Book Designer Meets Programmer [Typesetting A Chumash]

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By Raphaël Freeman

I think that most people know that the Bible has been the number one best-seller of all time. As Jews, we read this book on a regular basis both for study and ritual. As is traditional, most Chumashim will come with at least two commentaries: that of Rashi and of Onkelus. Although, Onkelus provides a verse by verse translation into Aramaic (perhaps not such a popular language today than it was when he wrote it), Rashi picks and chooses. The Rashi commentaries are often set in a “Rashi typeface” even though ironically Rashi would never have seen the typeface that is now named after him. But I digress…

When faced with the task of actually typesetting a Chumash, the biggest challenge is making sure that the verses match. We don’t want to have verse 7 of the chumash on the first page, but verse 7 of the Rashi on the following. In fact, as a reader, we would prefer to have the entire text of each verse kept together which sounds a lot easier than it is to do in practice which is why must Chumashim will break in the middle of the verse.

When we start to deal with a Chumash with an English translation and commentary, and then throw in footnotes to boot, then we are dealing with a very complicated page. The time to layout such a spread of two pages can take anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour. That’s a lot of time for a 1,500 page volume.

Even with the typesetting of a straightforward novel, there are plethora of ways of automating the process. The easiest is to start “cleaning up” the document in Microsoft Word and using macros which can be “programmed” by simply recording your actions.  In fact some years ago, I asked a friend, Avi Burstein, to create a program called ASR (advanced search and replace) and when we were typesetting the 2nd edition of Encyclopedia Judaica, we had a long list of search and replaces that the ASR would work it’s way through to clean up the thousands of Microsoft Word files (each article was a separate file).

More  recently at  Koren,  when designing the new  Koren Talmud,  I had to come up with  a  revolutionary  design  that  helped you  learn Talmud in the “Steinsaltz” way and also could be typeset at breakneck speed.  I wanted to finish the entire project within 3.5 years. To this end,  I spent several months working with  a  programmer to create a set of scripts (macros) to automate the page layout.

More recently,  at Renana Publishers, our typesetting department is designing and doing the layout of the upcoming  Kehot  Chumash.

Watch video below  to see what happens when you fuse the work of world-class book designer and a programmer

There are lots of  things going on in this video. The basic script adds a pasuk from the prepared typeset galleys. There is a script to handle the Onkelus  (sometimes the Onkelus will wrap under the Chumash,  sometimes vice versa and sometimes the width of the  Onkelus will adjust).  We have a script to feather columns within predefined limits.  A script to renumber the footnotes so that the  numbering  works across  the spread after layout.  The master script is the “compose” script which massages the entire page based on tweaks to the page.

The scripts aim to get all the text onto the page sometimes requiring the translation to move onto the recto.  However, if not all the commentary can fit onto the spread, then the script will handle moving the left-over commentary to the next spread.

Hope you enjoyed my post, now to typeset the rest of Bereshit…


Raphaël Freeman is the founder and publisher at Jewish publishing house  Renana Books.  He previously held executive positions at the Jerusalem Post and more recently at Koren  Publishers  Jerusalem.




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