Old title, new life
It is not often that an old book is brought back to life and soars to the top of the bestseller lists within a short time. But in the case of "Catch-22," it is only logical; it seems that in the Israeli reality Joseph Heller's iconic anti-war book is still relevant. Recently a new translation of this cult title was published by Books in the Attic, in collaboration with Yedioth Ahronoth Books, and its success was immediate: Within two weeks, it sold 15,000 copies.
Behind the current revival of "Catch-22" lies an interesting publishing story.
The first Hebrew translation of "Catch-22" was brought out in 1971 (10 years after its initial publication in the United States) by Bitan Publishers, and it too was a great success. It was rendered into Hebrew by Benny Hadar and Benny Landau. Although it acquired cult status in Israel, over the years it gradually disappeared from stores, and in recent years, only a few dozen copies were sold here annually.
Bitan Publishers was established by Asher Bitan, a veteran publisher with rights to many books, whose company catalog includes quite a few literary treasures. In recent years, Bitan has been coping with an illness that has limited his activity as a publisher. As a result, the place of Catch-22" in bookstore shelves also shrank.
Over the course of time, many publishers expressed interest in acquiring the rights to translate the book anew. In the end, it was Yehuda Meltzer who won out. Meltzer is the publisher of Sifrei Aliyat Hagag (Books in the Attic), which with the same speed and persistance brought the Harry Potter books to Israel, undoubtedly the deal of his life.
Meltzer always liked "Catch-22," which in addition to being a book with financial potential, sits well with his political views. Close to 10 years ago, he approached the Ilana Pikarsky Literary Agency, which is the Israel representative for the American ICM agency, owner of international rights to the book. The latter approved the sale of the rights to a new publisher. So the book was translated into a Hebrew a second time, this time by Yaron Ben-Ami, who has also translated among other things, the books of Douglas Adams, and Sylvia Nasar's "A Beautiful Mind."
"Asher Bitan was a pioneering publisher in his youth, but in recent years, his condition has not been good," says Meltzer. "It was clear to me that a time would come when other publishers in Israel would be interested in the book. So I went to Ilana Pikarsky and nudged her, asking to buy the rights. She just knew that I had been waiting for it for years, and at the same time, all the other publishers around me apparently fell asleep on the watch." According to Meltzer, he paid a relatively low price for the rights to the translation, apparently, several thousand dollars. "We paid a fairly ridiculous price given the inflated contracts that the big publishers have been dishing out of late," he says. "In any case, I buy very few rights to fictional books in America and England. Both because I don't want to get involved in auctions - it's not worth it - and because in my opinion, English is actually the hardest language to render into Hebrew. It's a rich, flexible and deep language. Israeli publishers think there is no problem translating from English, but in the end, it's very hard to read Hebrew versions of books by Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth or Saul Bellow."
Ben-Ami's new translation of the book was edited by Amir Zuckerman and Meltzer, and it was also read by Uri Dromi, among other things a former air force navigator, who was supposed to catch any mistakes connected to the world of flying.
"The subject came up here, but we decided not to touch it," says Eran Zmora, one of the owners of Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan, of the acquisition of the translation rights to the book. "The rights belonged to Asher Bitan, and because of the relationship we have with him and our respect for him as a former partner, we didn't want to take away from him a book that was successful. For many years, it sold well, but when Asher got weaker, it was not reissued. If I had known that he waived the rights, and that anyone who wanted to could acquire them, I certainly would have fought for the book."
The story of Bitan Publishers is not a pleasant one. The firm, which was established in 1963, for years published good books, many of which also did well commercially, such as Dahn Ben-Amotz's "Lo Sam Zayin" (Don't Give a Damn); Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess." The publisher's catalog also features books by Oded Burla, Hezi Laskali, Rivka Raz and a long list of children's and young adult books. At a certain point, the publisher experienced a financial crisis.
"Dad has been very ill for a few years now," says Yuval Bitan, the son of publisher Asher Bitan, who himself works in high-tech. "He can't manage the publishing house, and in recent years he was less involved with new books and even less so with fine literature. I know that several publishers wanted the rights to 'Catch-22,' but no one approached Dad to buy the translation rights directly from him. They preferred to go to those who hold the rights in the U.S., and draw up a new contrat. Because Dad's contract is old, dating from 1971, Dad knew Joseph Heller personally and even met him."
Bitan says he doesn't anticipate his father sustaining financial damage from the fact there's a new translation of the book, but does think "it did affect him emotionally. He was very connected to this book and didn't just publish it, he saw it as a symbol. If they had approached him and offered to buy the translation rights from him, that would have been fairer, in my opinion.
"At the moment, the publishing company is not being run," he adds. "There are a lot of books that have been shredded because storing them in a warehouse costs a lot of money. There are some writers to whom we returned the rights to their books. There are books whose rights we hold, but they are no longer in print and so cannot be found in stores - for example, the books of Dahn Ben-Amotz. It's a business that is gradually dying, like Dad, more or less. 'Catch-22' is another nail in the coffin."
Quite a few Israeli readers became attached over the years to the original translation of "Catch-22," and presumably they will continue to like it in the future as well. For now, however, from the moment the rights were transferred to another publisher, distribution of the old edition is prohibited.
The same thing happened in the past with translations of other classic books. For example, Ilana Hammerman's new translation of "The Little Prince." Many readers continued to request the old and charming translation by Arye Lerner, but here the translation rights in both cases belong to Am Oved, so even today it is still possible to get both translations in stores.
"The old translation of 'Catch-22' really was a nice translation for its time, and it did well," says Meltzer. "At first, I thought to approach Asher Bitan and pay him for the translation, and then to approach the two [original] translators and offer to touch up their Hebrew. It almost happened. Over the course of six months, we typed up the entire book so that they could work on the text, Benny Hadar in New York and Benny Landau in California. But in the end they didn't want to do it and the deal was cancelled.
"I understand the fondness for the old translation, but it's not the Hebrew of today," adds Meltzer. "It's like what happened with the new translation of 'Don Quixote.' The old version became part of your biography. People love their own biographies, and there's nothing you can do about that."