The Write Stuff

A best-seller in Israel is a book that sells over 5,000 copies, says Neta Goren, the director of the newly established Israel branch of the Jewish Book Council (JBC). For major American publishers, this number constitutes only the first run of a book. This means Israeli authors usually need to expand abroad to generate more sales, but reaching a foreign market, particularly an American one, is not always easy. "Israeli writers in translation have a far greater audience in Germany, Italy and France than they would in America," explains Goren. The Jewish Book Council was founded in 1940 to promote books of Jewish interest. Its Israel office hopes to act as a bridge between Israeli authors and the American market. "It's very frustrating for Israelis because America has a large Jewish population and there ought to be a bridge. Culturally, generally Anglos tend to not buy translations from any place," adds Goren. Matthew Miller, publisher of Toby Press, has noticed a similar American resistance to Israeli books, even among American Jews who would seem a natural audience for Jewish Israeli writers. "What Israelis fail to realize is that six million American Jews have their own culture, their own questions, their own identity," explains Miller. "So what is a concern to an American may not be addressed by Israelis. For example, assimilation. All those books by Phillip Roth or books about intermarriage, that doesn't exist in the Israeli scene." Miller also likens the "angst" of contemporary Israeli writers to German angst rather than American angst. "I think most books that are written here have a different mentality. It's a different culture, so a lot of books that are wonderful don't necessarily resonate with American readers," adds Jerusalem-based literary agent Sharon Friedman. One key to unlocking American doors, says Goren, is quality translation. The Jewish Book Council is in the process of establishing an award for translations to encourage the art of translation and provide translators, often an underappreciated field, with financial incentives. "Without translation we have nothing," she says. Usually Israeli publishers don't own translation rights, so many Israeli authors turn to the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, a government body that acts like a national agent for Israeli authors seeking to publish abroad. Others vie for representation by the Deborah Harris Agency, a Jerusalem-based literary agency that represents some of Israel's leading talent, including Meir Shalev, David Grossman and most recently Ron Leshem, whose English translation of Im Yesh Gan Eden (Beaufort) by Jerusalem writer Evan Fallenberg has received a warm welcome in the US. Writing via email from New York, Deborah Harris says there is an increased openness to Israeli writers, particularly young new voices like Leshem, Sayed Kashua, Yael Hedaya, Dorit Rabinayan, Amir Gutfreund and Etgar Keret. Generally, however, she confirms America's xenophobia. Even though a successful crossover rests on superb content and marketing, "We need more serious support from the Ministry of Culture and the Foreign Ministry," she says. "We are working without support that would be considered natural in other countries." Goren is hopeful. "At the annual Jewish Book Council Network Conference, people wanted to know what was going on in Israel. It's a connection they seek." The Jerusalem Anglo community could be regarded as a testing ground for English translations of contemporary Israeli works, she adds. "This [local Anglo community] is our main target audience as well," explains Goren. "Part of my promotion is through that vehicle. I will hold readings and events for that audience. They live in Jerusalem but go back and forth to the US all the time. "We have a buying potential here in Jerusalem that you don't have in Tel Aviv," she adds. "Still, it's hard to get English books in Israel."- O.A.