Cultural News / A going concern
Suddenly, it seems as if Israeli writers are being read in translation just about everywhere (except the U.S.). As Israelis pour into the squares for Hebrew Book Week, Haaretz looks at the explosion of Israeli literature abroad.
Here's a very brief literary quiz: In what country do the writers David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz all have their own newspaper columns?
If you guessed "Israel," your choice was certainly reasonable - but it was wrong. And no, none of the three writes regularly in any American paper, Jewish or otherwise. Actually, the correct answer is Italy, where Israel's three most well-known literary figures appear regularly in the three leading daily papers: Oz in Corriere della Serra, Yehoshua in La Stampa and Grossman in La Repubblica.
The prominent standing in Italy of the "holy trinity," as one local publisher described the three novelists, is just one facet of the fabulous success of Hebrew writers in general in that country in recent years. Today, some 80 Israeli writers are available in Italian translations, and it seems as if publishers compete for the privilege to discover the latest new name from Israel.
Italy is clearly the most dramatic example, and is where more Israeli authors sell more copies of more titles than anywhere else, other than Israel itself, but it is neither a fluke nor an exception; Israeli literature in translation is a booming industry.
To English-speaking readers, this may be something of a surprise. After all, in the United States, which has not only the world's second-largest Jewish population, but also its most culturally confident, with many hundreds of titles of Jewish interest published each year, Israeli literature in translation is barely a blip on the publishing map. In fact, many titles that have found homes at publishing houses in European countries with far smaller general populations and infinitesimally tinier Jewish communities will never be published in America.
Harris' private agency and the state-sponsored Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature are largely responsible for the spread of Israeli writers to so many corners of the world. According to the institute, which keeps detailed records on the subject, the number of languages into which Hebrew books have been rendered is now up to 68, boosted by the late-May decision of a publisher in Katmandu to bring out in Nepali the poetry collection "Baghdad, February 1991," by Ronny Someck. The languages include not only French, German, Dutch and all the other usual suspects, but also Drents (a dialect of the Dutch province of Drenthe) and Bengali; Esperanto and Icelandic; and Slovak, Slovene and Urhobo (spoken in southern Nigeria).
Nilli Cohen, the institute's director, says that since 1874, when Abraham Mapu's "The Love of Zion" (considered the first Hebrew novel) was translated into Yiddish, more than 4,800 different titles have been translated from Hebrew to other languages. What's especially notable is the rate at which the phenomenon is growing.
Cohen, whose organization works with and receives part of its budget from the foreign affairs and culture ministries, says she sees her mission as "introducing the best of Hebrew literature to the world." The experience of reading about Israel, she says, gives people greater empathy and understanding for the country.
The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature was established in 1962, and until recently, one of its most important task was to commission translations of Hebrew works so as to ease their promotion abroad. Generally, the initial translation is from Hebrew to English, enabling foreign agents and publishers to get a taste of the book and decide if they want to take it on.
In recent years, says Cohen, her organization has reduced its translation work, "because our budgets were severely cut." The institute also has a subsidy program, which issues small grants (generally of 1,000 euros) to foreign publishers to help offset the cost of bringing out a Hebrew manuscript in the local language. In 2008, 11 such grants were issued, two of them for older titles by Yehoshua ("Mr. Mani," to Estonian; "The Lover," to Czech), one each by Oz ("A Tale of Love and Darkness," to Finnish) and Grossman ("See Under: Love," in Serbian), and the others for books by Aharon Appelfeld, Savyon Liebrecht, Etgar Keret, Amir Gutfreund, Alona Kimhi, Yaniv Iczkovits and Meir Shalev. Decisions on which projects receive funding are made by the Foreign Ministry.
'Jane Austen of the Levant'
Amit explains that he's not suggesting financial or other improprieties on the part of the institute staff, but rather thinks the selections of titles they choose to present to foreign publishers are based on more than straight literary considerations. Publishers overseas, he explains, are always looking for the next Amos Oz (who was initially referred to by some as an "Israeli Hemingway," and even "Jane Austen of the Levant") or Grossman, and their partners here in Israel are under pressure to deliver the goods. As a consequence, says Amit, "you have a mishmash of culture and politics."
Although introducing Middle Eastern politics into the literary equation may help push some Israeli writers into the international limelight, a professor of cultural studies at Tel Aviv University argues that it has marginalized others.
Prof. Zohar Shavit, who has studied the translation of Hebrew literature into French, suggests that publishers and the media there have a tendency to relate to Israeli writers more as political figures than cultural ones. In a recent study she conducted for the Israel Science Foundation, she argued that publishers don't bring the same literary criteria to bear when choosing Hebrew books for translation as they might when surveying German or Italian literature, for example. Not only that, but the French are looking for Israelis who hold the "correct" political positions, she found. "Writers from the right are almost never translated" to French, she wrote in the study.
Shavit also points to several highly esteemed Israeli writers who have been largely ignored in France, including Nobel Prize-winning S.Y. Agnon, as well as Yoel Hoffman and Yehoshua Kenaz, whose works do not generally deal with political themes. Most disturbing, perhaps, is Shavit's conclusion that the way Israeli literature is viewed in France has led to a large portion of Israel's brief literary history being ignored there. "Entire generations from the history of Hebrew literature have been erased in the translation into French: Haim Hazaz and Moshe Shamir, Nathan Alterman and Avraham Shlonsky, Leah Goldberg and Alexander Penn, Yizhak Lamdan and Shaul Tchernichovsky, Natan Zach and Dahlia Ravikovitch."
Amos Oz in 36 languages
In keeping with the trend toward privatization of government services, the translation institute has also moved in a big way into acting as a literary agent, and today represents some 200 local novelists and poets in deals with foreign publishers. The more well-known of them include Keret, Zeruya Shalev, Yoram Kaniuk and Yehudit Katzir. It also has a separate catalog for children's literature, the most recent edition of which includes 14 different titles by such popular authors as Uri Orlev, Nurit Zarchi and Alona Frankel.
Although the ITHL and Harris (whose other clients include Michal Govrin, Alon Hilu and Yirmi Pinkus, this year's winner of Israel's lucrative Sapir Prize for Literature) nearly have the market cornered when it comes to representing Israeli writers vis-a-vis the world, Rachel Yonah Michael, a relative newcomer to the field, is convinced that there is room for an agent representing "non-establishment" voices.
Michael began the Haifa-based El Ray Agency because, she says, she felt the "establishment" was at times putting "stumbling blocks before certain authors." She says that when she asked the ITHL for forms to apply for a translation grant for one of her authors, "they were not willing to comply. They eventually sent them, but only after I maintained that it was the right of every Israeli author, regardless of beliefs or political views."
One of her authors is novelist Sami Michael. The Iraqi-born writer, who wrote in Arabic for many years, is the author of such popular Hebrew works as "Trumpet in the Wadi," about a love affair between an Arab woman and a Russian immigrant man in Haifa, and "Victoria," the saga of a Jewish family in Baghdad and after their immigration to Israel.
Under the aegis of El Ray, "Trumpet in the Wadi" was published in Farsi, in Iran, two years ago, which may well be a first for an Israeli author. The publisher was not a commercial press, but the person who sponsored the project in Tehran is a "highly influential individual" there, she says. The book has also been published in China. "Victoria," she says, has been published in Arabic in Beirut ("half of that printing was sent to Baghdad," she says, "where it sold well"). And Sami Michael's most recent novel, "Aida," which deals with Iraq under Saddam Hussein, is scheduled for publication in that country.
El Ray also represents Haaretz editor and writer Benny Ziffer, whose 2005 Hebrew-language novel "Ziffer and His Kind" ("Ziffer Uvnei Mino"), which deals with the life of an Israeli homosexual couple, has just been published in German translation by the firm Maennerschwarm.
Inroads into China
Hebrew literature, of course, was not always so accessible. The first time a Hebrew-language book was translated into Chinese merited a news story. That was in 1992, when a Chinese graduate student of Hebrew rendered a volume of selected poetry by Yehuda Amichai into Mandarin Chinese. Today, a glossy brochure produced by the ITHL lists 63 works of poetry and prose that are available in Chinese, including 10 different titles by Oz and five children's books by Orlev. (It also lists two different editions of Zeruya Shalev's "Love Life," one published in Taipei, the other in Beijing, and of course, both boy and girl versions of Frankel's toilet-training classic "Once Upon a Potty.")
If so much good news about anything from Israel is startling, the reports on the status of Hebrew literature in Italy are cause to be flabbergasted. Simonetta Della Seta, who until recently directed the Italian Cultural Institute of Tel Aviv and now serves as adviser on cultural affairs to Italy's ambassador to Israel, says publishers back home tell her that, as a group, Israeli authors are their most widely read foreign writers. "Wherever you enter a bookshop in Italy, you will find a title by an Israeli writer featured," she says.
Publisher Shulim Vogelmann, whose Florence-based company La Giuntina specializes in Jewish and Israeli literature, agrees. He says the average shelf life of a new book in an Italian shop is about three weeks, "other than maybe 100 books that have staying power" - and those always seem to include a title by each member of Israel's holy trinity.
Vogelmann, 31, who lived in Israel for a number of years, says Italians "are known for their cult of personality, and their approach to every strong personality is pathological." And so, he contends, they respond to these three articulate, politically engaged and appealing personalities as celebrities, not just as literary figures. (Italians also buy a lot more books than they read, he is convinced.) He recalls Yehoshua's once describing the experience of traveling to Venice to lecture, where he said he was made to feel like a king in the Middle Ages.
Della Seta agrees that appreciation for Oz, Yehoshua and Grossman in Italy goes beyond admiration for their writing. "They are consulted on all kinds of things," she says. As an example, she refers to the Italian energy giant Eni, which last year published the first issue of a magazine in Italian and English. "They opened the magazine with an interview with A.B. Yehoshua on oil!" Grossman, who speaks a competent Italian, seems to be in Italy every few weeks, says Della Seta. "He participates in hundreds of meetings, and is on talk shows. He is adored by Italians - an idol."
Grossman, she says, is especially admired for the dignity he displayed after his son Uri was killed during the Second Lebanon War three years ago; Oz is treated as a prophet, whose every word is treated "as if engraved on stone." And it's her sense that Yehoshua's depiction of family life strikes a chord among Italians.
"Sometimes I'll ask Italians: Why do you read Yehoshua, why do you know every street in Haifa [where Yehoshua lives, and many of his novels take place], even though you've never visited the place?" says Della Seta. "They say that they love the centrality of family in his work, they feel there's something similar in the lives and values."
But Italians' passion for Israeli literature goes far beyond the literary trinity. Rather, Vogelmann says, Israel's three best-known novelists "opened a door for all the other writers." Among authors whose works appear on his company's list of newly published titles are Sara Shilo, Avirama Golan and Lizzie Doron. None of the three have been published in the United States.
Harris, the literary agent, says she has also sold the rights to Shilo's 2007 "No Gnomes Will Appear" - which won a number of awards, including the Sapir Prize - in Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, but cannot find a publisher in the United States who is willing to take a chance on the innovative work. Doron, who writes fiction from the perspective of a daughter of Holocaust survivors, is highly popular in France, Germany and Italy - probably more so than she is in Israel - and the rights to her books have also been sold in Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic, but she too has yet to be published in the United States. The same goes for Golan, a Haaretz writer whose popular 2004 novel "The Ravens" has been put out in Italy by Vogelmann's press and in Germany by the Suhrkamp publishing house.
ITHL director Cohen acknowledges the difficulty presented by the American market, where translated works constitute only 2 percent of the titles published. The large U.S. publishers are in a "major crisis" today, she says, but adds that the institute has adjusted to the situation by focusing its efforts on smaller, independent houses. "They can take risks. Not huge risks, because they're publishing small numbers. But as fewer works of quality fiction from abroad are published by the big houses, the more likely they are to be picked up by small, independent publishers."
Still on French shelves
Here in Israel, newspapers covered last year's Paris Book Fair because of the bomb threats and boycotts that greeted the decision to invite a large delegation of Israeli writers, during Israel's 60th year.
But the real story may have been the reception given to the delegation of Israelis who were flown in for the fair.
Roselyne Dery, the literary attache of the French Embassy in Tel Aviv, helped organize the delegation's visit. She says that well over a year before the March 2008 event, local presses in France began looking for Israelis to publish. Dery offers a list of 17 writers - including Hilu, Ron Leshem, Agi Mishol, Zvi Yanai - whose work appeared in French translation for the first time, as the fair approached.
"The fair was a huge success," says Dery. "The French public - and I mean the public at large, not just those involved with publishing - were very interested in Israeli literature. I was in France this past March, and I saw that the books were still prominently displayed in the bookstores. One year after the fair!" She adds that some of those authors who were introduced to local audiences only last year are already having their second book published in France.
Dery attributes part of the appeal of Israel's best-known writers to their political engagement, and credits the success of Israeli films in France - especially "Beaufort," which is based on Leshem's novel about the first Lebanon war, and "Jellyfish," which was co-directed by Keret and weaves together several intersecting life stories unfolding in Tel Aviv - with drawing new readers. If a decade ago there were 10 Hebrew authors available in French, says Dery, today the number is around 60. And then there are writers like Appelfeld and Kenaz, who, she says, "are simply appreciated because the French love good literature. Period."
One editor who has played an important role in bringing Hebrew writers to French audiences is Jean Mattern, who is in charge of acquisitions at the prestigious publisher Gallimard. He himself reads Hebrew, and has been attracted to Israeli fiction since the beginning of his career, two decades ago, when it was "nearly impossible" for Israelis to get published in France.
Mattern, whose house publishes Kimhi, Zeruya Shalev and Eshkol Nevo, sees last year's book fair as the "climax" of a long process by which Israeli fiction "gained the place it now occupies in the French market."
That hard-earned spot "is safe," says Mattern, "now that people really have understood that there is something interesting coming from Israel and that there is fascinating literature to discover."
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