Sally Rooney & Supporting Human Rights

Image Credit: Josephin Bauer

Anna Blackburn explains what happened with all the bad press surrounding Sally Rooney’s most recent publication and why authorial rights are so important.

Earlier this month, it was announced that several bookshops in Israel would pull all work written by Sally Rooney from their shelves, as a result of her refusal to let the Israeli publishing house, Modan, translate her latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, into Hebrew. This decision led to the media’s misinterpretation of her decision and critcism of the author, with some publications even going so far as to call her ‘anti-semitic’. However, this is not the case, and even if it were, Rooney’s decision to do so is protected by her rights as an author. 

Her first two novels, Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), were, in fact, translated by the same publishing house which she this time denied. Rooney explained that her decision was due to an issue in support of human rights being denied to Palestinians currently living in Israel. The author stated that it was the release of “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution” on the website eHuman Rights Watch (HRW) on 27 April, 2021 which caused her to make this decision. HRW states that “Israeli authorities have facilitated the transfer of Jewish Israelis to the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territory] and granted them a superior status under the law as compared to Palestinians living in the same territory when it comes to civil rights, access to land, and freedom to move, build, and confer residency rights to close relatives”. 

Sally Rooney was not the first to deny the translation of her work into Herbrew in the name of human rights.

This is not the first time Rooney has shown her support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), a group led by Palestinians to boycott Israeli companies and institutions which infringe upon the rights of Palestinians living in the OPT. Rooney also showed her support by signing A Letter Against Apartheid which calls to action the “immadiate cessation of Israeli violence against Palestinians”. She was not the only celebrity to support this claim. Marvel superhero, Mark Ruffalo, was one of the first to sign the letter in addition to thousands of other artists, writers, and Hollywood celebrities. Salley Rooney was not the first to deny the translation rights of her work in the name of human rights. Time Magazine noted that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker refused to publish an Isreli edition of The Color Purple in 2012 due to her belief that Israel was guilty of human rights violations against Palestinians. 

Needless to say this is a decades old issue which has continued to spark activism all over the world. However, not everyone agrees that denying the rights to translate a novel is an appropriate action. One of the beauties of literature is its ability to be shared and appreciated on a global scale, with every story providing not only entertainment but a new perspective on life. An article in Forward, written by Gitit Levy-Paz, argues that the universal value of art and literature is “negated by Rooney’s choice to exclude a group of readers because of their national identity”. In an even more extreme sense, public affairs consultant Gerard Howlin tweeted that the denial of her books to be translated into Hebrew is similar to that of burning books. In addition to this, many others have written opinion pieces about Sally Rooney “denying” Hebrew-speaking readers the opportunity to read her latest novel, a decision which was misconstrued as Rooney stated that she would happily allow Beautiful World to be translated into Hebrew so long as it be translated and distributed in compliance with Palestinian human rights. These misconceptions were a result of Modan Publishing House allegedly not initially being given a reason for the decision, but when the matter was made public, Rooney made an official statement to the press clarifying her decision. Below is an excerpt from her official statement to The Independent:

“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. In the meantime I would like to express once again my solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom, justice and equality. Thank you.”

While comparing Rooney’s decision to that of burning books is quite extreme, authors possess the creative rights to their work. The translation rights would technically be a decision made by the publishers (depending on the contract), however Rooney has made a name for herself that allows her to have control over such decisions. While I understand how denying a book to be translated into a specific language could be considered racist, that is not what Rooney is doing. Literary agent, Deborah Harris, told The New York Times that she has “a very, very hard time seeing how this can be productive in changing anything...What literature is supposed to do is reach into the hearts and minds of people.” However, I disagree with Harris’ statement. As literature seems to play such an important role in society, due to all of the press surrounding this particular topic, Rooney’s decision seems to be an incredibly effective one. It may not convince the Israeli government to change their ways, but it sheds light on a subject and brings the issue once again to the forefront of world news.

Rooney is using her position as a celebrity and an artist to help change the world. Actors do not have the same opportunity for such change as they do not own the rights to their films, but artists and writers, those who have the means and ability to interpret our world into the universal language, should be doing more to follow in the footsteps of Rooney. The decision to do so is clearly a touchy subject. The media’s influence over the success of a novel is arguably greater than it should be. Some may also argue that in addition to Rooney’s genuine support of the crimes Israel continues to commit against Palenstine, a publicity ‘scandal’ such as this will have influenced an increase in sales. Sally Rooney was well within her rights as an artist to refuse Modan Publishing House from translating her novel into Hebrew. However, the media, and writers who have failed to do thorough research on the subject, have caused a great amount of bad press surrounding her newest novel and the author herself. 

...but artists and writers, those who have the means and ability to interpret our world into the universal language, should be doing more to follow in the footsteps of Rooney

The fact of the matter is that Rooney has not prohibited the translation of her work into Hebrew, she is simply being selective about who has her permission to do the translating. Her decision is one of protest against Modan, not racism against Hebrews. Without protest, there is rarely action, and Rooney has been brave to take a stand on behalf of human rights. She deserves for her story to be told accurately, without bias, so readers are not misled.