by Steve Ahern
Seven days a week, beginning most of the time around 7 a.m., Larry Schofer translates. He translates contracts, leases, patents and medical reports among other things from German, Polish, Hebrew and French into English. When he is lucky, he translates books, and when he is especially lucky, he is chosen to translate something historical. But Schofer jokes that his favorite thing to translate is whatever he is translating at the moment, with the exception of certain medical reports, which from time to time send him on time-consuming research journeys to uncover the meanings of esoteric medical procedures.
Until Schofer, 72, who has lived in Mt. Airy for the past 40 years, was nearing the end of his second career as a medical administrator, he had never thought about working as a translator. But his transition to that field has as much to do with his perseverance as with his facility for languages and the emphasis his schooling placed on languages, beginning with Hebrew, a language he began studying in the first grade. Schofer was raised by his parents in a row-house neighborhood in Baltimore among blue-collar families with the shared goal of sending their children to college. Schofer’s parents were no different. But several challenging years at a Jewish elementary school, where teachers spoke to Schofer in then-incomprehensible Yiddish (he has since learned that language) prompted his parents to transfer him to public school to provide him with the best chance of getting into college.
In public school Schofer was a pudgy, lonely, only child who sought solace in a history book he read while sitting alone at lunch. The 8th grade proved to be a significant year in his life. A charismatic teacher introduced him to the world of ideas in a way that resonated with Schofer. At the same time Habonim, a Zionist group Schofer joined at the goading of his mother, threw open his social life, finding for him companionship and acceptance on hikes, in games and dances with outsiders like himself whom the “in-crowd” had shunned. That group forged for him an identity accented by learning, organized activities and community. He also continued studying Hebrew at the Baltimore Hebrew College.
Languages were emphasized at the magnet high school he attended, and Schofer excelled at them. Students were mandated to take two years of French, German and Latin. Schofer also immersed himself in the school newspaper, eventually becoming the editor, an experience that cultivated his love of writing and capacity for administration.
In college, at John Hopkins University, a few bus stops from his home, the university had discontinued a core curriculum, permitting Schofer to focus on languages and other courses that interested him, including history. After studying abroad at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in his junior year, he returned with an even greater passion for history and the intention to become a history professor.
Graduate school at the University of Berkeley was rigorous and dynamic. His attendance there in the 1960s coincided with the student protest movement in which he participated sporadically, preoccupied as he was with his dissertation topic and the belief that the movement by the late 1960s had lost sight of its goals. Before choosing a topic, he applied for a grant to study Polish and selected a research topic that enabled him to use his knowledge of German and Polish for his research that culminated in his dissertation and book, “The Formation of a Modern Labor Force: Upper Silesia, 1865-1914.”
“I was interested in how people who are not industrial become industrial workers,” Schofer said. “It (the project) paid homage to an interest in the labor force.” By time he completed his dissertation, Schofer had become more interested in Jewish history. While working at the University of Pennsylvania as an assistant professor of European history, he taught a course on Jewish history and hoped to develop a Jewish history program at Penn until he learned in the mid 1970s, while conducting research on a grant in Germany, that Penn had denied him tenure.
Schofer’s career in academia wound down by the end of the 1970s. To restructure his professional life, Schofer earned a master’s degree in business administration from Temple University and began a 25-year career in medical administration, a lengthy professional departure from his use of foreign languages for his research. But Schofer maintained his fluency in Hebrew, German and French by reading novels in the original languages.
In the late 1990s, while still working as a medical administrator for a private medical practice, Schofer was asked to serve as editor and translator of a Polish newsletter, which served as his foray into translation as a profession. “It was all volunteer,” Schofer says. “You weren’t punished for making errors because it was free. It developed my skills.”
In 2005, when he was 65, and when several of the doctors he worked for were approaching retirement age, Schofer had no desire to retire along with them, and plunged full-time into his third career as a translator. “It required a lot of discipline, but eventually I began to enjoy, it, Schofer says. “I have been busy all of the time since the day I left the medical practice. Either people are desperate, or they like my work. Part of the process of translating is learning to write a text that reads like English but is faithful to the original. It’s an art. “
As a translator, Schofer draws from time to time on his knowledge gained during his two prior careers as a historian and the knowledge he gained in cardiology and physiology as a medical administrator. In the last seven years, between mostly short-term translation of commercial materials, he has translated three books. “The Girl That Could not be Called Esther,” a book he translated from German approximately three years ago, was written by Winfried Siebert, a lawyer, in the 1980s.
It is a true story about Jewish names in 1938 at the height of the Nazi regime and centers on a minister who wanted to name his daughter Esther. He was prohibited by German law because the name was judged to be characteristically Jewish. The book also examines the minister’s encounters with the Nazi legal system. Published in German in 1996, the book has enjoyed success in Germany and Israel and was recently published in English in 2011 and is available on Amazon.com.
“This is a whole book about anti-Semitism, and yet the characters are not Jewish. I learned that the Nazis and Germans became so hung up on questions of names in 1938 that they published a list of acceptable names, and Hitler was so interested he personally revised that list three times before it was allowed to be published.”
Schofer has also translated a book on German eugenics, for which he is seeking a publisher.
His love of language and the challenge of remaining as true as possible to an original text are what he enjoys most about translating. “I am fascinated by language and the twists and turns that (translation) involves,” Schofer says. “I feel great when I can find idioms that correspond to the other language, but are not word-for-word translations.”
This fall, Schofer, who has been married for 45 years and has two adult sons, hopes he is selected to translate a book on German politics and economics. In the meantime, he has the short-term translation work, his Yiddish and French book clubs, his chairmanship of the Weaver’s Way education committee, a singing group, his involvement in the Chestnut Hill Rotary Club, exercise, possible resumption of a watercolor painting class and travel to keep him busy.
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