Etgar Keret, sitting, meets with fans at the Sopot by the Book Festival, Sopot, Poland, August 20, 2016. Bogna Kociumbas

Don't Blame BDS: Why the World Isn't Holding Its Breath for the Next Big Israeli Author

The list of translated Israelis is enormous, and the occupation doesn’t even sour the mood with some readers. Still, the U.S., British and Scandinavian markets remain tough nuts to crack

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.”

AP Photo/Sandro Pace

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.”

Chen Galili

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

To explain this phenomenon, Prof. Nitsa Ben Ari, head of the translation studies program at Tel Aviv University, invokes S. Yizhar, her father-in-law about whom she has written a biography. She says it made sense that Yizhar’s novel most popular abroad was ‘Khirbet Khizeh,’ which tells the story of an Arab village whose residents were expelled during Israel’s War of Independence.

“From the ideological perspective, there's a demand for Israeli literature that lashes out at the establishment .... From a different perspective there's also an ability to be international,” Ben Ari says.

“When Etgar Keret came out with this genre of very short stories, he found readers in distant countries who until then had been less interested in Israel. And he was also a big economic success – not only because of the brevity of the stories but also because of their new sound, tone and language,” she adds.

“It’s a matter of norms, fashion and also ideology – it couldn’t be otherwise. The country that absorbs the translation could be open or closed to translations from other languages, open or closed to what happens in Israel. France and especially Germany are considered countries more tolerant of translated literature. A lot of Israeli writers have been translated into German and a real market for Israeli literature has developed there,” she says, referring to writers like Shalev, Batya Gur and Lizzie Doron.

Ben Ari has doubts about whether such success stems from the special relationship between Israel and Germany.

“There’s a great closeness between the sabra mentality and the German mentality, weird as that sounds,” she says. “There’s something we’ve absorbed, partly via the youth movements, that has its source in Germany, including a love of nature and the landscape and so on. The closeness in mentality stimulated interest in Israeli writers there. There were periods when it was very much in demand and then it dwindled. That’s how it is. Cultural needs can change.”

Regarding such needs, the past decade has been good to Israel too. Globalization and the social networks have expanded borders, made the world smaller and increased interest in various corners, including Israel. Thus, for example, the wave of Scandinavian literature that began with Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” created a worldwide trend of thrillers spiced with local exoticism – and also scooped up Israeli writers like Liad Shoham and Dror Mishani.

But Schwartz of Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir isn’t impressed by this. “If in the past people sought quality literature that’s the authentic representative of a country, today people are riding waves. It’s an interesting phenomenon,” he says.

“Ayelet Gundar-Goshen was an international best-seller with her second book, ‘Waking Lions,’ which leaned on current events. The book is about a relationship between an Israeli doctor and an Eritrean refugee woman. Dror Mishani slotted into the wave of thrillers.”

But there isn’t necessarily a connection between a book’s quality and its success abroad, Schwartz says.

“Youval Shimoni doesn’t translate well and he’s an excellent writer,” Schwartz says. “Leah Eini isn’t translated, Ruth Almog hardly at all, Sami Bardugo isn’t translated and neither is Shimon Adaf – a lot of good writers aren’t translated. Ronit Matalon wasn’t a great success abroad either.”

Particularly tough markets are the United States and Britain, which are nearly impenetrable for foreign writers because the book industry there is very focused on American literature.

“And Israeli literature, which in the past did enjoy a bit of a vogue with the American reader, is no longer fashionable today ... and in general the smiling politeness there hides a tough reality in which you feel you have only one chance to prove yourself in the book market, and if not, you’ll be declared persona non grata and you won’t get any more contracts from serious publishing houses,” Namdar says.

“This is especially true for those lucky enough to get a fat advance. They’re in the publisher’s gun sights because he’s expecting to see results from his investment.”

The occupation rears its head

If in the United States the combination of culture, fashion and the bottom line doesn’t benefit Israeli writers, in Britain there’s another barrier: politics. “No one will say ‘end the occupation and we’ll buy books from you,’ but there’s definitely an ‘anti,’” says Lewis of Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir.

“The audience isn’t interested, not just the publishing houses and their owners. The English audience for literature has preconceptions, and it will be hard to convince them to go into a bookstore and choose something Israeli. And anyway it’s hard to talk about huge success.”

This barrier, others say, exists not only in Britain. In recent years Israeli writers have often encountered a sense of revulsion at their country and its policies. “There’s not a single Israeli who hasn’t experienced a demonstration or an interruption of a lecture or what’s called a walkout,” says Nevo, whose books have been translated into languages including English, Italian and German.

“I had a meeting with an audience in South Africa, a country where I don’t particularly have an audience, so I was glad to see that a lot of people had showed up. But then I started to talk and 80 percent of them got up and walked out. It’s a BDS tactic. I’m opposed to BDS and boycotts in general, but if, say, there are provocative questions, and that did happen to me once at a meeting, it could be interesting.”

Nevo says that in certain countries there is a barrier to getting translated. “I haven’t been translated in the Scandinavian countries and people I work with have been told that this (BDS) is the reason,” he says. “There isn’t anything I can do about it.”

When Prof. Perry is asked about the influence of politics, he mentions Am Hasefer (The People of the Book), the foundation established by former Culture Minister Limor Livnat that subsidized translation of Israeli titles in the hope of getting them published abroad. Each year 23 titles were chosen, he says, but after they were translated, no publishers were found. The best Israeli books were translated and then consigned to the trash.

Yet politics can also be a springboard; the biggest number, 100,000 euros, went to Assaf Gavron for the rights to his most political book, “The Hilltop,” which depicted the surreal reality in the West Bank. And Dorit Rabinyan’s “All the Rivers,” which is about a romance between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, became popular abroad, as did she herself at literary forums after Education Minister Naftali Bennett spoke out against the novel in late 2015 and early 2016.

Still, the political argument makes no impression on Nili Cohen, the longtime director of the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature. As a recent example she offers Yishai Sarid’s book “Three,” which has received excellent reviews in France and Italy, though there are no sales figures yet.

“We have quite a lot of information about problems that have decided a book’s fate one way or another, from personnel changes at the publishing houses to economic or political events in a particular country,” Cohen says.

“The sales figures and the reception of Hebrew literature in Scandinavia have always been negligible because in those countries they read in English a lot, and that’s also why there’s no significant tradition of extensive translations from world literature the way there is in Germany, France and Italy,” she adds.

“In England, too, there has always been less translation from other languages than in those European countries. I think that aside from a few specific instances, there’s no real BDS influence on foreign publishers’ decisions to publish quality literature in translation. Possibly there’s some influence on the margins, or on exposure events and international festivals because of their high visibility.”

To bolster her argument, Cohen tells about a working trip this month during which she visited a number of major bookstores in Rome and Bologna. “I checked and to my delight all the stores I went to had a very impressive display of books that we represent on the shelves, alphabetized. In addition, I found in the center of the stores, prominently displayed, piles of books by Eshkol Nevo.” (Nevo’s novel “Three Floors Up,” which came out in Italy about a year ago, starred on the best-seller lists there, as have some of his other works.)

“There were also displays of Zeruya Shalev’s ‘Pain,’ and the icing on the cake: Michal Ben-Naftali’s book ‘The Teacher,’ which was published at the beginning of this year by Mondadori. She’s a writer now getting international exposure for the first time, and all this shows that there’s extraordinary demand for those books.”

No doubt, all this shows that the world of translated literature isn’t any easier than the fiction itself, but still it seems that something about the bottom line has changed.

“There’s no interest in Israel now, so I have to find things that are beyond Israel,” Harris says. “In nonfiction it’s the sciences, or original thinking about something, and in prose the thing is communicativeness – the extent to which the books can be speak to an audience in some other place.”

And what about the money? In the international arena, mainly in the United States, there are reports about fabulous sums paid to promising writers. Michael Chabon’s debut novel “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” which his MFA-writing-program supervisor sent without his knowledge to a literary agent, won him an advance of $155,000 – an unprecedented amount in its day. In 2013 the publishing giant Knopf paid Garth Risk Hallberg nearly $2 million for his debut “City on Fire,” which came out in 2015.

But only very few Israeli novelists see such figures. Even the best-known Israeli writers say they have to fulfill tough sales targets; there’s no bonanza.

“Etgar Keret has been translated into 40 languages,” Lewis says. “This is a tremendous achievement, but can he live off these sales? It’s very difficult. He’s much in demand, makes wonderful appearances, is invited to every literary conference and can travel the world from one event to the next, but it’s very hard to earn a living.”

As Nevo puts it, “My two most successful books abroad are ‘World Cup Wishes’ and ‘Three Floors Up,’ which is also relatively successful in the United States and was an editors’ choice in The New York Times. But this doesn’t account for a large part of my earnings, and sometimes this prompts melancholy thoughts.”

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