Arabic and Hebrew: The Politics of Literary Translation

In Growth Markets by Olivia Snaije

Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

This article is part of a series on publishing in the Middle East which is sponsored by the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

By Olivia Snaije

Anyone involved in the art of translation knows the delicate balancing act it entails: remaining faithful to the original text but allowing the work to stand on its own in its new incarnation. It also requires an intimate knowledge of the other culture. But when politics get in the way, the whole system breaks down, and translations can take on an entirely different meaning.

Due to 60+ years of strife, writers from Israel and the Arab world do not often to translate the works of the other.

Between the 12th and the 14th centuries, translations from Arabic into Hebrew and vice versa were frequent. Jewish poets and philosophers in Arab countries such as Maimonides, wrote first in Arabic; then translated their books into Hebrew. The 16th century North African diplomat and author known as Leo Africanus wrote a dictionary of medical terms in Arabic, Hebrew and Latin.

Today, the 60-plus year conflict between Israel and Arab countries has impacted heavily on translations between the two Semitic languages, which are now viewed by many with mutual suspicion and distrust, often times the languages are learned primarily by the security apparatus in the various countries.

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz recently printed an article about a Tunisian publisher in negotiations with Palestinian Israeli translator Tayeb Ghanayem for his translation of Israeli works into Arabic. The publisher did not wish to be named for his personal safety. A Lebanese publisher who also declined to be quoted will be bringing out an Arabic translation of a novel by Palestinian Israeli Sayed Kashua (who writes in Hebrew) next spring. Arab publishers remain discreet when publishing Israeli fiction or non-fiction, but they do publish. And mainstream Arab newspapers regularly publish articles from the Israeli press.

There are still a few brave souls in Israel and Arab regions are challenging the taboo in an effort to understand the “other.”

In Israel, however, the situation is different. “On any given day, an Arabic reader can find some 20 articles translated from the Israeli press. It would be difficult for the Israeli reader to find one piece translated [from Arabic] every 20 days,” said Yael Lerer.

Lerer founded the Tel Aviv-based Andalus publishing house in 2000, named in the spirit of the Andalusian period, when Arab and Jewish cultures co-existed peacefully. Andalus specialized in translating Arabic literature into Hebrew — Lerer felt that although Israel was located at the epicentre of the Arab world, Israelis were generally unexposed to Arabic literature and thought. She was able to get distinguished authors and poets such as the late Mahmoud Darwish and Mohamed Choukri, Hanan al Shaykh, Huda Barakat and Elias Khoury to agree to have their work published in Hebrew.

Season of Migration to the North

Season of Migration to the North in the original Arabic

And yet Lerer was recently obliged to stop publishing; Andalus was simply not selling enough books to stay alive. Lerer attributes this to a lack of interest on the part of the Israeli population. Between the 1930s and the year 2000, said Lerer, only 32 novels were translated from Arabic into Hebrew. The now-defunct Mifras publishing house (1978-1993) published nine literary works from Arabic to Hebrew, Lerer managed to publish 18 works of Arabic literature in seven years.

Translation was at the heart of Andalus’ modus operandi. In an interview in 2004 Lerer, who speaks Arabic fluently, said, “Hebrew and Arabic are very similar. The quality of most translations -– not only literary, but also journalistic – is poor because the Hebrew translation usually sticks too closely to the Arabic text . . . An Arabic sentence can be expressed in Hebrew with exactly the same sentence structure, but the stylistic result is poor; the Hebrew sounds antiquated and artificial. We aim for a genuine translation. That means that when a text by Mohamed Choukri is translated into Hebrew, the result should sound as if Choukri himself had written the text in Hebrew. It should be in Modern Hebrew with the characteristics of Choukri’s Arabic. The problem is that very little translation is done from Arabic into Hebrew, so there are no professional translators who have extensive practical experience to draw from. All the translators we work with actually have other professions.”

One of these translators is Rina Plesser, a retired high school principal who translated for Lerer. Plesser’s parents were Jews from Syria; her father was the editor of an Arabic-language newspaper and translated the late Sudanese novelist Tayeb Saleh’s Season of Migration to the North into Hebrew. Plesser grew up speaking mainly Hebrew but she heard Arabic at home, and went on to study Arabic at university.

“The languages are extremely close, there are similarities in the vocabulary and grammar,” she said. “Arabic is a very rich language so if you want to play with words, language, description and metaphors then you’re in a good spot. Hebrew has fewer adjectives so you have to be careful. You have to work harder to find something that matches. It’s part of the challenge. I loved it.”

Since Andalus stopped its activity, Plesser said she had little access to books written in Arabic. “It’s a problem to import books in Arabic or even to go through customs with them. Unless I go somewhere to get them I don’t have access. As a result I don’t know what is being published, I’ve lost contact with the literature . . . all I can say is that even if you consider your neighbor as an enemy, not knowing is stupid, it won’t stop your neighbor from developing and creating.”

As in the case of Plesser, translators of Hebrew to Arabic tend to be Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries, as in the case of Baghdad-born Sami Michael, who translated Naguib Mahfouz’s trilogy in the 1980s. But Palestinian Israelis also make up a large part of these translators, often translating back and forth from both languages. They have the added advantage of having an intimate knowledge of both cultures, an essential ingredient for a good translation. One of the best-known translators is Anton Shammas, now based in the US, who translated Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed, the Pessoptimist, a satirical novel about the life of a Palestinian Israeli.

Palestinian author and translator Ala Hlehel, who was featured in Israeli filmmaker Nurith Aviv’s “Translate”, the final segment of a documentary trilogy on Hebrew and linguistics, translates in both directions.

“I decided in my first year in the university to be great in Hebrew. I thought (and still do) that knowing the Hebrew language will give me power as a person and as part of the Arab Palestinian minority in Israel. I subscribed to Ha’aretz newspaper, started reading Hebrew literature and controlling the language. When I started translating from Hebrew to Arabic I came to the conclusion that I needed to know the Israeli culture more. You can translate the words with the help of a dictionary but you need to know the culture in order to translate the exact spirit of the text.”

The Hebrew edition of Mahmoud Darwish's poem Mural

Hlehel admits that his relationship with Hebrew is very complex:

“I’m aware that the Hebrew language they use to give military orders to bomb Palestinians in Gaza is the same language that [playwright, poet, and philosopher] Hanoch Levin, Natan Zach, and Yeshayahu Leibowitz used. It is a really complicated relationship, somehow mysterious for me . . . ”

Another way that politics hinder Arabic and Hebrew translations is the concept of “normalization” between Arab countries and Israel or between Palestinians and Israelis.

In 2000, when the Israeli Minister of Education announced he would like to include two poems by Mahmoud Darwish in the high school curriculum, a public brouhaha broke out, ending in Prime Minister at the time, Ehud Barak, stating: “Israeli society is not ripe to study Darwish.”

Yael Lerer was all too familiar with the problems of “normalization” when she founded Andalus, and most of the Egyptian authors she approached did not want their work translated into Hebrew on principle. But a whole other group of Arab authors granted her publication rights free of charge. Lerer said, “I recognized the dangers of creating a false sense of “peace-making” and “dialogue” by means of “normalization.” I have always made my objection to normalization publicly known, but more importantly, I have and continue to search for ways to make the translation of Arabic literature into Hebrew a means of resisting the occupation . . . making Arabic language and culture present in everyday Israeli life is in itself a form of resistance to the occupation . . . We wanted to translate Arabic into Hebrew just as one might translate French into Hebrew — obtaining the rights to do so and doing so in accordance with the norms and conventions of the intelligentsia . . . ”

Many Arab intellectuals and authors, a large part of them Egyptian, refuse to sell their rights to Israeli publishing houses. This often leads to piracy as in the case of Alaa al Aswany’s bestseller, The Yacoubian Building.

Last year, the Jerusalem-based organization, the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information published an on-line Hebrew translation of al Aswany’s novel on its website. The organization did not ask al Aswany permission, stating “the question here is whether Israelis’ right to read the book outweighs his copyright.”

Understandably, al Aswany was furious.

But the same question of piracy in the name of “culture” also occurs in Egypt.

Egyptian Nael Eltoukhy, an author and translator who studied Hebrew at the Cairo Ain Shams University, says he translated a book by Israeli historian Idith Zertal without her permission for the independent Egyptian publisher Dar Merit.

“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.

In 2009 Eltoukhy, who has translated from Hebrew several books and a collection of poetry, began a blog in Arabic dedicated to Israeli literature. He adds new texts to it weekly, and so far has translated some 100 Israeli authors, albeit for the most part without their permission.

“I think that translating Israeli literature is very important for us, as Arabs, for two reasons: to penetrate the Arab ignorance about Israel. We know just a few names like Amos Oz and David Grossman, and often we haven’t even read their works. This is about knowledge versus ignorance. There are also political reasons: we need to know more about the country, about the trends of its writers, we have to know their left and right wings. I translate all of them on my blog. Emotionally, I find myself close to the visions of the leftist writers, like Yitzhak Laor, Aharon Shabtai, Khanokh Levin, Almog Behar, and a great thinker like Ella Shohat, but I translate all sorts of texts including those which have no political meanings. We should know about all kinds of writing. Everyday I discover a new writer I didn’t know before, and this is amazing.”

Gaining knowledge about the other culture is essential for Ramallah-based Madar, the Palestinian forum for Israeli studies, which has a translation and publishing unit.

Honaida Ghanim, a Palestinian Israeli with a PHD in sociology from Hebrew University is Madar’s director. Madar buys the copyright from Israeli publishers and generally puts out four books a year translated into Arabic, which are sold at the center as well as being distributed via an agency. Madar publishes primarily political and sociological books and on occasion fiction, such as Oz Shelach’s short stories.

“We have an academic committee and everyone suggests books.” Said Ghanim. “We publish a wide variety, not just the leftist authors that we love to read, but also authors to the far right. We want to present the entire spectrum of what Israeli society is thinking.”

One might hope that a day will come when translations from Arabic to Hebrew and vice versa will flow once again as they did during the days of Andalusia. As Edith Grossman wrote in Why Translation Matters, “Translation asserts the possibility of a coherent, unified experience of literature in the world’s multiplicity of languages. At the same time, translation celebrates the differences among languages and the many varieties of human experience and perception they can express. I do not believe this is a contradiction. Rather, it testifies to the comprehensive, inclusive embrace of both literature and translation.”

For further reading please take a look at this survey of Hebrew-Arabic translation in modern era.

DISCUSS: Does Translation Have the Power to Change the World?

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.