Publishing Arabic Literature in Hebrew

After working for the Israeli parliament, Yael Lerer decided to go into publishing. Youssef Hijazi spoke with her about authors like Mahmoud Darwish and Mohamed Choukri, and about the difficulties she confronts as a publisher of Arabic literature in Israel

Yael Lerer publishes Arabic literature in Hebrew. Youssef Hijazi spoke with the young Israeli about her interest in authors like Mahmoud Darwish, Mohamed Choukri and Huda Barakat, and about the difficulties she confronts as a publisher of Arabic literature in Israel

photo: private
Israeli society must tackle the racism against the country's Arabs, says Yael Lerer

​​Yael Lerer, what inspired you to found the Al-Andalus publishing house?

Yael Lerer: I learned Arabic ten years ago for political and ideological reasons, and I consider myself very lucky – it allows me to read Arabic literature and gives me special insights into Arab culture. Because of this personal experience, I decided to let others share this privilege.

Once I began studying Arabic, I learned more than I had originally planned; I discovered my interest in Arabic literature and poetry and realized how foreign Arab culture had been to me before that. Even though I have had Arab friends, colleagues and comrades-in-arms for years.

Four years ago I began building up a new publishing house, Al-Andalus, to publish Hebrew translations of Arabic literature. My original approach was cultural, through literature; I did not become politically active until later on.

After five years working in the Israeli Parliament every day for Dr. Azmi Bishara, I simply couldn't stand the work any more and decided to give it up. The Arab members of the Israeli Parliament are confronted with Israeli racism on a daily basis, and I found that impossible to take.

So you went from purely political work to purely cultural work?

Lerer: I am still politically involved with the National Democratic Alliance and play an active role in their initiatives. But while I was working for the Knesset I had to listen to the speeches of the right-wingers every day, along with the so-called left-wingers and the center.

All of them take the same undemocratic, Zionist line, supporting a complete separation of the races. Every morning I had to read three different newspapers and listen to the news broadcasts; I was exposed to this constant racism.

I asked myself: what can I do? And I decided to go back to literature and founded Al-Andalus.

Does the choice of the name, Al-Andalus, express a certain nostalgia?

Lerer: Nostalgia, exactly. The Andalusian period was the golden age of coexistence between the Arab and Hebrew cultures. It was a period in which a great deal of literature was translated and both cultures enriched each other with ideas.

When I was thinking of a name for the publishing house, it seemed only natural to me to call it Al-Andalus. I was attacked for choosing this name – it was seen as a provocation that I didn't choose the Hebrew term "Andalusia". I was accused of being a pan-Arabist, as if Al-Andalus symbolized pan-Arabist desires!

How do you obtain the publication rights? As a rule, in the Arab world the author holds the rights to a book. Do you contact the authors directly?

Lerer: We have no direct contacts. This relates to the issue of "normalization", i.e., the normalization of Israeli-Palestinian relations, which is an extremely important and sensitive matter. However, at the Frankfurt Book Fair I spoke to quite a few Arab authors who told me they are tired of the whole thing.

I personally am not tired of it. Dr. Azmi Bishara once said that normalization has changed from an idea to a question of faith. There are people who speak out against normalization, and for them that means that they refuse to speak with Israelis and will never join forces with Israelis to combat the status quo.

Broadly speaking, I'm against normalization. However, the question remains as to what normalization actually is. The word means making a natural, normal situation out of one that is experienced as unnatural. The occupation is unnatural, the segregation of the races is unnatural, and we can't act as if these things were normal.

Usually this demand for normalization is based on the idea of establishing and maintaining mutual cultural relations. Is that even possible? In my opinion, it isn't. There is no necessity for maintaining normal cultural relations, the way this Frankfurt Book Fair aims at establishing relations between the Arab world and the west.

I believe that the relationship toward the Israeli state and Israeli publishers does not need to be normal. But I still believe that it is necessary to translate Arabic literature into Hebrew, and that it is necessary to search for ways to realize this.

Could you explain that in more detail? How do you come into contact with the Arab writers?

Lerer: We've come into contact with the Arab writers through mutual friends, and writers also introduce us to other writers.

After the so-called peace agreement a number of Arab writers came to Israel. They were invited by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which did them the honor to show how committed it was to "normalization". It all functions quite well; the Arab intellectuals come to the Ministry and take part in podium discussions, etc.

It was important for me that the Arab writers whose works we publish know that we have a different background and completely different goals, and that as a matter of principle we do not cooperate with the Israeli government or the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

How do you deal with the issue of copyrights?

Lerer: At the moment there are no official contracts with the authors; we safeguard their rights for the future. It's possible to stay in contact by mail, these and other possibilities do exist. There are trade relations, and something like an Israeli-Palestinian normalization actually does exist.

All this boosts the image of the official policy which Israel is now taking. We don't want to have anything to do with that. We don't want the Israeli Foreign Ministry to claim that these writers and the Arab left have decided to aim for cooperation, relations, agreements and the like.

I made the Arab writers a proposal: we reserve their rights for them. We are not talking about large sums, by the way; the Israeli market is not as large as the German or the English market.

I suggested that the profits from these rights could go to support Palestinian charitable projects, e.g. a library in a refugee camp or some similar cause.

Most writers were in agreement and were willing to support the project. One of the writers commented that we had at least asked for permission, in contrast to many other publishers, and called that laudable. The little that has been translated into Hebrew so far was translated without the authors' permission. In other words, it was stolen – and this is true not only of writers' works, but also of films.

For years Israeli television showed pirate copies of Egyptian films, paying nothing at all for the rights. This almost strikes me as an Israeli tradition: they steal the land, the films, the literature without any feeling of guilt.

An author's success is measured by the publication of his books, an ideal value, not a material one. As Edward Said said: "To be translated into a foreign language is always a triumph of the author".

How do you choose the texts you plan to translate and publish?

Lerer: It's not difficult. In the 72 years from the 1930s, when people began translating works from Arabic into modern Hebrew, to the year 2000, only 32 novels have been translated.

This means that we can pick and choose. Our problem is not deciding what we want to translate. There are dozens of books we want to translate, but unfortunately our financial circumstances do not allow us to do so.

So far we have translated ten books, with a very wide range of genres and literary styles. We've even published two books by Mahmud Darwish – "Why Have You Left the Horse Alone" and "State of Siege" – which belong to two very different literary genres.

The original idea was to take a little of this and a little of that, to maintain a variety, with the ultimate standard always being the high literary quality.

At the same time, we would like to give readers the chance to really get to know writers and their work. We would like to translate the complete works of Mahmud Darwish, Huda Barakat, Tajjib Salih, Sahar Khalifa and so on.

How do you choose the translators and where do the translation problems lie?

Lerer: Good question. 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.

The same problem arises when translating Hebrew into Arabic. This is a common phenomenon when translating between two similar languages such as English and French.

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.

Finally, translation requires knowledge of the other culture and not only of the language. For example, once it happened that "future" was translated as breakfast, though the correct translation would have been "iftar of Ramadan", the evening meal which breaks the day-long fast during Ramadan.

This is why we like to work with Palestinians who live in Israel, but this leads to other difficulties, because they are not translating into their native language.

What about sales and distribution? Elias Khoury's novel "Gate of the Sun" is said to have sold 3,000 copies.

Lerer: Israeli bookstores deal with us just as they would deal with any other publishing house. The Israeli market is very narrow, however. Our books are reviewed in all the newspapers.

For the most part they feel compelled to write good reviews. As I mentioned, the works we translate are all outstanding; it's impossible for them to denigrate the books we publish.

We live up to very high quality standards. There are a very few other publishers that also work like this, such as the large, established, wealthy publishers. But they have loyal readers; it's as if the titles they sell bear a seal of quality.

We invest the same amount of effort and money to achieve the same quality as the big publishers, but our sales figures are those of a small publisher.

Why do you think the books you publish sell so slowly?

Lerer: We have a problem with the readers. For example, "Gate of the Sun" was reviewed in all the Israeli newspapers, all the critics thought it was wonderful. When Israeli writers read a book, they usually review it as well.

But neither David Großmann, Abraham Jehoshua, Amoz Oz nor any of the other Israeli writers wrote a review of "Gate of the Sun" or mentioned it in a talk, whereas Elias Khoury has mentioned these authors hundreds of times.

There is literature which people worldwide feel a cultural duty to read, at least as far as the educated classes are concerned. For example, if Günther Grass were translated into Hebrew, it would be a cultural obligation to read his work.

Yet Arabic literature is not required reading for intellectuals, writers or university professors. In my opinion, the problem here is not Israeli policy as such, it is the generalized racism which exists in society.

People want to read high-quality literature and simply can't imagine that Arab writers can write beautiful, even overwhelmingly powerful books.

You mentioned the intellectuals – what about officialdom? Are you confronted with disapproval, or do they accept what you are doing?

Lerer: We have no contact with people associated with the government. In Israel there is no censorship of books, in contrast to the movies and the theater – several weeks ago we had to watch them ban the screening of "Jenin, Jenin", the film by Muhammad Bakri.

If you write about atomic weapons, the text must be reviewed by a state censor before publication; other than that, literature is free of censorship. If literature were censored, I think we would have serious problems.

You complain about slow sales – that raises the question of how the publishing house is financed.

We receive support from a number of European funds. This allows us to cover the translation costs, but we would prefer it if this money went toward the purchasing and distribution of our books, in particular for public libraries and high schools in Israel.

With five of our books, we sent a copy to every public and high school library, a total of about 1,600 institutions.

Our public library project makes the books available to readers all over the country. For example, "Gate of the Sun" has reached 20,000 readers this way, statistically speaking.

It took us quite a long time to convince our sponsors of this idea. But now we will carry on the project with funds from the European Union. Still, we have to rely on additional support, especially since we are about to publish eight new books which are supposed to be available in public libraries by next June.

The interview was conducted by Youssef Hijazi

© Qantara 2004

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

Yael Lerer was born in Tel Aviv to a European Jewish family. She studied at the University of Tel Aviv and the American University in Cairo. She served as official spokesperson for Dr. Azmi Bishara, member of the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) and is the founder of the publishing house Al-Andalus.

Al-Andalus Publishing House on the Internet (in Hebrew and English)