Successful Irish novelist Sally Rooney joined the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement by refusing an offer from the Israeli publishing house Modan to translate and publish her latest novel, “Beautiful World, Where Are You?” in Hebrew.
Rooney joins leading writers such as Arundhati Roy, China Miéville, Junot Diaz and more. Alice Walker, commonly cited as one of the main literary proponents of BDS, actually published “The Color Purple” in a Hebrew edition in 1986 and more than 25 years later refused to authorize a new translation. Rooney made a similar antagonistic change, as she had previously published two novels in translation via Modan.
Sometimes there are mixed messages, like when Viet Nguyen, who supported BDS shortly after winning the Pulitzer Prize, then posted a photo on Facebook of himself holding up a new Hebrew translation of “The Sympathizer” . The late Henning Mankell, who was committed to the Palestinian cause, said his books would no longer be translated and sold in Israel, then later left the stand.
Literary BDS speaks of a desire to close communication with at least half of the Jewish world and will come in the long term. Translation and its massive force in the global publishing industry is far more powerful than the refusal of a writer, or a group of writers, to allow their work to be translated into a specific language.
Seen in this global context, Rooney’s decision is not a moment of ethical clarity but of blindness. She refuses to see that the translation speaks to readers, not governments and their policies. If observance of human rights were Rooney’s true standard, then his list of translation editions would boil down to a small handful of national languages of which deserving countries have commendable records.
The question of why Rooney allows Chinese translations of his work, given the oppression suffered by the Uyghur and Tibetan peoples, remains relevant. Double standards speak of discrimination and bigotry.
Somehow, Rooney and other BDS supporters expect the diasporic half of the Jewish world to do nothing, or indulge in a false political fantasy of widespread Jewish anti-Zionism that supports the boycott of Israel. Quite the opposite can be observed. The spread of BDS anti-Semitism, particularly in university districts, has provoked a strong reaction of intellectual and activist engagement with the revival of anti-Semitism.
Much of this reaction has focused on the recognition of BDS as a contemporary form of racism. The idea that the moral improvement and conversion of Jews can be effected through communal isolation and boycott is perhaps the oldest form of organized racism in Western history. He gave birth to the ghetto.
This concept of animating BDS dates back at least to medieval Europe and efforts to stigmatize, isolate and then destroy Jewish communities. BDS appropriates the rhetoric of human rights and marries it with a very old and loathsome idea in order to aim for nothing less than the liquidation of the Jewish homeland.
Cross-cultural forms of expression such as literary translation, music and art are the antithesis of containment, making it a particular challenge for those who demonize Israel and demand its expulsion from global civil society.
Rooney and other supporters of targeted cultural rejection have forgotten that translation thrives despite political animosities and boycotts. It effortlessly crosses borders, prohibitions, and copyright conventions (hundreds of unauthorized online translations of JK Rowling and JRR Tolkien attest to the latter point).
A long-time retired Peking University colleague reminded me of how during the Cultural Revolution she and a few friends made an unauthorized Chinese translation of Erich Segal’s 1970 romance, “Love Story.” . There was no hope of publication for a text that would have been condemned as decadent, anti-revolutionary bourgeois American trash. Despite the danger of denunciation and severe punishment, they circulated the novel in typewritten copies and had fun.
When Sino-American relations were non-existent in the 1950s, Chinese translations of American literature were significantly more numerous than before the Chinese revolution of 1949. Many unauthorized Hebrew translations of Arab writers appeared in the 1950s and 1960 despite an official boycott of the Arab League. Joseph Brodsky and others produced underground translations of samizdat into Russian which infiltrated the anti-Stalinist intelligentsia of the former Soviet Union with profound effect.
Translation to and from Hebrew won’t slow down or stop because of a writer’s much publicized decree. Hebrew remains borderless and a vigorous participant in world literary culture. Jn
Joe Lockard is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Arizona State University.