would not be heard by everybody at the farbrengen. We removed all the options so that all you could do was turn the radio on and off.
What feedback did you get?
Before one of the farbrengens we gave out a short questionnaire along with the earphones in which we asked the listeners to tell us what they thought. One of the things we wanted to know was whether people wanted a word for word translation or only the contents translated. Most people wanted a word for word translation, and that’s what we did.
Back then, there already was a translation of the contents of the farbrengens, which was done by R’ Manis Friedman. He translated all the major farbrengens that were broadcast on television. Since his translations were meant for people outside of Chabad, his translation was very loose. He explained the background of what the Rebbe was saying and didn’t get into the details.
Our target audience was different. Most of them were Anash who did not know Yiddish, or mekuravim who also did not know Yiddish. They wanted to understand every word the Rebbe said.
We didn’t get much feedback because after the initial excitement, it became routine and people simply showed up before the farbrengen, paid their two dollars (a token amount that we decided to take to cover expenses and also so that it wouldn’t be taken lightly), took the radio, and then came back after the farbrengen to return it.
If it was a situation in which a shliach took a radio for a mekurav, he wanted to rush back to the waiting mekurav and he didn’t have time to tell us what the person thought.
One time, a shliach came with one of his mekuravim after the farbrengen began and no more radios were available. The mekurav saw a young boy walking around with a radio and he took out a hundred dollar bill and convinced the boy to give him the radio.
The best reaction we got was when we saw hundreds of people, on the screen, holding radios and listening. What could be better than that?
Who were the other translators?
After the first English translator, R’ Levi Wineberg, there were R’ Alter Ben-Tzion Metzger, R’ Yosef Yitzchok Rivkin, R’ Avrohom Flint, and R’ Aharon Chitrik. The translators into Hebrew were R’ Dovid Olidort, R’ Yisrael Zalmanov, and R’ Sholom Dovber Levin. I didn’t have a regular translator into French but each time a large group came from France, they arranged for someone to translate and I would set aside radios for them.
Sometimes we got groups from Brazil and they arranged for a translation into Portuguese. Sometimes it was Rebbetzin Esther Alperin a”h, the shlucha to Brazil. She did exceptionally well and even our regular translators were amazed by her translation.
Doing the translations was a shlichus that required a great sacrifice on the part of the translators, for they gave up the pleasure of personally participating in the farbrengen. They agreed to sit in a separate room and to watch the farbrengen on a monitor, to enable hundreds of people to enjoy the farbrengen.
Is a simultaneous translation more complicated than a regular translation?
Of course. No comparison. In a regular translation, the translator has time to think. Sometimes, there are several ways of translating a particular word, and the translator thinks about which is best. In a simultaneous translation, he has to listen and translate without much time to think.
Because of the great difficulty in simultaneous translating, especially when translating deep material, like in the Rebbe’s sichos when the translator has no idea what the Rebbe will say in the next sentence, even the best translators sometimes make mistakes. For this reason, we did not tape the translations so that people wouldn’t take it afterwards and think this was a precise translation of what the Rebbe said.
Generally speaking though, we were very successful and the translations were accurate. I personally was always amazed by how the translators were able to follow what the Rebbe was saying and translate simultaneously.
At one of the Yud-Tes Kislev farbrengens, the Rebbe began to make a siyum on a tractate that is not usually learned in yeshivos, and the translators had a hard time translating material they were completely unfamiliar with. I brought them a Gemara as well as a Mishnayos Mevoeres. I was so impressed by how the translators were listening to the Rebbe while skimming the Gemara and translating simultaneously!
Where are the radios today?
All the radios are in the basement. When the Rebbe is nisgaleh, if we still need translations, they are right here, ready to be used!
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