Sally Rooney’s decision to refuse the translation rights of her latest novel to “Israeli-based” publishers has implications not just for BDS, but for the greater dialogue across languages.
While Rooney clarified her position to state that she is not boycotting Hebrew, the prospect of a widely-available Hebrew translation not published in Israel seems unlikely. In effect, some translators in Israel say, the cultural embargo silences Rooney‘s most effective tool for change: her own voice.
“I think that if she really wants to make a difference, she should use her talents to write about what bothers her,” said Joanna Chen, a translator to English who has worked with Israeli authors who write in Hebrew as well as Arabic-writing Palestinian authors like the poet Dareen Tatour, who was imprisoned for a poem ruled by an Israeli court to be an incitement to violence. (Tatour’s conviction was later partially appealed.)
“I think as a committed writer, she should really be upholding the idea of a fertile exchange of ideas and opinion,” Chen said of Rooney. “And I do think that by what appears to be blocking Hebrew-language readers from enjoying her books, I think that she’s doing the art of writing a disservice.”
Chen doesn’t believe that Rooney’s choice will result in an “avalanche” of imitators, but said that it runs counter to her own translation philosophy, which considers literature as a cultural exchange, whether or not she agrees with everything the author wrote.
“The whole thing of literary translation is to make it accessible,” Chen said. “You know, Cynthia Ozick, I always go back to this, she said that ‘a translation can serve as the lens into the underground life of another culture.’ This is exactly what I want to do when I translate.”
Chen suggested that Rooney would be better served by penning a letter to the Israeli people, translated to Hebrew, explaining her decision. But, Chen added, Rooney should not expect her former literary home in Israel, Modan Publishing House, or any Israeli publisher to “sign a document” disavowing the actions of their country.
Yardenne Greenspan, a native of Tel Aviv who has translated the work of Israeli authors Yishai Sarid and Shimon Adaf, believes Rooney is entitled to make her own choices with regards to her work.
“At the same time, I’m a strong believer in the power of literature to alter consciousness and of translation in particular to open minds and hearts,” Greenspan wrote in an email. “As a translator, I feel that my most crucial function is that of an envoy, introducing unfamiliar ideas to a new audience. If Rooney wants to inspire change (in Israel or elsewhere), I think she would do much better to use her writing to send the message she wants her readers to receive, in the language they understand best.”
Asked about Rooney’s stated openness to publishing in Hebrew, but not in Israel, Greenspan said “since Israel is the lingual and cultural center of Hebrew literature, a decision to boycott Israeli publishers is, de facto, a decision to boycott Hebrew, and therefore remove Hebrew readers from the conversation.”
Reflecting on Rooney, Aliza Raz-Melzer recalled a famous incident involving her friend Amos Oz. The late Israeli author caused an uproar in the country when he gave Marwan Barghouti a copy of “A Tale of Love and Darkness” while the Palestinian politician was in prison for murder.
“When you just look at that action, that’s exactly what has to be done if you want to reach the other side, if you want to reach people of other opinions,” Raz-Melzer said.
Raz-Melzer, who translates books to Hebrew, emphasized that she is not necessarily opposed to the BDS movement, but never thought of literature as a part of it. Economically, she believes, it will not make much of a difference.
But, Raz-Melzer argues Rooney’s writing, which addressed the Israeli occupation in her debut novel, “Conversations with Friends,” does have the power to change minds.
“I’m really sorry that she is not taking advantage of what she really knows how to do and that is write — she’s a very talented writer — and influence people’s opinions by writing,” Raz-Melzer said. “What’s the point of people not reading your book in Hebrew?”
“When you translate a book or anything what you’re doing is you’re making it known to people who are not of your language, or of your culture,” Raz-Melzer said. “What she’s doing is anti-translation. What she’s really doing is blocking the dialogue by not allowing it to be translated.”
But Rooney, in her contentious decision, has picked up at least one reader in Israel.
“I want to read her new book,” Chen said. “I actually want to read it now, and I can. You know why? Because it’s in English.”
What do translators think of the Rooney book in limbo?