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.