Hebrew Fiction and the World Market

Europe is said to be rife with anti-Israel sentiment, far more so than North America, yet Israeli literature – written by authors across the political spectrum – is much more likely to be available in French, Spanish, German and Italian translation than in English versions.

In North America, Israeli literature is read largely by Jews, and aside from the holy trinity of great Israeli authors – Amos Oz, A B Yehoshua, and David Grossman, it is far from assured that any Israeli author will as a matter of course be translated into English.  Fortunately, electronic publishing is cheap enough to allow for the dissemination of works of Hebrew literature that might otherwise never have made it to the English-speaking world, e.g., Yoram Kaniuk’s fictionalised memoir of his experiences during the war of 1948; or Assaf Gavron’s The Hilltop, an edgy novel about Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

The fact remains that more Israeli titles are translated into European languages than into English, and the appearance of a major Israeli novel can be a major literary event in circles far beyond the Jewish community.  Why? Part of the reason has to do with the general insularity of English-language readers who shy away from translated literature, and the reluctance of publishers within the vast English-language world to invest in translations when there is so much talent to draw on within the world of Anglophone letters.  But there is another reason.  However conflicted Europeans’ feelings about Israel may be, they are fascinated by the country.  They see Israel as having originated as an extension of Europe and are haunted by the genocide that European civilisation perpetrated upon the Jews three generations ago.  Israel is, literally and figuratively, much closer to them than it is to most North Americans.

Will recent films based on Israeli novels – Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness and Sayed Kashua’s Dancing Arabs – arouse the interest of American publishers and readers in Israeli fiction?  Fortunately, all of Kashua’s novels are available in English, but these darkly humorous explorations of Israeli-Palestinian identity have not yet found the audience they deserve.  And what of great Iraqi-Israeli novelists such as Sami Michael, whose masterpiece Victoria appeared in an English edition that almost immediately went out of print, yet remains readily available in French?

Israeli literature, whether written in Hebrew or Arabic, speaks to a global audience.  That audience should include more readers in North America.