‘Shared Sovereignty’: How a group of translators is trying to reshape the conversation in Israel-Palestine

It is “a political model […] to decolonize the colonial relations between the languages,” co-founder Yehouda Shenhav explains. To “serve as a model for shared sovereignty in Israel-Palestine in the Middle East, so as to be a model for politics itself”.
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Like many second-generation Israelis, Yehouda Shenhav’s Arabic mother tongue slipped away from him. The reason why one of Israel’s most esteemed academics – of Iraqi origin –  speaks Arabic and translates Arabic literature may have some sort of subconscious root in his background, but his fluency mainly arose from conversations with the late Palestinian polymath Salman Natour.

The two used to converse in Arabic over the phone during Natour’s morning commute from his residence in the Druze town of Daliyat al-Karmel to the Carmel Center building in Wadi Nisnas, Haifa — a worn, historic building that was once used as the British Consulate during the Ottoman period, and which is now the office of several Palestinian NGOs.

Shenhav tells me that the routine had an almost ritualistic quality. He knew, for example, exactly when the signal would cut out: by Al Jalame prison, where Natour himself was once incarcerated for helping other Druze in the occupied Golan Heights.

The two men grew to become very close friends. Natour entrusted Shenhav to translate his first novel She, Me and the Autumn into Hebrew. It was Shenhav’s first translation, and they patiently worked on the translation together. Shenhav would translate a chapter and the two men would meet and discuss. Their back and forth eventually laid the basis for the Forum of Arabic-Hebrew Translators at the Van Leer Institute in 2015. 

Shenhav rose to the challenge, but soon realized that another phenomenon was also occurring: Natour was rewriting his own novel through Shenhav’s translation. He quipped to Natour that the author is dead, à la Roland Barthes, and that he should let him rest in peace.

Death, however, was to be more than an abstract specter in their relationship. When Shenhav told him he wanted to die after suffering from excruciating double vision for more than three years, Natour replied that he would have to put his death wish on hold: they shared what he called a divine mission together. Very suddenly, however, in 2016 Natour himself suffered a heart attack, dying at the age of 67. 

It was a time of immense grief and shock for Shenhav, as well as the fledgling collective of translators they had formed. However, the tragedy only intensified their commitment to what Natour had described as their “divine mission.”

The Forum of Arabic-Hebrew Translators 

The Forum of Arabic-Hebrew Translators, which seeks to promote Arabic literature and its translation into Hebrew, was working against the grain from the outset. 

Given that less than two percent of Jewish Israelis can read Arabic literature, the project is more urgent than ever in order to voice suppressed Palestinian narratives to an Israeli audience. 

Even though Israel is surrounded by Arab countries, rules over millions of Palestinians, and that over half of the Israeli Jewish population originates from Arabic-speaking countries, more literature is translated from Swedish into Hebrew than from Arabic each year. 

The collective’s ‘The Translation Index’ records only 6189 literary pieces as having been translated from Arabic to Hebrew from the 1870s until today, with smaller pieces, such as poems, comprising the clear majority. Only 69 of these translations are full novels. 

The forum seeks to provide exposure to the stigmatized language and narrative of Palestinians in the Israeli public sphere. It is now comprised of over 100 leading Jewish and Arab translators and scholars of translation, and has given rise to Maktoob (meaning “Written” in Arabic), a series of Arabic literature in Hebrew.

But the forum and book series are not only politically subversive.

The Director of the Translator’s Forum, Yoni Mendel, says Maktoob is “the only series in the world” that deploys this collaborative and dialogical approach to translation, involving the author, various translators, and a literary editor throughout the process. In this respect, it also advances the theory and practice of translation on a more general level.  

Although this translation model emerged organically from Natour and Shenhav’s work, it is firmly rooted in a political and intellectual framework. 

Before the modern age, Shenhav explains, translation looked very different. In the Toledo, Al-Andalus, and Baghdad, it was often conducted by marginalized groups: refugees, prisoners of war, and others. In these contexts, translations were collaborative — and often involved Jews and Muslims working together — and the remit of the translator was far broader. This is where the Egyptian slang for ‘tour guide’ (‘turjeman’), which shares a root with ‘translator’, comes from: tours were historically a part of the translator’s domain.

This collaborative model, however, was a casualty of the Enlightenment. The “Neoclassical” model for translation instead took the individual, dictated by copyright and market forces, as its ontological center. It was no longer about the product, but about being the “best translator”. The figure of the solitary and scholarly ‘translator’ is therefore a distinctly modern construction, lacking the reciprocity and simultaneity that characterized the process for most of the history of translation. 

This also led to a false separation of oral and written tradition. Unlike the rich multilingual discussions of older models, the Neoclassical translator was secluded, mute, and bounded by national language. The ability to speak the language was no longer a requirement. 

In the increasingly and aggressively Judaized public space in Israel, an exclusive focus on textuality serves to silence Arabic: it is confined to academia, an artifact for scholars to mull over, but never to enter the light of the public sphere, with all the same rough consonants that were purged out of Hebrew in its twentieth century revival. 

This has contributed to a field of Arabic literature in Israel Arabic literature without the participation of any Arabs — an exclusively Jewish endeavor from top to bottom, populated by Jewish editors, publishers, and translators. This was the case with publishing houses dealing with Arabic to Hebrew translations prior to Maktoob: Mifras in the 1980s and Andalus in early 2000s. 

While Shenhav expresses gratitude for their pioneering work, the Translator’s Forum and Maktoob are trying to challenge this status quo. The rich, shared traditions of translations must be the basis for moving forward, both in translation and politics: “we need to change the model itself,” he says. 

(from left to right) Hannah Amit Kochavi - Maktoob editorial board members, Eyad Barghuthy- deputy editor, Rawya Brurbara- editorial board member (Photo: Duygu Atlas)
(from left to right) Hannah Amit Kochavi – Maktoob editorial board members, Eyad Bargouthy – deputy editor, Rawya Burbara – editorial board member (Photo: Duygu Atlas)

The broken bridge of the Arabic language

The story of Yoni Mendel, one of Maktoob’s core team of four and the director of the Translator’s Forum, is representative of the approach to the Arabic language in Israel. He studied Arabic using Hebrew letters in the regular school system from the fifth grade onward, and took on Modern Standard Arabic in the seventh grade. He went on to sit his high school matriculation exams in Arabic. Growing up, he tells me, he was not politically active or especially aware. He joined a small unit of army intelligence. After he finished his service, he got in touch with a bilingual school in Jerusalem to work as their afternoon activities coordinator. 

One day, a mother of one of the students asked him a simple question in Arabic. He not only found himself unable to answer her, but he could scarcely communicate with her in Arabic for further clarification. After eleven or twelve years of studying Arabic, he had almost never interacted with Arabs, and he had never created in the language. It was at that the seeds for his magisterial book, The Creation of Israeli Arabic, were first planted. 

The book, published in 2014, explains the Arabic taught in contemporary Israeli Jewish society as the product of the relationship between educational and military establishment. Arabic emerges from this context as a passive language, which treats Arabs as objects of forensic surveillance — a pedagogy that does more to divide Jews from Arabs than bring them together. 

From one schoolyard incident to another, Mendel’s book unearths a document given to Jewish students of an ‘Oriental class’ on a school trip to Nazareth. The instructions read more like military guidelines than material one would expect from a school trip. Atallah Mansour, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and journalist for Haaretz, wrote an article on his impressions of the project, writing: “Most of them [the students] said that they were surprised when they met with Arabic-speakers … and when I asked them what was most surprising they said: that they are like us.” When Mansour asked the pupils to read aloud the rules of behavior in front of him, they were profoundly ashamed. “Nobody wanted to look me in the eye,” he wrote. The militarization of the language runs so deep that the biggest surprise for a Jewish school cohort in Israel learning Arabic was the common humanity of their compatriots in Nazareth. As Mendel concludes, “while the trip enabled physical proximity, in actuality its outcome was intercultural distance.”

Once Mendel went back to teaching as the only Jewish teacher in an Arabic school in Jaffa, he had ensured that such patterns would not repeat themselves.  

Towards a decolonial model

When Maktoob was established, its core team —Shenhav, Mendel, Eyad Bargouthy, and Kifah Abdul Halim — held extensive discussions on the colonial relations in the process of cultural production. Mendel tells me that the small team makes all decisions collaboratively, and prominent Palestinian writers serve as the reviewers to decide if the book should be published. 

Members of the translators forum (Photo: Duygu Atlas)
Members of the translators forum (Photo: Duygu Atlas)

One of the Palestinians on the core editorial team, Kifah Abdul Halim, explained to me how this decolonization works in practice. 

As opposed to the systematized “Arab-free” system of education, the media, and cultural institutions which usually deal with Arabic in Israel, Palestinians are part of all the decision-making processes. The team’s discussions regularly switch between Hebrew and Arabic: “It is totally different from the world outside where people don’t want to hear or engage with Arabic”.  

Shenhav’s desire to bring Jews and Palestinians did not only face objections from the Jewish side, but also from Palestinians, who had grown skeptical of the same old broken formulas of coexistence. However, even those who were hesitant soon submitted themselves to the project.  

In many of Abdul Halim’s previous mixed workplaces, there was an inability, or even an aversion, to speaking Arabic. She argues that the vast majority of cultural institutions where Jews and Arabs work together don’t consider the power dynamics in play, and therefore their message of ‘coexistence’ rings hollow: “If they have Arabs, it’s symbolic, but not genuine. Here we have something more substantial.” 

This is what drew her to Maktoob: “It is an exceptional project because it was not trying to pretend to be a neutral project, acknowledging that translation itself is not a politically neutral project.” 

The collective also hosts events that provide a platform for Palestinian intellectual life, even if it may be uncomfortable conversations for the ordinary Israeli ear. An event in Liwan in Nazareth, with Elias Khoury over video call from Lebanon, discussed the ethics of translating Arabic to Hebrew against the looming questions and potential dangers of normalization.

The inclusion of Palestinians in the process does not only rectify power imbalances, but also provides much better translations, Mendel explains.

In the past, translations from Arabic to Hebrew often lost the essence of the text due to a lack of awareness and sensitivity to the cultural contexts in which they were produced. At Maktoob, there is always a Palestinian involved in the translation and editorial process, ensuring that the marrow of the translation is never lost. “We are bringing back Jewish-Arab cooperation and the fruits are sweet,” Mendel says. “We produce great books and a model for a shared life together.”

Working with the Arab world

Unlike Israel’s recent rapprochement with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which bypasses the citizen population and guns straight for the highest corridors of power, the collective is trying to build relationships based on shared values and respect.

The success of the project has been driven by many factors: globalization, for example, has meant that Israeli publishing houses can contact the literary agents of Arab writers in America, while the Arab writer can in turn displace responsibility for the collaboration onto their agent and the international market. 

Mendel uses the word “miracle” to describe the fact that, in 2019, an Israel-based publishing house can get the rights or approval to these Arabic-Hebrew translations, and that this is often even tolerated in the country of origin. Mendel believes their success is mostly due to Maktoob’s bi-national model, which makes clear it is not part of the normalization campaign. 

Asking for consent is already a positive departure from a past in which Israeli publishers translated literature from Arabic into Hebrew without asking permission from the copyright holders. There was one Saudi writer, for example, who expressed gratitude at the request, as he was previously translated without consent, while another high-profile translation of prominent Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany into Hebrew led the author to public outcry and complaints of “theft and piracy” from the author.

Mendel and Abdul Halim are both keen to emphasize they are attuned to controversy and even danger that translation into Hebrew may cause the author or publishers. Even though many publishing professionals connect with the organization’s vision, Maktoob still receives more rejections than acceptances. However, she also says that their guard is immediately softened and “they feel more relaxed because Arabs are involved in the process”. The group has acquired several high-profile authors to back their project, including Lebanese writer Elias Khoury and his new novel My Name is Adam. The translation team worked closely with Khoury throughout the process, who believed the project was essential in informing the Israeli public about the Nakba and the Palestinian narrative in general. 

Another novel, Time of White Horses by Ibrahim Nasrallah, spans three generations and goes back 150 years in Palestine, while Amputated Tongue: Palestinian Prose in Hebrew, an anthology of Palestinian prose from several Palestinian writers, animates the groups of Palestinians from whom Israelis may be most detached: in the diaspora, in the West Bank, and in Gaza respectively. 

For Abdul Halim, these books were especially important in showing the Israeli public that people lived and loved in Palestine before Jewish migrants arrived, and that that people in Gaza are more than the caricatured impressions of assailants and victims that they get from the media. She tells me that people are so absorbed in the political situation that such stories are incredibly transgressive and powerful. On the other side of the coin, the project alerts the Arab world to new ways of thinking in Israel. Nasrallah even wrote an Arabic op-ed on the importance of the project.

This does not mean that the world is entirely ready for the project either. Maktoob held eight month negotiations with one Palestinian writer, who ended up rejecting their offer. This was not due to his disagreements with the project, but because he feared that people would not necessarily pay attention to the particularities of Maktoob, given that such a model is a rarity in Israel, and he could end up disgraced, or worse, at risk of danger.

Maktoob’s negotiations always acknowledged these sensitivities and completely respected the right to say no. Abdul Halim claims that they go to great lengths to ensure the participants feel comfortable. For example, they don’t oblige them to sign any official contracts. This, Abdul Halim claims, has won Maktoob many supporters, even among those who do not opt to translate their literature into Hebrew. She cites the ideological motivations behind the project as the key factor behind its success: “We accept this because the main drive for the project is not money. It is political”. 

Members of the translators forum (Photo: Duygu Atlas)
Members of the translators forum (Photo: Duygu Atlas)

‘Shared Sovereignty’

Since the foundation of the Translator’s Forum in 2015 and Maktoob’s first publication in 2017, the group has morphed from a small internal dialogue into a political hub, recruiting over 100 people in less than three years. 

But this has not quenched their ambitions. Shenhav has expressed a desire to co-opt new people into the project, from both older and younger generations. Veteran translators who initially resisted the idea, he claims, are making their first efforts to express themselves in Arabic.

He describes their translation processes as “a political model […] to decolonize the colonial relations between the languages” and to “serve as a model for shared sovereignty in Israel-Palestine in the Middle East, so as to be a model for politics itself”.

Hence, Maktoob is perhaps the only book series where the team are offended if they were described as just a book series. Mendel, for one, prefers the Arabic word haraka (meaning “movement”) to describe what they are trying to achieve. 

This envisioned ‘shared sovereignty’, as Shenhav terms it, does not necessarily translate into established political visions for the territory. Although he is not prescriptive about the form of the solution for Israel-Palestine, he is adamant that the new model must be bi-lingual and bi-national.

For Shenhav, the two-state solution, at least in the Oslo framework, fawned over by the international community, will simply perpetuate separation and conflict. 

To him, it is riddled with contradiction.  

“The two-state solution created a tension and even bifurcation between individual and collective rights.”

“I am so adamantly against the two-state model,” he says. 

Their priorities, he claims, are changing the power relations in translation, in linguistic interactions, and in the hope that this could act as a lodestar for the rest of society.  The group foresees a society based on mutual respect and cooperation, ending separation in every stratum of Israel-Palestine – linguistically, territorially, socioeconomically. With their ties to the rest of the Arab world, the group’s horizons may even expand further.

Can literature change the conversation?

A now infamous review by Benny Ziffer in the culture section of Haaretz claimed that one of Maktoob’s first books, The Bridges of Constantine, by Algerian writer Ahlam Mosteghanemi “glamorized terror”. 

Mendel laughed off this review as “original”: “The book was translated into ten languages over thirty years and had over three hundred reviews, and not one review made this claim”. Although the review got a lot of attention, Mendel claims it should be taken in context. “There were over forty articles in response to the translation, and most of them were positive. Even Israel Hayom [Israel’s most popular right-wing tabloid] published an extremely positive review.” 

Nevertheless, Mendel claims that their collection of short stories from Gaza, Amputated Tongue: Palestinian Prose in Hebrew, was received very positively, despite a number of negative responses. He attributes this mainly to timing: The book was launched during a period of heightened tension with Hamas, and many audience members at the launch event even interjected with anger. These confrontations, however, leave Mendel undeterred and the overal acceptance of the book was great. On top of that, the collective has since been working on another title from Gaza.

The group has also set out to tackle the recent aversion towards the Arabic language among Jews by demonstrating its role in Jewish history: from the Cairo Geniza — with parts of the 400,000 Jewish manuscript fragments even written on papyrus —  to Maimonides, to many twentieth century Iraqi Jewish writers. 

The collective honed in on the rich literary heritage of twentieth century Iraq by translating a novel by the acclaimed Jewish Iraqi writer Samir Naqqash, whose work even won praise from one of the fathers of modern Arabic literature Naguib Mahfouz.

Across the board, Maktoob has already published thirteen books, with another eleven in the works. These texts begin in the tenth century, and span poetry, non-fiction, and even Syrian children’s book, which, alongside Elias Khoury’s latest book, have remarkably sold over 2500 copies each.

But can this project truly break out of the readership of the Journal of Levantine Studies, where they took over two issues, or the Haaretz cultural supplement?

 “We are not going to have a revolution tomorrow,” Abdul Halim says modestly, but she reiterates the importance of opening new conceptual and practical possibilities for organizing. 

“People can see the way we work and can understand that they can do better.”

Before he passed away, Natour delivered a lecture at Tel Aviv University, where he confronted the Israeli Jewish audience with a question: “You Jewish Israelis have to decide: Who are you?  If you came here temporarily, like the British or others did, then we understand your attitude towards Arabic. If you would like to stay here permanently and to be part of this place, you must change your relationship towards Arabs, Arabic, and Arabic culture. This is your key to remaining here.”

Jonathan Shamir
Jonathan Shamir is a news editor at Haaretz.

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Thank you for this illuminating article. It is So bloody sad, not to say racist, Orientalist, that the newbie Hebrew speakers (for what else are they? Hebrew was the language of Religion for over a millennia, not the language of daily speak and what daily speak was depended upon the origins of the Jewish individual: Arabic, Yiddish [Judischer Deutsch], Ladino, surely Persian…) fail to acknowledge, recognize that BOTH languages, Arabic and Hebrew are deeply related,… Read more »

Thanks for this inspiring article. The last paragraph is so true.