The Sofrim Chain of Being

Sofrim – (from Hebrew, literally “authors” or “litterateurs”)

In Israel, and I imagine in other countries as well, there is a particular tax status called “Sachar Sofrim”, translated somewhat flowerly as “The Wage of Penmen”. About 7 years ago, when I began working as a typist/translator for Israeli Deaf college students, I had to acquire a permit from the tax authorities confirming that I am a “Sofer”, which is usually the word in Hebrew used to denote authors, bookwriters, and men and women of letters.

In my work I mostly produced a verbatim textual account of what people (usually professors) said and wrote down on blackboards, and when I had to translate – signed the words in Sign Language (ISL, to be precise).

A few years ago, when I had my first hack at translating English-Hebrew, I required the same kind of tax-exempt status, to my surprise and delight (dealing with tax authorities is not my idea of an adventure).

This led me to the realization that writers, or Sofrim, may have a certain hierarchy, but all belong to the same tree of art and science, what I sometimes affectionately call “wordsmithing”. As a wordsmith, you basically write, and it doesn’t quite matter if you write someone else’s words, either written down or spoken, or your own words. I spent years and years scribing, and I still do that today. In my opinion, scribing is the “lowest rung in the Sofrim Chain of Being”. There is a modicum of artistry in being a scribe, or at least a good one: you need to be very punctual, you eventually develop certain knacks and intuitions – especially after having to scribe inaudible audio or simply unintelligible people for a long while.

This breaks down quite notably when you begin to translate, and that’s where we come to the next rung in the SCB – translating. A translator is a bridge creaking under the cultures that cross it. To translate, one must know personally and, in my opinion, painstakingly, the two cultures one wishes to mediate for. Languages are not collections of interchangeable words, arbitrarily chosen by different cultures simply because of their differing geography.

Languages are internal worlds of entire cultures – and they contain the very soul of the people who use them. A translator must know two languages to translate, and it follows, then, that in order to do his/her job, a translator needs to deeply understand the internal worlds of the two cultures bound by his work.

Translating is a work that sometimes frustratingly force the artisan to learn, obviously. But to a greater extent than I imagined at first, the vast majority of my work is actually a concerted effort to be sensitive, to reach out emotionally to the cultural baggage I personally contain.

I’m not American, or Anglo-Saxon in descent in any appreciable way, not genetically, anyway. But my bond with English stems from my childhood in a linguistically-challenged environment. I am, in other words, compensating for a world without words or for a world suffering from an ever-endured shortage of words.

I believe that translating is probably the SCB rung directly below the one in which you actually write your own stuff, and perhaps that is the rung in which the artist requires the least bit of learning and the most bit of feeling in his work. Obviously, an author requires an abundance of knowledge to create anything meaningful – but I suspect that if I shall ever be fortunate enough to write my own material and, hell’s bells, make a living out of it – I would be doing most of my writing with my heart.


2 Responses to “The Sofrim Chain of Being”

  1. s. ifhar Says:

    I’ll be looking forward to your own material, heart or no heart

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