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La traduction dans les cultures plurilingues

Francis Mus
Karen Vandemeulebroucke
Lieven D’Hulst
et al.

Espaces plurilingues

A systemic approach to Hebrew literature, Israeli literature and Jewish literature, and their interrelation through translation

Rachel Weissbrod

Texte intégral

1. Introduction

1Yonatan Ratosh (1908-1981), a poet and visionary of “a Hebrew nation”, decried the terminological split between the Jewish people, the Hebrew language, and the land (and the State) of Israel. In his opinion, it reflected an ideological indeterminacy that hindered the creation of a unified national identity (Ratosh 1982/1954: 48).

2In the realm of literature, this terminological split is manifested – till this day – in the common distinction between “Hebrew literature”, “Israeli literature” and “Jewish literature”. A Google search for the first tenu, conducted on October 29, 2009, yielded 77,200 results in Hebrew and 172,000 in English. Searching for “Israeli literature” yielded 12,900 results in Hebrew and 23,800 in English. A search for “Jewish literature” yielded 4,440 results in Hebrew and 380,000 in English. The ternis are fairly transparent, but looking at some of the sites found by Google can further clarify their meaning. “Hebrew literature” refers to ancient and modem literature written in Hebrew. “Israeli literature” is often identified with contemporary Hebrew literature (English Wikipedia), but the term also applies to literature written in Israël in a variety of languages (Hebrew Wikipedia). The third term, “Jewish literature”, is the vaguest though it yielded the largest number of results (the discrepancy between the English and Hebrew search statistics is probably more than coincidental). It refers to the work of Jewish authors, irrespective of their language and country. Aside from their Jewish origins, these writers usually share other characteristics such as writing about Jewish topics.

3In light of this common differentiation, the purpose of my paper is twofold: (1) to investigate further what lies beyond the terminological split, particularly in regard to ideology; (2) to find out if and how Hebrew literature, Israeli literature and Jewish literature interrelate or even overlap by using Even-Zohar’s notion of “a literary System” (Even-Zohar 1990a, 1990b). Special attention will be given to the role of translation in establishing links between these bodies of literature.

2. Hebrew Literature

4Hebrew literature is commonly defined by the language in which it was written, yet historically, it has not been bound to one spécifie territory. In the Middle Ages and in the periods referred to as “the Enlightenment” and “the Revival” (late 18th to early 20th century), Europe was the focal point of Hebrew literary endeavour. In the early 20th century, Hebrew literature was also written in America (Toury 1998). By the 1920s, however, the center of Hebrew literature had moved to pre-state Israel (Shavit 1982). Nowadays one can hardly think of Hebrew literature being written anywhere but in Israel.

5The decline of Hebrew literary activity in Europe and the emergence of pre-state Israel as the center of Hebrew literature were the outcome of historical events such as World War I and the banning of Hebrew in Soviet Russia (Shavit 1982). In the Land of Israel itself, the use of Hebrew was encouraged by the Zionist establishment and regarded as a means of unifying the immigrants who had corne there from all over the world (Even-Zohar 2005). Since Hebrew gradually became the shared language of Israeli Jews, authors preferred it over other languages for practical as well as ideological reasons.

6Before and after the establishment of the State of Israël (in 1948), the attempts to promote Hebrew literature included the establishment of various institutions such as periodicals, publishing houses, literary awards and academic departments. Many academic institutions have separate departments for Hebrew literature and comparative or world literature. Two non-academic institutions that attest to the priority of Hebrew are The Hebrew Writers Association (established in 1921), which accepts only Hebrew authors as members, and The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature (established in 1962), whose goal is to promote the translation and export of Hebrew works (rather than any other literature written in Israel).

7At the time of its founding, the State of Israel designated Hebrew and Arabic as the two official languages. The latter is the language of Israeli Arabs, or Israeli Palestinians (each name has different cultural and political connotations), who constitute 20 % of the country’s population of 7.4 million. Israeli Arabs usually communicate with each other in Arabic, and their political representatives are very sensitive to the presence (or absence) of Arabic in the public sphere. Nevertheless, some major Arab authors prefer Hebrew to Arabie, either for practical reasons or because they feel that their unique history and life experience distinguish them from non-Israeli Palestinians and Arabs in general. One example is Sayed Kashua (born in 1975) – a journalist, satirist and the author of two novels in Hebrew. His second novel, Va-Yehi Boker (Let it be Morning), published in 2004, is about an Arab journalist who returns to his village. A sudden and unexplained siege imposed by the Israeli army leaves the village with no electricity and water, or fresh food supplies. The inhabitants of the village are eut off from the outside world for a while. Then utility supplies are reinstated and they discover that a peace agreement has been signed and their village has been given over to the Palestinian Authority. (Some right-wing Israeli politicians have indeed suggested that densely populated Arab areas should be transferred to the Palestinian Authority). Kashua’s implied protest against toying with the lives of Israeli Arabs as if they had no free will hints that his choice of Hebrew is not just practical. Rather, it echoes his awareness of the divided identity and complicated situation of Israeli Arabs.

8According to Even-Zohar (1990a, 1990b), a body of “observables” (individuals, institutions, activities and concrete texts) can justifiably be regarded as a System only in so far as they are linked by a network of relations. His hypothesis that literature functions as a System (as defined above) is easily applicable to Hebrew literature. It is a dense network of relations among literary institutions and activities involving authors, critics and publishers, as well as readers. Its structure is dynamic, and one can observe, at any given moment, movement from the periphery to the center and vice versa, and the changing of norms, models and whole repertoires. Sayed Kashua can again serve as an example. Though he is often attacked by Israeli Arabs (who accuse him of collaborating with the Jews) as well as Israeli Jews (who cannot tolerate his criticism of Israeli society and the State of Israel), his success reflects a change of norms that can be attributed to changes in the ideological climate. In this respect, his writing is an integral part of today’s Hebrew literary System.

3. Israeli Literature

9Israel is home to many authors who write in languages other than Hebrew. They include members of the Arab minority as well as Jewish immigrants who do not want, or find it too difficult to switch to Hebrew. The last few decades have seen a growing legitimization of these authors and their work. This is probably due to the penetration of Western ideas typical of the post-nationalist era that have had an impact on Israel even though it retains its character as a nation-state.

10One indication of the growing tolerance of languages other than Hebrew is the establishment in 1995 of the General Union of Writers in Israël. It differs from the Hebrew Writers Association in that it accepts members without regard to the language in which they write. Some of Israel’s major writers (such as the poet Nathan Zach) are members of the General Union. Another indication is the granting of the prestigious Israel Prize to authors whose language is not Hebrew: Emile Habiby (in 1992) and Ida Fink (in 2008).

11Emile Habiby (1921-1996), a member of the Israeli Arab minority, was an author, journalist and politician. He represented the Israeli Communist party in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. In his prose (originally written in Arabie), he lamented the lost Palestinian past of the country and combined fantastic and imaginary elements with criticism of Israeli society and politics. Not unexpectedly, the decision to grant him the Israel Prize raised objections, especially in right-wing circles. Ida Fink (born in 1921), a Holocaust survivor, immigrated to Israel from Poland in 1957. Her stories (originally written in Polish) revolve around the individual lives ofpeople during the Holocaust. First published in Hebrew in the early 1970s, they did not attract much attention. Her belated success can be attributed not only to her adherence to the Polish language, but also to the fact that her stories lacked the national orientation once expected from writings about the Holocaust.

12Emile Habiby and Ida Fink are exceptions; moreover, both had to wait for changes to occur before they received recognition: Habiby, for a change in the ideological climate, and Fink, for a change in literary norms. However, their shift to the center reveals systemic relations between Hebrew and non-Hebrew literature produced in Israel, by Israelis, relations often generated by translation from and into Hebrew.

13Translations of literary works by Israeli Arabs, like translations from Arabic into Hebrew, in general are rare, and these texts do not enjoy the same prestige as translations from English and European languages. Yet, the status of such translations does not necessarily remain static. Habiby’s novel The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, translated into Hebrew by Anton Shammas, was first published in 1984 by Mifras, a small, radical publishing house that specialized in Hebrew translations of Arabic literature. In 1995, after Habiby had been granted the Israel Prize, the same translation was published again, this time by a major publishing house, Hakibbutz Hameuchad (Amit-Kochavi 2004).

14Translation also takes place in the opposite direction, from Hebrew into Arabie. In this case, too, the centrality of Hebrew is obvious. In the early years of the State, the hegemony of Hebrew was manifest in two ways: the involvement of the Israeli Zionist establishment in initiating translation activities and the preference for works which offered a favorable depiction of the Zionist enterprise (Kayyal 2004, 2006: 70-80). To this day, Hebrew is the main source language of Arabie translations in Israël as well as a mediating language in translations from other languages (Kayyal 2006: 25).

15Translations into Hebrew of literature written by immigrants in contemporary Israel are mainly from Russian. Two waves of immigration from the former Soviet Union, in the 1970s and in the 1990s, gave rise to a large Russian-speaking minority, second only in size to the Arab minority (almost 20 % of the population). Some of the tension between Russian-speakers and Israeli veterans has to do with the immigrants’ low esteem of the local culture (Gomel 2006). However, several collections of Russian literature written in Israël and translated into Hebrew (for example, Tomer 1997), testify to the immigrants’ willingness to create connections with Hebrew literature and perhaps to become acknowledged by the hegemonic center.

16Translation in the other direction, from Hebrew into Russian, is the least visible. Unlike the translation of Hebrew literature for international distribution, which is sponsored by the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, translation of Hebrew literature by and for the immigrants is not institutionalized. It is often carried out by non-professional translators who work without remuneration on their own initiative and publish their translations at their own expense. In the absence of research, evidence of the existence of such translations can be found in journalistic reports (e.g., Lev-Ari 2004). If literary translation from Russian into Hebrew can be interpreted as a means to gain the acknowledgement of the hegemonic Hebrew culture, translation in the other direction, whose very existence remains unknown to most Israelis, requires a somewhat different explanation. Given the fact that the immigrants tend to be critical of the local culture, including its literature, translation can be considered a means of becoming reconciled with it and taking a first step towards integration. It is also possible that immigrants interested in establishing contacts with Hebrew literature find it easier to translate it into their native language rather than dealing with it in the original.

  • 1 The following suggest that Israeli literature in languages other than Hebrew also occupies a place (...)

17The translation activity from and into Hebrew implies that Hebrew and non-Hebrew literature in Israël are involved in systemic relations that generate a literary System where Hebrew is central but not exclusive. Further research is needed to find out if Israeli literature in languages other than Hebrew develops independent sub-systems with their own centers, norms and répertoires (e.g., “the System of Russian literature in Israel”), and whether and how such literature intégrates into foreign literary polysystems1.

4. Jewish Literature

18The literature commonly referred to as Jewish is not linked to any specific place, language or ideology. Yet, some aspects of this literature, including its themes and underlying models, its institutionalization, and its unique relationship with Hebrew literature, allow us to deal with it in the framework of polysystem theory. According to Shaked (2006), who follows in the footsteps of Sadan (1950), Jewish literature – represented by Stefan Heym, Henry Roth, Philip Roth, Saul Beliow, Bernard Malamud, Imre Kertész and many others – is characterized by its concern with certain specific themes. These include migration, exile, displacement and the life experience of refugees. The Holocaust is only one realization of these recurrent themes, which can even be found in universally oriented Works such as those of Kafka. Miron (2007), who is skeptical about this definition, notes that the idea of uniformity in diversity underlies the establishment of the Department of Literature of the Jewish People at Bar-Ilan University (founded in 1955). As mentioned, other academic institutions in Israel usually have a Hebrew literature department. Bar-Ilan’s exceptionality in this respect is in line with its unique character as a religious university whose agenda is to combine scientific research with the promotion of Jewish values. The conception of Jewish literature as an entity in its own right probably underlies academie departments and joumals outside Israel, too.

19Since themes can be regarded as constituents of literary models, their recurrence in the writings of Jewish authors implies that in addition to their affinity to their language and culture of origin, they share a repertoire of their own. Jewish authors living in Israël and writing in Hebrew are not necessarily an exception. This brings us back to Ratosh’s criticism of Jewish literature, which, as he asserted, could be written anywhere and in any language. In his view, this meant that Jewish literature was not the literature of a nation. In the context of this article, however, the shared themes – if indeed they exist and persist – illustrate how Hebrew literature, Israeli literature and Jewish literature interrelate.

20Miron himself prefers to talk about Jewish literatures in the plural – though this, too, entails looking for connectedness. Another way to address Jewish literature is from the point of view of Hebrew literature. An initiative of “redeeming” Jewish literature by translating it into Hebrew was undertaken by Israel’s national poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934) as part of his Kinus (gathering) enterprise, which was aimed at collecting the very best of Jewish writings throughout the ages (Bialik 1933). The project, as envisaged by Bialik, was never realized; however, there is evidence that Jewish literature was treated differently than non-Jewish literature in the same source language. The following are two indications:

1) From the rise of Nazism in the 1930s to the 1960s, translation of Jewish literature originally written in German continued while translation from German in general almost ceased altogether: “In order for a German text to overcome the ban, it had to be an old-time classic, or else its author had to be a Jew, or an avowed anti-Nazi” (Toury 1995: 144).

  • 2 Faulkner’s symbolic writing, unfamiliar in Israel at that time, is another possible explanation.

2) Until the 1960s, American literature had a marginal position in the Hebrew polysystem – not quantitatively but in terms of its prestige. It was considered a source of bestsellers and cheap entertainment. As far as the canonized System was concerned, American Jewish authors were more likely to be translated than non-Jewish ones. This can explain why Bernard Malamud’s Works were consistently translated into Hebrew and attracted critical attention, while William Faulkner – winner of the Nobel Prize in 1949 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 and 1963 – was translated for the first time in 1963 by a minor publishing house (Weissbrod 1989)2.

  • 3 In Israel, Yiddish is used by some of the elderly population and by the ultra-Orthodox (who do not (...)
  • 4 Efforts to preserve Yiddish literature by means of translation (into English) are also made in the (...)

21Yiddish deserves a spécial mention because unlike Jewish literature in languages such as German and English, it was not part of any non-Jewish body of literature. Before World War II, Yiddish – the language of the Jewish masses in Europe – represented an alternative to Hebrew and Zionism. In pre-state Israel, and in Israel of the 1950s, opposition to Yiddish was strong and culminated in the banning of theater productions in Yiddish (Rojanski 2009). In contrast, translations from Yiddish did not encounter antagonism because they provided access to Jewish culture without threatening Hebrew. It is doubtful that Hebrew translations represent the whole range of Yiddish literature; however, taking into consideration that the Holocaust almost put an end to Yiddish culture and that the number of readers of Yiddish diminished significantly3, it is remarkable that Yiddish literature – at least its canon – is still alive in its Hebrew translations, as part of the Hebrew literary polysystem4.

22According to Toury (1995: 58), the selection of works for translation is subject to norms, which reflect ideological and literary considerations. Jewish literature, too, was subject to such constraints. A famous example of the impact of ideology on translation policy, though not from the field of literature, is Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann Bi-Yerushalayim (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, first published in 1963). Arendt accused Israel of using the Eichmann trial, which took place in Jerusalem in 1961, to promote its national interests. The hostility she raised may explain why a Hebrew translation only appeared in 2000.

23Literary considerations had an impact as well. On the one hand, they toned down the enthusiasm for authors who were ideologically “correct”; on the other hand, they made possible the translation of works by authors who disagreed with Zionism and criticized Israeli politics. The claim that acceptance was not dépendent on ideology alone can be illustrated by Leon Uris’s novel Exodus. Published in 1958, it was translated into Hebrew in 1959 and made into a successful film starring Paul Newman in 1960. Though the novel and film supported the Zionist enterprise at a time when the young State of Israel badly needed such backing, the literary establishment (literary periodicals and the daily newspapers’ literary supplements) ignored the novel completely, probably because of the strong antagonism to American bestsellers in those years (Weissbrod 1989). Unlike the novel, Otto Preminger’s cinematic adaptation did attract the attention of the few contemporary film critics. Acknowledging the film was more acceptable because cinema in general was regarded purely as entertainment. Nevertheless, reactions were often mocking and emphasized the gap between this fancy Hollywood production and reality (Weissbrod 1999).

24The weight given to literary considerations can also explain the abundance of translations of literary works by acclaimed Jewish authors who were indifferent and even hostile to Israel and Zionism – from Russian Communists such as Ilya Ehrenburg (whose work was first translated into Hebrew in 1928) to critics of Israel in the English-speaking world such as Harold Pinter. Thus, the special interest in Jewish authors, conditioned as it is by both ideological and literary considerations, makes it possible to suggest that Jewish literature is an aggregation of works and authors, which, in addition to having a place in world literature, is very likely to be translated and integrated into the System of Hebrew literature, currently centered in Israel.

5. Conclusion

25From this case study, it follows that a correlation between territory, language, ideology and national identity does not always exist. Hebrew writers in Israël today do not necessarily share in the national identity of the majority. Some of them prefer Hebrew for practical reasons or because they are deeply connected to it but not to the ideology it stands for. Conversely, authors that identify with the Jewish Zionist collective do not always choose to write in Hebrew because they feel more at home in their native languages. Nevertheless, these groups are linked by systemic relations. Admittedly, authors writing in languages other than Hebrew are usually positioned in the margins of the literary polysystem and their audiences are generally small. They can, however, move to center stage under the auspices of institutions such as the Israel Prize and by means of translation.

26Translation also makes possible the special relationship between Hebrew literature and literature by Jewish authors. The latter – which is not defined by either language or territory – is likely to be translated into Hebrew because of the special interest it attracts. Thus, the notion of a “literary System” makes it possible to trace the links between Hebrew literature, Israeli literature and Jewish literature – relations that exist despite the ideological and other discrepancies between the bodies of work represented by these terms.



1. Primary Sources (in Hebrew)

Arendt Hannah, Eichmann Bi-Yerushalayim: Din Ve-Kheshbon al Ha-Banaliyut shel Ha-Ro ’a (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil), Arie Uriel (transl.). Tel Aviv, Babel, 2000-1963.

Bialik Chaim Nachman, « Ha-Sefer Ha-Ivri » (The Hebrew Book) in Kitvey Chaim Nachman Bialik (The Writings of Chaim Nachman Bialik), Tel Aviv, Va’ad Ha-Yovel, 1933-1913, p. 304-321.

Habiby Emile, Ha-Opssimist (The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist), Anton Shammas (transi.), Tel Aviv, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1995-1984.

Kashua Sayed, Va-Yehi Boker (Let it be Moming), Jerusalem, Keter, 2004.

Tomer Ben-Zion (ed.), Kismey Ha-La’ana: Siporet Yotsrim Olim Me-Russia (Bitter Charms: The Prose Fiction of Immigrant Authors from Russia), Tel Aviv, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1997.

Uris Leon, Exodus, Yosef Nedava (transi.), Tel Aviv, Steimatsky, 1959/1958.

2. Secondary Sources

Amit-Kochavi Hannah, « Integrating Arab Culture into Israeli Identity through Literary Translations from Arabic into Hebrew » in Said Faiq (ed.), Cultural Encounters in Translation from Arabic, Clevedon, Multilingual Matters, 2004, p. 51-62.

Even-Zohar Itamar, « Polysystem Theory », in Polysystem Studies (Poetics Today 11: 1), 1990a, p. 9-26, electronic version: 1990.pdf.

– , « The ‘Literary System’ », Polysystem Studies. Poetics Today, 1990b, 11: 1, p. 27-44,

– , « Who is Afraid of The Hebrew Culture? », Papers in Culture Research,, 2005.

Gomel Elana, Atem Ve-Anakhnu – Li-Yot Russim Be-Yisrael (The Pilgrim Soul: Being a Russian in Israel), Tel Aviv, Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, 2006. [Hebrew]

Kayyal Mahmoud, « Intercultural Relations between Arabs and Israeli Jews as Reflected in Arabic Translations of Modem Hebrew Literature », Target, 2004, 16: 1, p. 53-68.

Kayyal Mahmoud, Tirgum Be-Tsel Ha-Imut (Translation in the Shadow of Confrontation), Jerusalem, Magnes, 2006. [Hebrew]

Lev-Ari Shiri, « Yetser Ha-Tirgum Khazak Mehem » (Overpowered by the Drive to Translate), Ha ’aretz (September 26), 2004. [Hebrew]

miron Dan, « Sifruyot Yehudiyot Modemiyot » (Modem Jewish Literatures) in Dan Miron & Hanan Hever (eds), Zman Yehudi Khadash: Tarbut Yehudit Be-Idan Khiloni – Mabat Entsiklopedi (New Jewish Time: Jewish Culture in a Secular Era- An Encyclopédie View), 2007, vol. 3, Jerusalem, Keter, p. 4-6. [Hebrew]

Ratosh Yonatan, « Sifrut Yisraelit o Klal-Yehudit? » (Israeli or Jewish Literature?), Sifrut Yehudit Ba-Lashon Ha-Ivrit (Jewish Literature in Hebrew), Tel Aviv, Hadar, 1982/1954, p. 43-49. [Hebrew]

Rojanski Rachel, « The Struggle for a Yiddish Repertoire Theater in Israel 1950-1952 », Israel Affairs, 2009, 15: 1, P- 4-27.

Sadan Dov, Al Sifruteynu – Massat Mavo (On Our Literature – An Introductory Essay), Jerusalem, Reuven Mass, 1950. [Hebrew]

Schwarz Jan, « Yiddish » in Peter France (ed.), The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation, vol. 2, Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 402-404.

Shaked Gershon, Zehut: Sifruyot Yehudiyot Bi-Leshonot La’az. (Identity: Jewish Literatures in European Languages), Haifa, Haifa University press, 2006. [Hebrew, English abstract]

Shavit Zohar, Ha-Khayim Ha-Sifrutiyim Be-Eretz Yisrael 1910-1933 (Literary Life in Eretz Israel 1910-1933), Tel Aviv, The Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1982. [Hebrew]

Toury Gideon, Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond, Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins, 1995.

– , « Hebrew Tradition » in Mona Baker (ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, London/New York, Routledge, 1998, p. 439-448.

Weissbrod Rachel, Trends in the Translation of Prose-Fiction from English into Hebrew, 1958-1980, Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv University, 1989. [Ph. D. thesis, Hebrew, English abstract]

Weissbrod Rachel, « Exodus as a Zionist Melodrama », Israel Studies 1999, 4: 1, p. 129-152.


1 The following suggest that Israeli literature in languages other than Hebrew also occupies a place in other polysystems: In 1990, Emile Habiby was granted the Al-Quds Prize by the PLO. In 1991 he was elected Man of the Year in Arabic literature by the prestigious Arab periodical Almajala (Hebrew Wikipedia, accessed on October 29, 2009). Ida Fink has an entry in the Polish Wikipedia and five of her books, originally written in Polish, are listed there. See (accessed on October 29, 2009).

2 Faulkner’s symbolic writing, unfamiliar in Israel at that time, is another possible explanation.

3 In Israel, Yiddish is used by some of the elderly population and by the ultra-Orthodox (who do not read secular literature in any event). Yiddish is also taught in various institutions, with some courses attended by young people.

4 Efforts to preserve Yiddish literature by means of translation (into English) are also made in the USA (Schwarz 2000).


Départment of Translation and Interpreting Studies. Bar Ilan University, Israël.

© Artois Presses Université, 2011

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