Israeli Authors Lost In Translation as Few Hebrew-language Books Published in English

New subsidized publishing venture holds out hope for greater literary visibility here.

05/25/2010
Staff Writer
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Last year, a scandal erupted in Israel over the winner of the Sapir Prize, the country’s top literary award. The honor went to a book by Alon Hilu, 39, one of the country’s most promising young writers. Titled “The House of Rajani,” it focused on the complex relationship between an early Zionist from Russia who, in 1895, immigrates to Jaffa and falls in love with the Arab woman whose land he hopes to acquire.

After the book won the prize and gained best-seller status, right-wing critics began complaining that it misrepresented Israel’s early settlers. Two weeks after the award was bestowed, it was revoked; the official explanation was that there was a conflict of interest — one of the award committee members was a relative of Hilu’s editor.

Hilu ended up getting some of the prize money anyway, if not the prize itself, and not to mention copious media attention. “The House of Rajani” has since been translated into five foreign languages, and recently appeared in English — though only in the U.K. There it has won serious praise from The Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement and other prestigious literary publications.

So why haven’t American readers heard of it? That’s the question that seems to vex anyone interested in new Israeli literature. As Hilu’s literary agent, Deborah Harris, said, “I can tell you there is no market more challenging than America’s. I sell more books in China and Japan than in America, to say nothing of Europe.”

She was not exaggerating. About 3 percent of the new titles published each year in the United States are translated from all foreign languages combined, compared to as many as 40 percent in some European countries. The problem with getting contemporary Israeli fiction published in the United States, in particular, is an enigmatic and persistent one. Last year, only five new fiction titles were published in the U.S., according to Open Letter, an organization affiliated with the University of Rochester. The year before, just 12 were.

To be fair, contemporary Israeli fiction tends to fare slightly better than works from other non-English-speaking countries, in relation to the Jewish state’s size. And the problem of finding new Israeli novels in the U.S. is merely one example of a problem that exists throughout the book publishing industry. For instance, in 2008, just 362 new novels appeared in translation in the U.S., which represents less than 1 percent of the 47,541 fiction titles published that year.

“It’s definitely true that much more [literature in translation] is published in Europe than in the United States,” said Esther Allen, director of the PEN Translation Fund and original co-founder of the PEN World Voices Festival, which ended its fifth annual program earlier this month. “But I think that the hunger is there,” she added.

Book industry insiders said that e-books and the potential of the iPad and Kindle sales could open the door for translation. But given that e-books are in their infancy, much of it is pure speculation. E-books currently make up a fraction of books sold annually — between 3 and 5 percent — though their percentage of market share is growing fast.

But many hope that the ease of buying books digitally will mean that more books get sold, and that that will mean more translated books get sold, too. “In the long run, it will enlarge our readership, for sure,” predicted Nilli Cohen, director of the Institute for he Translation of Hebrew Literature in Israel. Allen said: “I think [the iPad and e-books] are very good.”

Many wonder, too, whether the low sales figures for translated literature is the reason publishers avoid it, or is merely a symptom of that aversion. “I think that the commercial publishing world is beginning to change its mind a bit. When one of the best-selling novels in the world is written in translation” — she was referring to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” by Swedish author Stieg Larsson — “it makes people question things a bit.” 

Indeed, the Larsson phenomenon poses a challenge to publishers’ main argument against translated literature: that readers just don’t buy it. Publishers say that selling literary fiction is difficult enough even when it is originally written in English and cite even less promising sales figures for literature in translation. Unless you are an internationally recognized author — an Amos Oz, an A.B. Yehoshua — publishers say it simply is not worth the risk.

For contemporary Israeli writers, though, there has been some help recently. This month, the nonprofit publisher Dalkey Archives introduced a series dedicated to contemporary Israeli fiction. Titled the “Hebrew Literature Series,” it will bring out two to three contemporary Israeli novels a year, with the first book, Eshkol Nevo’s “Homesick,” released earlier this month.

The series, said Dalkey Archives’ director John O’Brien, was made possible only with critical financial support from the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, based in Israel, and the Office of Cultural Affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York. “This is the first foreign country to have a series,” he said, noting that no other country has backed a project like Israel’s.

O’Brien said that a newly translated book by a lesser-known author, with an initial print run of about 5,000 copies, usually costs about $35,000 to produce. The translation fee averages about $6,000, with another $14,000 going into marketing and publicity. The remaining $15,000 goes to the author. But for the Hebrew Literature Series, the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature covered all the translation costs, while the Consulate General of New York picked up the publicity tab, saving Dalkey more than 50 percent of its initial costs.

Despite Dalkey Archive’s good intentions — and smaller nonprofit and special-interest publishing houses like it — critics say they cannot make up for the void left by major commercial publishers. “Look, I think it’s great what Dalkey Archives is doing,” said Harris, who, in addition to Hilu, represents some of Israel’s most prominent authors, such as David Grossman and Meir Shalev. “My question is where is Simon and Schuster? Where’s Random House?”

The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature has been a crucial lifeline to publishers beyond Dalkey Archives, too. Unlike many international authors who must pay for translations themselves before they can pitch them to foreign editors, the institute translates promising Israeli fiction first itself, then pitches those titles to editors all over the world. In addition, it organizes professional conferences of foreign publishers, authors and translators  on contemporary Israeli fiction, in Israel and abroad. 

In spite of these efforts, Nilli Cohen, the institute’s director, says that it’s still a struggle reaching the American market. “There is a problem approaching the American publishers,” she said. “It’s very difficult to understand.”

The problem is particularly glaring when you look at the success of Israeli authors in Europe. Many argue that the multilingual habits of Europeans make translations less intimidating there. But whatever the reason, their support of foreign authors, and especially Israelis, is astonishing. In Italy, for instance, Oz, Yehoshua and Grossman all have their own columns in prominent newspapers, none of which are aimed at a particularly Jewish audience. That evidence alone raises the question whether promoting Israeli authors to a country’s Jewish community — a common practice in America — is helping, or harming, their success. 

“Israeli authors have a built-in population — American Jews,” said Claire Wachtel, an editor at Harper Perennial, which just released a novel by Israeli author Assaf Gavron titled “Almost Dead.” The book follows an Israeli who survives three successive suicide bombings, and had a successful run already in Germany.

When Gavron appeared for his American book tour last month, three of the seven events were held at university campuses, with sponsorship coming predominantly from Jewish studies programs. Another was at a Jewish community center in Connecticut, provided for with funds by the Jewish federation. Only three were at non-Jewish events — the PEN World Voices Festival, where he had two events, and a Los Angeles Times Book Festival.

Given the marketing focus on American Jewish readers, some wonder whether the politics might be working against new Israeli writers. “If [publishers] think that [a book] is not going to go with the politics of the American Jewish community, they’re not going to publish it,” said Harris, the literary agent in Israel. She suggested that the political controversy surrounding Hilu’s “The House of Rajani” might be another factor contributing to American publishers’ unwillingness to acquire that book.

Publishers insist, however, that the politics of a book is the least of their concerns. Wachtel said that, just like with other foreign books, her first priority in deciding to publish an Israeli novel is whether it is good or not. “A good book is a good book — that’s the chief criteria,” she said. (For evidence, she can point to Harper Perennial’s new Gavron book, which is infused with politics.) For a book to be successful, she added, it should transcend any particular niche and speak to more universal themes.

The marketing strategy tends to bother Israeli authors, however. Allen, who has worked with many Israeli writers over the years, said that “some writers feel frustration that they still haven’t gotten beyond the Jewish community.” 

But it may be the bargain new Israeli authors looking to publish in America have to take — or at least until they’re no longer new. “We’re not aiming specifically at the Jewish market,” said Cohen, of the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature. “But we have to rely on it.”  She added, “We think that this committed audience will be a platform for a wider readership.”

 

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