Translation of Hebrew texts into foreign languages is a fairly recent phenomenon (unless you count the Bible). Between 1874, when the first modern-Hebrew book was published, and the 1960s, during which the world first became exposed to Israeli writers in a big way, only two or three books were translated every year. In all, nearly 5,000 titles by Israeli authors have now been translated into other languages.
In honor of the annual Hebrew Book Week, The Jerusalem Post spoke to Nilli Cohen, director of the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, to learn about how it is exported to the world. The institute is an independent nonprofit organization, established by the government in 1962. Its mission is to acquaint foreign readers with the best of modern Hebrew literature.
"The institute is the address for anybody who is interested in Hebrew literature from around the world: publishers, literary scholars, journalists, authors and translators" said Cohen.
The institute has supervised and supported the translation of books into nearly 70 languages, ranging from Danish and German to Catalan and Japanese. The majority of the translations, roughly 40 percent, are into English.
Translating the books alone is insufficient. To create the right atmosphere for the work to be recognized abroad, the institute also operates as a promoter. It publishes a variety of literary anthologies and catalogues, attends international book fairs, organizes literary conferences and coordinates international literary exchanges. Several times a year, it organizes literary symposia between Israel and one or more other countries. "The idea is to bring together the literary worlds of two or more countries and let the books do the talking," said Cohen.
The institute is currently planning a cross-Mediterranean conference that will invite representatives of several countries to get a taste for each other's literature. The conference is the outcome of a series of literary exchanges between Israel and Greece which have taken place over the years. Cohen said that the conferences have a proven track record. "We saw an increase in general interest and in translations from Greek to Hebrew and from Hebrew to Greek. You could even say that it in some ways influenced public opinion, in terms of press attitude and public statements."
Translation institutions are emerging in many European countries. There are nearly 30 active organizations, but each one operates differently. "Our institute is a model for others like it across Europe," said Cohen. She thinks that it works because the literature it represents is an excellent product. "Hebrew literature, when compared to other uncommon languages, does extremely well around the world. Our colleagues may have more financial resources, but our literature is apparently more attractive."
But the very richness of the literature poses a problem. In 2008, for instance, about 6,400 books were published here. The institute, with its limited resources, is only capable of handling some of them. The process of culling down the number means identifying only the most suitable for foreign readers. The institute employs literary lectors, who read many of the books that come out and make suggestions on which should be handled.
"A book that does well in sales will have a better marketing potential," said Cohen, but made sure to note that it is not the main consideration. "The list of writers we represent has both writers that have good sales figures and those who may not sell that well, but whose work has very high literary merit."
WHEN ASKED what type of books are most sought after by foreign publishers, Cohen responded that in children's books, the most interest is shown toward quality literature that deals with the conflict. "We are constantly asked if we have books that offer treatment of the issue. There is also a limited interest in books about the Holocaust."
With adult literature, the greatest interest is in novels, both of veterans and of younger authors. "There is a constant effort to discover the new voices. We at the institute are very focused on revealing young literary voices to the world."
While the institute employs a small staff of editors, bibliographers and other professionals, its translators are all freelancers. Many live outside the country and for all, the language they translate into is their mother tongue. Literary translation is a difficult trade. It is not enough merely to be proficient in both languages. A translator has to posses literary abilities, understanding and a talent for translation to convey not only the words, but also the unique tone and style of the author.
"The text needs to be read as a high quality literary text in the target language," said Cohen. "The major test is if the text has the correct music to it, otherwise we've accomplished nothing."
Some of the translators are published authors in their own right. "We try to encourage this. If the translators are writers, the chances are better that the work will be accepted in translation," said Cohen.
The primary language the institute translates into is English "English is the basis. It is the first language we translate into because through English, you can reach all the other markets," said Cohen.
As a rule, the institute maintains that every translation to another language has to be from the original Hebrew. But there are certain languages where the number of people who can translate is either very small or completely nonexistent, like Chinese, Indian languages or Georgian. "We never authorize the translation from English into a common language, where there are enough translators. It doesn't make sense," said Cohen.
In most cases, it takes a minimum of two years between when a book is first published in Hebrew and when it gets translated. Surprisingly, the authors themselves don't translate their own books, even if they know another language very well. "Some authors are very involved in the translation process, because of their high level of English, but the translation is always done by a professional."
Cohen said that the global economic recession has hit the international book market in a hard way, especially in the US, but is confident that the effects won't last. "The crisis hit the international publishing industry last June and was announced as a worldwide problem in last year's Frankfurt Book Fair. People thought the end of book publishing was upon us and that publishing would come to a stop. I believe publishing will continue as publishers will go on publishing, even if on a smaller scale, until the crisis subsides."
The most important and prominent markets for translations in recent years have been the European markets. Countries like Germany, Italy and France are known for their publishers' interest in foreign literatures. But Cohen said that Asia too is beginning to show signs of increased interest. "Hebrew literature fascinates the Chinese. We only hope that we can continue this trend... Difficult markets like India, China, Japan and the countries of the former Soviet Union, are very keen, but we require financial support to reach them."