Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
<span class="dquo">“</span>Between the 1930s and the year 2000…only 32 novels were translated from Arabic into Hebrew.”

The post that sta­tis­tic comes from is from 2011. It’s by Olivia Snai­je, Ara­bic and Hebrew: The Pol­i­tics of Lit­er­ary Trans­la­tion, on the blog called Pub­lish­ing Per­spec­tives, and it is a shame­ful sta­tis­tic if I ever saw one, almost as bad as the fact that less than 3% of the lit­er­ary works pub­lished in the Unit­ed States are trans­la­tions from oth­er lan­guages. If ever two cul­tures need­ed the kind of cul­tur­al exchange and under­stand­ing that lit­er­ary trans­la­tion makes pos­si­ble, they are the cul­tures in which Hebrew (Israel) and Ara­bic (most of the rest of the so-called Mid­dle East) are the lan­guages of dai­ly life.

Most of the trans­la­tion that does take place hap­pens from Hebrew to Ara­bic, though that doesn’t mean there are not obsta­cles. Snai­je refers to a Ha’aretz arti­cle about a Tunisian pub­lish­er who is “in nego­ti­a­tions with Pales­tin­ian Israeli trans­la­tor Tayeb Ghanayem for his trans­la­tions of Israeli works into Ara­bic” and who refused to be named because of con­cerns about his per­son­al safe­ty; and she also men­tions a Lebanese pub­lish­er who will be bring­ing out in Ara­bic trans­la­tions the work of Pales­tin­ian Israeli Sayed Kashua (who writes in Hebrew) but who (the pub­lish­er) declined to be quot­ed for the arti­cle.

Pol­i­tics gets in the way of trans­lat­ing from Ara­bic into Hebrew as well. When Yael Lerer, founder of Andalus, an Israeli pub­lish­ing house focus­ing on trans­la­tion and named for the often roman­ti­cized his­tor­i­cal peri­od of the same name, went look­ing for titles to trans­late, most of the Egypt­ian authors she approached refused on prin­ci­ple to give her the rights to trans­late their work because it would rep­re­sent “nor­mal­iz­ing” rela­tions with “the ene­my.” (Oth­er Arab authors grant­ed her trans­la­tion rights free of charge.) At the same time, the Egypt­ian writer Nael Eltoukhy (sor­ry, the site is in Ara­bic, but it’s the one Snai­je links to) trans­lates Israeli books from Hebrew into Ara­bic, often with­out per­mis­sion.

Trans­lat­ing Israeli lit­er­a­ture and writ­ings in itself is not a taboo. The taboo is any deal­ing with Israeli pub­lish­ing hous­es, since this is con­sid­ered “nor­mal­iza­tion with the ene­my”. But you always have your options. One of them is ille­gal trans­la­tion, which is the best of a bad solu­tion. I am sor­ry for this but I (and oth­ers), don’t have any oth­er options,” said Eltoukhy.

Ille­gal trans­la­tion, too, hap­pens on both sides of the divide. The Israel-Pales­tine Cen­tre for Research and Infor­ma­tion, for exam­ple, pub­lished an online Hebrew trans­la­tion of Alaa al Aswany’s book The Yacoubian Build­ing; but the fact, dic­tat­ed by region­al pol­i­tics more than any­thing else, that peo­ple some­times have to resort to what is essen­tial­ly intel­lec­tu­al pira­cy in order to get works from one lan­guage trans­lat­ed into the oth­er paled for me next to the fact that Andalus had to stop pubil­sh­ing because it was not sell­ing enough books to stay afloat. Lern­er says there is sim­ply a “lack of inter­est” on the part of Israeli read­ers, which to me sounds more like the com­pla­cent arrogance–or is it the arro­gant complacency?–of the pow­er­ful.

Israelis are not inter­est­ed, I would wager, because they don’t think they need to be inter­est­ed, because the lens through which they are giv­en to view the Arab world around them–be it a lens of the right, left or center–is enough for them to feel engaged with that world. Of course I have no proof of this, but the phrase “lack of inter­est” recalls for me the reac­tions of many of the stu­dents from the intro­duc­tion to lit­er­a­ture class­es I have taught over the years when they found out they would be read­ing works in trans­la­tion from the MId­dle East. “Why do I need to read this?” they would ask. “What does it have to with me?”

Inevitably, some of the stu­dents would come away from the semes­ter feel­ing they had learned some­thing worth­while, but get­ting stu­dents to look past their resis­tance to what they per­ceived as “too for­eign” was always a strug­gle. I’d try to make a game out of it, teach­ing them, for exam­ple, to pro­nounce the names of char­ac­ters that con­tained sounds we don’t have in Eng­lish. We’d all laugh at how hard it was, which would lead to a dis­cus­sion about lan­guage and the body and how we become so con­di­tioned, phys­i­cal­ly, cul­tur­al­ly and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, to mak­ing the sounds of our own lan­guage that mak­ing the sounds of anoth­er can feel like a kind of tres­pass. So, for exam­ple, peo­ple who speak Eng­lish who have nev­er had to make the gut­tur­al kh sound (which in Eng­lish is usu­al­ly translit­er­at­ed as the Ch in Chanu­ka) will almost always talk about how it feels like they are hawk­ing up phlegm in order to spit it out; the sound, in US cul­ture, is just so damned impo­lite.

That dis­cus­sion would often lead to a con­sid­er­a­tion of how dif­fer­ent lan­guages deal with dif­fer­ent kinds of subjects–obscenities pro­vide a real­ly fun and use­ful exam­ple here, but so do things like lev­els of for­mal­i­ty (tu vs. Ust­ed in Span­ish, or pan­mal and chon­den­mal in Korean)–and that would often become a con­ver­sa­tion about how lit­er­a­ture can be a win­dow into anoth­er cul­ture. Almost always, how­ev­er, the major­i­ty of my stu­dents would react to these con­ver­sa­tions with some­thing that amount­ed to, “Gee, that’s nice and inter­est­ing and all, but what does it have to do with me?”

Now, my stu­dents are, most of them, not much old­er that 20 or 21 and so some of their self-cen­tered­ness may just be their youth speak­ing, but it’s hard not to see their lack of inter­est reflect­ed in the fact, as I said above, that less than 3% of the books pub­lished in the Unit­ed States are trans­la­tions from anoth­er cul­ture. By con­trast, in some South Amer­i­can coun­tries, and in some West­ern Euro­pean nations, the per­cent­age is clos­er to 30–40%. If enough peo­ple in the US felt it was impor­tant enough to read books trans­lat­ed from oth­er lan­guages, pub­lish­ers would respond by pro­duc­ing such books. If pub­lish­ers believed they could make mon­ey by cul­ti­vat­ing an inter­est in the lit­er­a­tures of oth­er lan­guages, they would find a way to cre­ate the mar­ket for those books. No mat­ter which way you look at it, it’s hard not to see a seri­ous case of cul­tur­al myopia at work here.

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