Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Found in Translation: Is More Arabic Literature Being Published in Hebrew?

Israel- The Yacoubian Buildin
Copies of Egyptian writer Alaa al-Aswany’s novel “The Yacoubian Building” are displayed in a bookshop in Cairo on October 29, 2010. The translation into Hebrew of Egypt’s hit novel by Israeli peace advocates has infuriated Aswany, who supports a cultural boycott of Israel. Photo AFP

During the Golden Age of Andalusia, Spain in the 12th _14th centuries, translations were a common means of knowledge transfer. Translations from Arabic to Hebrew and vice versa were frequent, and the two cultures influenced one another through the works of great Muslim and Jewish philosophers, intellectuals and poets.

In modern times, the two languages have less interaction despite their common Semitic origins. The 70-year conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours has also served to damage the flow of translations. This is a true impediment to accessing and understanding the other’s culture and society. In 2017, the languages are viewed with mutual suspicion.

During the 1990s, there were a handful places where one could find literary works in Arabic in Israel. These included the Beit Café Yaffa in Jaffa and the American Colony Bookstore in Jerusalem, which also carried English translations of the works. Yael Lerer was inspired to found the independent – and appropriately named – Andalus publishing house to fill the gap in this area. It published 22 titles by distinguished Arab authors such as Mahmoud Darwish, Mohamed Choukri, Hanan al-Shaykh, Huda Barakat and Elias Khoury before ceasing operations in 2009 due to a lack of interest from Israeli readers. “It is even hard to import books in Arabic and get them through customs,” said Lerer, who noted a hardening of Israeli attitudes towards Arabs hardening following a period of openness and curiosity in the wake of the (now defunct) peace process.

Another obstacle to translating Arabic literature into Hebrew is politics and the fear of ‘normalizing’ relations between Arab countries and Israel or the Palestinian Territories and Israel.

However, the obstacles to translation go both ways. Many Arab authors refuse to grant translation rights to Hebrew publishers. Alaa al-Aswany, Egyptian author of the best-selling The Yacoubian Building, was furious to find out his book had been translated into Hebrew and published online by the Jerusalem-based Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information. However, according to Haaretz journalist Eyal Bizawi, there may be signs that interest among the Israeli public is on the rise again.

In the last five years, more than 20 titles have been translated from Arabic into Hebrew. Most of the books are contemporary Arabic fiction although some are poetry. ‘There are also short story collections, like those in the bilingual, Arabic-Hebrew anthology Shtayim/Athnaan (Keter, 2014), as well as translated Arabic stories published in journals like the Hebrew edition of Granta or on the multi-language online Maaboret,’ Bizawi writes.

Tammy Chapnick, the editor of the Hebrew edition of The Yacoubian Building, credits the Arab Spring with the increasing interest in Arabic literature, saying Arab authors are willing to have their works translated into Hebrew and Israeli readers are showing more interest in reading them. This in turn boosts sales and feeds the success of future titles translated into Hebrew.

Chapnick explained that the Arab Spring was an expression of freedom. As a result, the Arab world drew closer to Israel and the country was viewed with less derision. An echo of the Arab Spring took place in Israel in 2011, highlighting the country’s social disparities, which is a frequent theme in Arab literature.

Eli Amir, the first Israeli author to have his work translated into Arabic in Egypt by Hussein Sarag,  said that there have been waves of closeness and distancing throughout the years.

“The celebratory atmosphere in the ’90s when I went to Egypt for the first diwan [conference] about my book in Arabic has dissipated,” he said, and the Israeli Academic Center, a cultural centre in Cairo with a Hebrew-language library, is struggling to survive.

At the same time, he added, several Iraqi journalists and writers have written nostalgically about the loss of Jewish communities and are reaching out to Israeli authors writing about Baghdad.

And what about the media reports of closer relations between Israel and the Gulf countries? Have these led to an increased interest in Arabic literature? According to Yonatan Mandel of the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, “We need to remember that the main Israeli discourse regards Arab culture is external to Israel. Following this, Israeli Jews treat Arabic language, culture, politics etc. as inferior and not with respect. It could be argued that the declaration of an ‘economic cooperation’ with the ‘moderate Arab states’ is nothing but an Israeli attempt to bypass the elephant in the room: the ongoing occupation and Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the fact that Palestinians do not have a state of their own.”

As history has shown, the translation of Arabic literature into Hebrew is highly dependent on timing and the prevailing attitudes for its acceptance and success.

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