“Just had a hunch,” says Moshe Sakal, an Israeli writer, whose novel The Diamond Setter has recently been published in the United States to much acclaim. “I started working on the English translation even before the Hebrew original was finished. I felt it was the right thing to do.”
Together with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, Eshkol Nevo, Dror Mishani and others the 42-year-old Sakal is one of a number of young Israeli writers who have made a successful debut in the US, until recently an almost entirely impenetrable market for up-and-coming Israeli novelists. As well as commercial success, they are on the radar of literary movers and shakers – from big publishers to the book pages of national newspapers, a privilege hitherto bestowed only upon the likes of Amos Oz and David Grossman.
The Diamond Setter is Sakal’s fifth novel, but the first to be published in English. His fourth book, Yolanda, about a generation of migrants to Israel from neighbouring countries, was shortlisted for the Sapir Prize, Israel’s most prestigious award, and became an instant bestseller. A French publisher snapped it up days after its Hebrew publication, and it sold well in France too.
Getting published in America required more effort, but Sakal thought the subject matter – a Middle Eastern-themed gay love affair – would resonate with American readers. A contract with Penguin Random House soon followed, and his early hunch about the novel’s English language appeal was vindicated in robust sales figures.
Nilli Cohen, CEO at the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, says there has been a sea change in the past couple of years. “Traditionally, Israeli literature sold well in Europe – in Germany, in Italy, in France. But few Israeli books ever sold more than 2000 copies in the US, except the big names.”
The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature (ITHL) is a state-sponsored literary agency, representing some 350 Israeli authors overseas. Founded in 1962 by the Israeli government to play up the country’s “soft power”, it has since facilitated the publication of Hebrew books in 83 languages, in more than 100 countries. Funded predominantly by the Culture Ministry, the institute hands out around 50 grants annually, of around £900 each, to publishers around the world who wish to have an Israeli book translated into their own language.
ITHL is one of 30-odd such public agencies, trying to level the playing field by removing the language barrier. National and regional governments from Sweden to the Netherlands, and from Slovakia to Catalonia, take it upon themselves to translate works of literature into foreign languages, large and small.
English language and US markets are obvious targets, but they have proved a formidable challenge. “The United States is a self-sufficient market”, says Cohen. “There’s enough literature published locally so that neither the literary establishment, nor the readers, have ever needed to look beyond the country’s borders. It’s also a question of reading habits and fields of interest.”
Israeli novelists owe their relative success in Europe to publishers’ sensibilities. In France, for example, Eshkol Nevo and Amir Gutfreund were fast-tracked to celebrity after their debut works were picked up by Gallimard, virtually the biggest publisher in the country.
“There was one editor at Gallimard who was particularly fond of Israeli literature”, says Joseph Hirsch, a former director of programming for Lettres d’Israël, an Israeli book festival in Paris. “Once you’ve published with Gallimard, you receive a lot of attention.”
This attention also comes in the form of literary prizes. In 2014, Zeruya Shalev won the prestigious Femina prize for foreign fiction for The Remains of Love, her fifth novel published by Gallimard. She joined a long list of illustrious past recipients, including Erri de Luca, Ian McEwan and Amos Oz.
Any shift in the US, says Cohen, is similarly down to a handful of publishers promoting cultural and linguistic diversity, insisting that world literatures are integral to a thriving literary scene.
One example of that is the Three Percent scheme run through the University of Rochester’s translation programme – one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious of such programmes. The Three Percent scheme holds that “reading literature from other countries is vital to maintaining a vibrant book culture and to increasing the exchange of ideas among cultures”. Only about three per cent of all books published in the US are translations, explaining the scheme’s name – though in terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7%.
Little by little, this idea is gaining traction. According to Shachar Pinsker, a lecturer in modern Hebrew and Jewish literature at the University of Michigan, growing interest in world literatures is to do with the fact that younger Americans read more, and that a vibrant literary culture – characterised, among other things, by a mushrooming of privately owned boutique bookshops across America – has made a comeback. Earlier this year, a Pew survey found that young American adults aged 18-50 are significantly more likely to have read a book in the past 12 months than those aged over 50.
This has a knock-on effect on other markets, says Cohen. “Japanese publishers, for example, would only pick up [translated] books that have been successful in the United States.”
Interest in world literatures is likely connected to the growing appeal of identity politics. Sakal’s book, The Diamond Setter, a gay love affair involving a Syrian cross-border infiltrator and two Israeli men, has been categorised as “queer Middle East”, a relatively new field of interest that some say amounts to a sub-genre.
Pioneered by Hoda Barakat’s 1990 novel The Stone of Laughter, set in Beirut against the backdrop of the final chapter of Lebanon’s protracted civil war, a growing number of writers have used LGBT plots as a vehicle to explore social transitions in the Middle East, where societies are still torn between conservatism and Western influences. Notable among them are An Arab Melancholia by Abdellah Taïa, probably Morocco’s only openly gay writer, and Koolaids by the Jordanian-American Rabih Alameddine, the recipient of the 2017 Arab American book award.
Jewish readers were never a demographic to rely on in America, according to ITHL’s Nilli Cohen. “Publishers complain that Jews don’t read – not Israeli fiction, at any rate”, she says dryly. “It’s the same with Germany. People used to say that Israeli books often were commercially successful there because of the country’s past. It’s a myth. There were simply more foreign books translated into German.” In recent years, due to a crisis in the print industry and publishers less willing to take risks, publishing houses have been bringing out fewer new titles, with translations the first to go – to the detriment of up-and-coming authors.
Gundar-Goshen, whose main readers are non-Jewish, says, too, their engagement with her work is different to that in her native Israel. “I think it has to do with the Jews’ traditional approach to texts, which is that it’s always a basis for pilpul [a Talmudic term meaning close analysis – or hairsplitting]”, she says. “In Israel people always ask me why – why I chose certain plot turns, why I made the decisions that I made. American readers don’t do that. They don’t leave their fingerprints in the text.”
And Israeli chutzpah is another thing she has not encountered in the US. “I once told my American hosts that back in Israel, a reader somehow got my number and phoned me to protest the ending, because he didn’t like it. They couldn’t believe their ears.”
ITHL represents most of the novelists currently writing in Israel, and is the main exporter of Israeli literature. Although relying mainly on a government budget, it has so far been spared Culture Minister Miri Regev’s meddling scrutiny and censorship threats – unlike the state-sponsored film industry, for example. In August last year, Regev threatened to cut government subsidies to the film industry by more than a half if her efforts to “bring different viewpoints into the film funds” were stymied. Her critics say that her quest for a diversity of “viewpoints” is code for censorship, after she castigated films and plays that deal with the occupation of the West Bank, saying that these “slander the name of Israel”.
This apparent immunity also applies to political efforts from the opposite direction. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and cultural boycotts have had no substantial effect on publishers, unlike, say, the film industry or academia, two areas in which there arguably has been an effect. According to Cohen, literature is one field where organised boycotts are unlikely to work. “Reading a book is an intimate experience”, she says. “Buying books is an individual act.” She does however think that BDS could potentially create an unfavorable atmosphere for Israeli authors, manifesting itself in a general hostility among reviewers.
Joseph Hirsch says that his Lettres d’Israël festival, although sponsored by the Israeli embassy, was never targeted by advocates of boycott. Paris’ Israeli Film Festival, conversely, has often seen protests, sometimes violent. On opening night of the 2010 festival, protesters stormed the film theatre and were ultimately removed by police.
Openness to Hebrew literature in translation is even evident in the Arab world, according to Saleh Abbasi, the owner of the Haifa-based Maktabat Kul Shay, an Arabic-language publisher. The company publishes up to five Arabic translations every year, mostly winners of the Sapir Prize, (under its provisions, winners receive grants to translate their featured work into two languages, one of which must be Arabic).
“In the old days, the only Israeli books that interested Arabic language readers were biographies of leaders – it was all about knowing your enemy”, Abbasi says. “In the past 10–15 years there has been a growing openness to Israeli literature.”
Abbasi travels to book fairs from Jordan and Egypt to Lebanon and Algeria. “People come up to me at fairs and ask me for the latest releases. Many of them are really up to date.” Established and young authors alike pique the interest of Middle Eastern readers, regardless of how controversial the subject matter may be. For example, Abbasi says, 1948, Yoram Kaniuk’s War of Independence memoir, was a huge hit.
Not surprisingly, the heyday for Israeli literature was during the Oslo peace process years of the 1990s, when Israel looked set to normalise relations with the Palestinians and the rest of the Middle East.
“It was simple then”, says Cohen. “We worked with publishers all over the Arab world and there was no problem.” After the collapse of the Oslo peace process in 2000, everything changed. “All of them disappeared overnight. Their guilds banned them from having any dealings with Israel.”
Abassi says that the widespread intolerance of the Second Intifada years has recently softened. He is set to travel to a book fair in Jordan, followed by another in Dubai, and then to North Africa. “It says I’m from Haifa on all my publications. They know very well where I’m from.”
But there are also broader geopolitical factors at play, says Janan Bsoul, a researcher of Arab World culture for the Forum for Regional Thinking, a progressive Israeli think tank. “Since the onset of the so-called Arab Spring”, she explains, “pan-Arab nationalism, the concept of the Arab nation, has severely weakened. Israel was always seen as the enemy of the Arab nation, and when it no longer serves as a political and cultural focal point, the result is a greater openness towards Israel – culturally as well.”
Iraq, the Middle Eastern country perhaps most affected by the disintegration of the old regional order, has been particularly fertile ground. “Many young Iraqi intellectuals hark back to the days when Iraq was home to an illustrious Jewish community”, Bsoul says. “There’s a renewed interest in Judaism, Israel and Israeli culture. Many books are translated by Iraqi publishers. And not just that – Hannah Arendt is experiencing a renaissance in Iraq, which is crazy.”