Translatable but Debatable – ספרות מגויסת, the literature of shared commitment

by Mark L. Levinson

Social scientist Rina Yitzhaki calls ספרות מגויסת (sifrut m’guyesset) “perhaps the oldest genre since books began (aside from scripture) that attempts to pass the foundations of belief, the body of values, to young people.  Whether the context was a religion, a movement, a political party, or even a code of etiquette, everyone understood and considered books to be an important tool in conveying the heritage.”*  But — correct me if I’m wrong — the term sifrut m’guyesset appears to have entered Hebrew by way of mid-twentieth-century French, where Sartre popularized the term littérature engagée.  Much earlier Hebrew work is certainly termed sifrut m’guyesset, but in retrospect.  Sartre wrote (in Bernard Frechtman’s translation):

... the prose-writer is a man who has chosen a certain method of secondary action which we may call action by disclosure. It is therefore permissible to ask him this second question: “What aspect of the world do you want to disclose? What change do you want to bring into the world by this disclosure?” The “engaged” writer knows that words are action. He knows that to reveal is to change and that one can reveal only by planning to change. He has given up the impossible dream of giving an impartial picture of Society and the human condition. Man is the being toward whom no being can be impartial, not even God.

So sifrut m’guyesset is littérature engagée and that’s literally “engaged” literature, although there are those who prefer not to make the jump from French to English and who refer in English to littérature engagée because “engaged” has too many meanings in English.  Introducing a 1988 edition of Sartre essays, Steven Ungar writes, “I have retained the original French in place of the expression ‘engaged literature’ used by Bernard Frechtman” and explains that if it were up to him the term would be “committed literature” because, among other reasons, “the transitive use of the verb ‘commit’ denotes the conscious assertion of value that the concept is intended to convey.”

The Britannica uses the French term and explains it as “literature of commitment.”  It calls the notion “an application to art of a basic existentialist tenet: that a person defines himself by consciously engaging in willed action.”

A page on the Tel Aviv University website refers to sifrut m’guyesset as “militant literature,” a translation worth mentioning although whoever prepared the English on that page was apparently drunk, or a robot, or both.

Todd Hasak-Lowy, in his book Here and Now: History, Nationalism, and Realism in Modern Hebrew Fiction, translates the Hebrew term as “mobilized literature.”

Personally I appreciate “mobilized” as a translation of the Hebrew because whereas Sartre was trying to distinguish an individualistic littérature engagée from already unfashionable socialist realism, in Hebrew the term sifrut m’guyesset retains the association of groupthink, of being enlisted or drafted or inducted for purposes of agitprop or other propaganda rather than thoughtfully asserting beliefs one has formulated as an individual.  It conveys that passivity which Steven Ungar disliked.  Today Israeli literary movements both on the left (see On the Left Side if you read Hebrew) and on the right (Shirim, also in Hebrew) take pains to deny that the Hebrew adjective applies to them, and the same goes for Israeli cinema and other Israeli arts.

Nonetheless, the French term littérature engagée is a parent that can’t be turned away.  Some writers extend the literal English translation with an adverb, referring to “socially engaged literature” or “politically engaged literature.”  That may be the way to go when translating the Hebrew as well, especially if no offense is intended.

As always, and even more (because I’m no expert on either French or Hebrew literary movements), your comments on the term of the month are welcome below.  If you’d like to suggest a different term for discussion here, please do send it to .  I was hibernating for a few weeks and temporarily failed to notice some messages there, but the warm spell has put me to rights.

* The quotation from Rina Yitzhaki is in my own translation.