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The real reason Sally Rooney won’t publish her new book in Hebrew is being lost in all the outrage


By Sarah Finnan
13th Oct 2021
The real reason Sally Rooney won’t publish her new book in Hebrew is being lost in all the outrage

Sally Rooney refused to let her new novel be translated into Hebrew… but do you actually know why?

Sally Rooney seems to ignite a sense of fury amongst the public like no other. She’s a divisive character – always has been, as her former Trinity peers will tell you – people either love her or loathe her. There’s no grey area to speak of.

Discourse usually strays from her books and writing style to conversations about her as a person. We love to hypothesise about the notoriously private author’s life and it’s something she reflects upon in her latest novel, Beautiful World, Where are You?. A famous young author with fame thrust upon her following the publication of two wildly successful novels when she was just fresh out of university (sound familiar?) struggles with the superfluity nature of her fame as a writer of fiction and the guilt that comes with such celebrity and fortune.

But while many of us might be able to separate her fiction from her right to privacy, the world is typically only more intrigued by such anonymity. Which is why the outrage surrounding Rooney’s latest publishing decision doesn’t come as a surprise. For anyone not up-to-date, the Mayo writer has found herself at the centre of international controversy this week after refusing to allow her new book to be translated into Hebrew by an Israeli company. 

Citing her support of the free Palestine movement as the reasoning behind the decision, many were quick to jump to conclusions and stopped reading before they got to the latter part of the above sentence. “Sally Rooney won’t let her book be translated into Hebrew!” the critics exclaimed. “What a horrid wench!”. People want to villainise her, so they do. Why wait for an explanation when you can come up with your own? 

Since addressing the huge public outcry that followed her decision, Rooney issued a statement in response to the situation last night. It reads: 

“Firstly, I was very proud to have my previous two novels translated into Hebrew by Katya Benovits. I would like to thank everyone involved in the publication of those books for supporting my work. Likewise, it would be an honour for me to have my latest novel translated into Hebrew and available to Hebrew-language readers. But for the moment, I have chosen not to sell those translation rights to an Israeli-based publishing house. 

“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’. That report, coming on the heels of a similarly damning report by Israel’s most prominent human rights organisation 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. 

“The Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement is a Palestinian-led, anti-racist and nonviolent grassroots campaign calling for economic and cultural boycott of complicit Israeli companies and institutions in response to the apartheid system and other grave human rights violations. It is modelled on the economic and cultural boycott that helped to end apartheid in South Africa. 

“Of course, many states other than Israel are guilty of grievous human rights abuses,” she continued. “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.

“I understand that not everyone will agree with my decision, but I simply do not feel it would be right for me under the present circumstances to accept a new contract with an Israeli company that does not publicly distance itself from apartheid and support the UN-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people.

“The Hebrew-language translation rights to my new novel are still available, and if I can find a way to sell these rights that is compliant with the BDS movement’s institutional boycott guidelines, I will be very pleased and proud to do so,” she finished. 

Rooney is not saying that she doesn’t wish for Beautiful World, Where Are You to be translated into Hebrew, nor is she saying that this particular “no” means that it won’t happen down the line either. It’s not about the translation at all. She is refusing to sell the rights for her book to an Israeli-based publishing house that doesn’t publicly denounce apartheid. How one could argue that it’s not a very fair and reasonable explanation, is puzzling, to say the least. 

The media frenzy that ensued her decision is a microcosm of how all Rooney coverage tends to go, though. Headlines shout that she won’t publish her book in Hebrew to get clicks. People see said headlines, don’t read the full articles, and then form their own opinions based on only half the details. It’s a tale as old as time, and one that will probably keep happening for many more years to come too. 

Rooney hardly needs to run things in front of the world stage before making a decision, but the public outrage clouds the true issue; how to help Palestine and end apartheid. And one more time for the people in the back: your feelings about Sally Rooney are irrelevant here.