Arts & Culture

The New Era of Israeli Literature

The case for more literature translated into English ought to be a no-brainer, but as it stands, only a little over 3% of all books published in the United States are works in translation.  That’s a fact that constantly astonishes, … Read More

By / July 8, 2010

The case for more literature translated into English ought to be a no-brainer, but as it stands, only a little over 3% of all books published in the United States are works in translation.  That’s a fact that constantly astonishes, and I’ve never been able to come up with a solid reason as to why that stays true. I’ve grown a bit more hopeful in the last few years: the critical and commercial success of Robert Bolaño’s 2666, Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia, published by the always excellent Tin House were both great moments for translation.  The many updated translations of works from masters such as Proust and Dostoevsky have helped prove that there is a market for literature from all over the world — but who will step up as publisher? If you’re looking for a group of folks dedicated to translating literature from Israel, your best bet is to head to Champagne, Illinois, and talk to the folks at Dalkey Archive Press.  The small press, who this year released Witz by Joshua Cohen, has taken on the task of translating and releasing books by some of the finest new Israeli writers, and hopefully, helped to enlighten readers to the wealth of talent that resides in the Holy Land. "We have several people we call upon for suggestions," Associate Director Martin Martin Riker tells me.  "We’ve had an Israeli fellow here, Shir Alon, who has been instrumental in getting things started; and we’re also working with the Program in Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Illinois, in particular with Rachel Harris, who is on the comparative literature faculty at UIUC and specializes in Modern Hebrew Literature." But why Israeli literature?  In this age of the academic and artistic boycott, wouldn’t it seem a bit risky to shine a light on work coming out of a country that has such a controversial  public opinion over here in the United States?  Possibly, but anybody that has read Gail Hareven’s The Confession of Noa Weber (which won the award for best translation this year), or Almost Dead by Assaf Gavron (heck, let’s even toss in the translated film, Waltz with Bashir, and anything Etgar Keret is involved in for good measure), can attest to the fact that there is something quite special going on in Israeli literature. Mr. Riker tells me that Dalkey Archive Press has a "longterm plan is for the series to develop in cooperation with the Program in Jewish Culture and Society."  I believe that to be true, but I also think literature (like any art form) takes time to mature.  Great books only get better over time (the bad ones become irrelevant), and as is the case with specific periods in the history of literature, it sometimes takes decades to be able to appreciate the output of a country or region.  I feel that might be the case with Israeli literature. That is why a project like the Hebrew literature series by Dalkey impresses me so much.  Forthcoming from the series is Dolly City by Orly Castel-Bloom.  What’s else is on their radar, I ask Mr. Riker? "I can’t give names out until all the details are ironed out. Can I just say "trust me"? I’m a very trustworthy person."