Sally Rooney says she banned book translation on political grounds

Normal People author Sally Rooney, 30, says she banned Israeli publisher translating her book into Hebrew on political grounds after critics accused her of anti-Semitism

  • Sally Rooney, 30, was asked by Israeli publisher Modan to translate her new book
  • Author allegedly rejected request due to support of cultural boycott of Israel
  • Miss Rooney’s new book Beautiful World, Where Are You released in September

An award-winning Irish author has defended rejecting an offer from an Israeli publisher to translate her book into Hebrew saying the decision was on political grounds – after critics accused her of anti-Semitism. 

Sally Rooney was asked by Israeli publisher Modan to translate her new book -Beautiful World, Where Are You.

But the 30-year-old author rejected the request because she supports a cultural boycott of Israel.

Miss Rooney’s new book was released in September and topped book charts in the UK and Ireland.

However it was later reported that the writer’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had seen her turn down a translation of her book from Modan.

The row has sparked a wave of criticism against the author and screenwriter, whose book Normal People won a series of awards and was later adapted into a BBC TV drama. 

Some took to social media to accuse Miss Rooney’s decision as ‘anti-Semitic’, while others questioned why her books were published for an audience in China – which has been accused of human rights abuses over its treatment of Uighur Muslims. 

But the author today defended her decision – which she said was not to have the book published by an Israeli-based publishing house – and that the Hebrew language rights were ‘still available’. 

Writing in a statement, Rooney said:  ‘Earlier this year, the international campaign group Human Rights Watch published a report entitled A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.

Sally Rooney, 30, was asked by Israeli publisher Modan to translate her new book -Beautiful World, Where Are You – but the author allegedly rejected the request

Miss Rooney’s Normal People was later adapted into an acclaimed BBC series in 2020

Beautiful World, Where Are You follows the life of novelist Alice after she asks a distribution warehouse worker to travel to Rome with her

Who is Sally Rooney? 

In the world of fiction writing, Sally Rooney’s rise to fame has been meteoric – but not one she always welcomes.

The Irish author, 30, burst onto the scene in 2017 with her book Conversation with Friends – which earned her that year’s Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award.

Her next book, Normal People, not only accelerated her success, it propelled her into becoming one of the most prominent millennial writers, selling over a million copies.

It was also adapted into an equally popular BBC drama, of the same name.

Consequently, there has been much anticipation for her third book, Beautiful World, Where Are You. 

Announced in 2019 it was finally published last month.

But with success has brought a certain degree of controversy for the Irish author.

Born to a telecoms worker father and arts centre manager mother in County Mayo, Ireland, Rooney described herself as a ‘loner’ growing up.

But she found a voice while at university at Trinity College Dublin, where she studied English.

It was here she, in her third year, she was involved in a successful campaign to stop the BNP leader at the time, Nick Griffin, appearing at the debating society.

However she told the Time she is ‘a borderline controversially strong advocate of free speech’ – even on hate speech.’

‘I feel hesitant to allow the government power to legislate, she told the Times.

Adding: ‘I believe very strongly in the informal regulation of protests and no-platforming.’

A self-confessed Marxist, she has also been vocal about her industry.

In a Youtube interview, named ‘Writing with Marxism’, she said: ‘The way I see the world today is most through a Marxist framework. And I’m never quite sure how to make that way of thinking sit alongside the fiction that I write. I don’t know what it means to write a Marxist role.

‘Even though that’s the analytical structure that helps me to make sense of the world around me, I can’t necessarily can’t always accommodate that structure in the form of a novel.

‘The one way that influences my work is that I write a lot about social class, but I don’t think there’s a straightforward way of doing that.’

Controversy for Rooney first struck in 2017 after an interview in the Irish Independent in which she criticised prominent Irish Poet William Butler Yeats.

She said: ‘I hate Yeats!’

‘A lot of his poems are not very good but some are obviously okay. But how has he become this sort of emblem of literary Irishness when he was this horrible man?

‘He was a huge fan of Mussolini, he was really into fascism, he believed deeply in the idea of a ‘noble class’ who are superior by birth to the plebs. And he was in the Senate.

‘He wasn’t just this harmless weirdo who wrote poetry. People misinterpret him in this country, and when we’re taught about him in school, it’s just hagiography.’

She later described her comments, just before the release of Conversations With Friends, as ‘ill-advised’.

The success of her book also bought unwelcome fame for Rooney.

In a Guardian article earlier this year she said the ‘hell” of fame is that of a person ‘enduring variably serious invasions of their privacy from the media, from obsessive fans, and from people motivated by obsessive hatred’.

She also told the New Yorker earlier this year that novelists were given ‘too much cultural prominence’.

 

‘That report, coming on the heels of a similarly damning report by Israel’s most prominent human rights organization B’Tselem, confirmed what Palestinian human rights groups have long been saying: Israel’s system of racial domination and segregation against Palestinians meets the definition of apartheid under international law.

‘Of course, many states other than Israel are guilty of grievous human rights abuses.

‘This was also true of South Africa during the campaign against apartheid there. 

‘In this particular case, I am responding to the call from Palestinian civil society, including all major Palestinian trade unions and writers’ unions.’

She added that the Hebrew-language translation rights were ‘still available’ to those ‘compliant’ with the BDS movement – a Palestinian-led movement promoting boycotts, divestments, and economic sanctions against Israel.

She added: ‘I will be very pleased and proud to do so. In the meantime I would like to express once again my solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom, justice and equality.’

It comes after The New York Times published an interview with Miss Rooney in September. This was then translated into Hebrew and published with more details by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Haaretz reported: ‘When Modan approached Rooney’s agent in an attempt to sign another translation deal, the agent announced that Rooney supports the cultural boycott movement on Israel and therefore does not approve translation into Hebrew.’ 

Miss Rooney’s agent, Tracy Bohan, said the author had declined the translation when approached for comment, according to Haaretz.

The two previous novels written by Miss Rooney, Conversations With Friends and Normal People, have both been published in Hebrew by Modan.

Miss Rooney’s support for a boycott of Israel has seen her sign an open letter which called for ‘an end to the support provided by global powers to Israel and its military; especially the United States’ and also urged governments to ‘cut trade, economic and cultural relations’.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency also noted that in her second novel, Normal People, the main characters attend a protest against Israel’s role in the 2014 Gaza war.

Academic Gitit Levy-Paz highlighted the boycott revelation last night in a blog post on the website Forward.

She wrote: ‘Rooney’s decision surprised and saddened me. I am a Jewish and Israeli woman, but I am also a literary scholar who believes in the universal power of art.’

Meanwhile Ben Judah, a British author and journalist, wrote on Twitter: ‘Depressing and unpleasant that Sally Rooney won’t allow her new novel to be translated into Hebrew.’

Another critic of the decision was Ruth Franklin, author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. She said: ‘Sally Rooney’s novels are available in Chinese and Russian.

‘Doesn’t she care about the Uighurs? Or Putin-defying journalists? To judge Israel by a different standard than the rest of the world is antisemitism.’

Joel M Petlin, Superintendent of the Kiryas Joel School District, in New York state, also criticised Miss Rooney’s stance, saying: ‘When Sally Rooney books are translated into Yiddish then we can stop calling her an anti-Semite. Until then, the label is well deserved.’ 

Meanwhile, Ron Kampeas, the Washington, D.C. bureau chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, urged Miss Rooney to distinguish between boycotting an Israeli publisher and the Hebrew language. 

He said: ‘The Internet has been around for quite some time now. If you’re Sally Rooney and you’re boycotting Israeli publishers there are ways to make a text available in Hebrew to make clear you are not boycotting a culture, a people, an ethnicity.

Asked if it was her responsibility to have the texts translated, he replied: ‘It’s not her responsibility, no. But unlike a boycott of, say, a book festival in Israel, or a university symposium, this involves keeping the book from appearing in a Jewish language. I think it behooves a writer to explain that they would not object to translation per se.’  

Today Ms Rooney defended her decision, saying in a statement: ‘Earlier this year, the international campaign group Human Rights Watch published a report entitled A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.’

She also addressed criticism that her books were translated into other languages from countries which have come under scrutiny for human rights abuses

She added that the Hebrew-language translation rights were ‘still available’ to those ‘compliant’ with the BDS movement – a Palestinian-led movement promoting boycotts, divestments, and economic sanctions against Israel

Miss Rooney’s three novels are renowned for their minimalist writing style and melancholy depiction of life in post-financial crisis Ireland. Her work also addresses tensions between Ireland’s working and middle classes.

She won four book awards in the UK, including Young Writer of the Year by the Sunday Times in 2017 and the Costa Book award in 2018.

Normal People, based on the on-off relationship between Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron during their youth, was adapted into an acclaimed BBC series in 2020.

Following the show’s success Miss Rooney described the downfalls of fame.

She told The Guardian: ‘Of course, that person could stop doing whatever it is they’re good at, in order to be allowed to retire from public life, but that seems to me like a big sacrifice on their part and an exercise in cultural self-destruction for the rest of us, forcing talented people either to endure hell or keep their talents to themselves.

‘I don’t think it is graceless for people in those positions to speak out about how poisonous this system is. It doesn’t seem to work in any real way for anyone, except presumably some shareholders somewhere.’  

Her latest novel Beautiful World, Where Are You follows the life of novelist Alice after she asks a distribution warehouse worker to travel to Rome with her.  

In 2018, Miss Rooney told The Daily Telegraph that she struggled with socialising while growing up, despite her newfound status as the voice of the so-called ‘millennial’ generation.

She said: ‘I thought school was immensely boring and, as a teenager, I often found social life quite mystifying…I was not someone to whom it came easily to be charming.’

A spokesman for Modan told The Daily Telegraph it would not be publishing Rooney’s third novel but declined to say whether this was due to a boycott. 

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