It was hard to get hold of American-Israeli writer Ruby Namdar last month. Namdar, winner of the 2014 Sapir Prize, was on a whistle-stop tour from New York, where he lives, to the West Coast, passing through cities from Austin to Gainesville, spending a few days at universities for a book reading and a discussion.
The book, “The Ruined House,” was translated from Hebrew into English by Hillel Halkin and has been published by Harper Collins, an event accompanied not only by copious attention in the American-Jewish press but also by great reviews by the likes of The New Yorker and The New York Times; the latter called the novel “a masterpiece.”
Namdar was invited to take part in prestigious literary events in the United States and Canada like the PEN festival. Sales of his book on Amazon soared, not to mention a deluge of interest in rights to his novel in other countries.
“The Ruined House” adds Namdar to the honor roll of translated Israeli writers; today Etgar Keret is probably the best-known Israeli author in the world. Rounding out the top three are the greats Amos Oz and David Grossman – in whom there has been renewed interest following his winning of the Man Booker International Prize for “A Horse Walks into a Bar.”
Other stars on the list include Uri Orlev, A.B. Yehoshua and Zeruya Shalev, and relative newcomers like Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, whose book rights have been sold to 15 countries for translation and whose “Waking Lions” made a New York Times recommended list. Another newcomer is a former editor-in-chief of Haaretz’s Hebrew edition, Dov Alfon.
The list of Israeli writers who have made it (or made it again) also includes Maya Arad, Dror Mishani, Nir Baram, Sayed Kashua, Daniella Carmi, Assaf Gavron and Eshkol Nevo.
So could it be said then that Hebrew literature – which has been translated into 82 languages – is on par with Israeli television, which is selling formats as if there were no BDS or culture barriers? Do men and women who write in Hebrew enjoy real success overseas? And how is it even possible to bet on what will succeed there?
“There are no rules and there is no consistency. Regarding some of the books we buy the rights to, we know in advance that maybe they’ll have an audience abroad, but this happens very infrequently,” says Ziv Lewis, the foreign rights and acquisitions manager at the publisher Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir.
“In effect, we work in a literary casino, and when you sign a contract you don’t know whether or not the book will succeed. Over the years you accumulate experience and you realize that you don’t know anything. All you’ve accumulated are one-time experiences, and it’s always case by case.”
Literary agent Deborah Harris also sighs deeply when asked about this. “Every time I think I know, I discover that I don’t know anything. No one knows. After many years of experience, I tend to be on target but not 100 percent,” she says.
“Every author succeeds someplace different and there are also cultures that are more open to authors from the outside. This week a guy came to me, an editor at a publishing house in Japan, who only wanted to talk about David Shahar. This was a guy of 30 and David Shahar, whom I’ve never read” – and who died in 1997 – “is the Israeli author who had the greatest success in France.”
Shahar is actually a good starting point for examining the ebb and flow of Israeli literature abroad. His “The Palace of Shattered Vessels” series, which began coming out in the late 1960s, was bigger in France than in Israel in part thanks to his translator, Madeleine Neige.
“David Shahar was described in France as the successor to Marcel Proust,” says Prof. Menachem Perry, adding that Shahar wasn’t the only luminary. “Aharon Appelfeld is more esteemed abroad than he is in Israel, and A.B. Yehoshua is described in Italy as one of the world’s greatest writers.”
The whole phenomenon of translations into and out of Hebrew began in the mid-’60s, says Prof. Yigal Schwartz, senior editor at Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir. At the beginning of the ‘70s, translations from Hebrew particularly started to ramp up.
“I think that after ’67 there was tremendous curiosity about Israel,” Schwartz says. “There was a lot of interest in the country in those years; in various countries they hosted Israeli soldiers, so there was an interest in the literature. Those were the years when Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and Grossman made their breakthroughs abroad. [Oz’s] ‘My Michael’ played a major role in that wave.”
There were other names, of course, like Ephraim Kishon, whose books, according to his website, have been translated into 37 languages and have sold about 45 million copies. Whether Kishon or others, success stories kept piling up over the decades, even if there weren’t strong Israeli markers in them like the Holocaust, the army or wars.
In the ‘90s, for example, it was Alona Kimchi and Dorit Rabinyan, though especially Etgar Keret and Zeruya Shalev. The legendary German-Jewish critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki adored Shalev’s “Love Life” and opened the German market to her. It’s estimated that in Germany about 2 million copies of “Love Life” were sold, and of course Shalev’s novels have been translated into many other languages. Keret has been translated into about 40 languages.
The welcoming Germans