Messing With Books: A Guest Post by Gerri Brightwell

My middle son, Ross, has been ploughing his way through the Harry Potter series. He sits in our armchair with his legs dangling and a hefty book in his lap, and doesn’t hear when I call him for dinner. Sometimes we read together, but less often than last year when he needed help getting through the first Harry Potter book. Now he’s onto book six and charges through whole chapters on his own so that, when I read with him, I’m parachuted into the story.

Here’s the other thing that’s changed: the language we’re reading. Our copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is (as you’ll have twigged from the title) the British edition of the first book. After living away from Britain for years, it felt odd to read jumper for sweater or sweets for candy. Yes, I had to remind myself, that used to be my language. When you live abroad you learn to edit yourself. You soon find out which expressions are met with blank stares or sniggers and stop using them (back in the long-ago days when I smoked, I once came out with, “Can I bum a fag off you?”—my Canadian husband has made me promise never, ever, to say that again).

Reading the American edition of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire with Ross, I found myself editing the Britishness back in. It was one thing that the spelling was American, but quite another to find that Hermione “leaned toward Harry.” I converted it back to “leaned towards Harry.” Ross, who’s usually eagled-eyed, missed that small verbal edit, but he didn’t miss me changing “gotten” to “got.” I had some explaining to do: “Well,” I told him, “all these characters are British, and ‘gotten’ is American—it doesn’t fit.”

Being seven, Ross told me to get on with the story and not mess with it. But, I thought, it has already been messed with. It’s bad enough to change the spelling, but to change words and give the book an occasional American accent—what’s to be gained by that? Is British English incomprehensible? Or somehow offensive? Why did the publisher want the book to sound more American, or at least less British? It’s no more excusable than a British edition of Chandler’s The Big Sleep in which Philip Marlowe arrives at the Sternwood mansion and describes a stained-glass panel showing “a knight in dark armour.” Now, tell me that you didn’t notice that extra U. Doesn’t it look just a little—well—un-American for so very American a character?

When you read Ian McEwan’s Atonement in the States, you’re not reading quite what Ian McEwan wrote—colour is color, centre is center, despite the premise of the novel that it’s a story written by its British narrator. You might not notice—but I think you would notice the colour in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and be reminded that your narrator isn’t American. The world isn’t flat. English in the States is not the same as in Britain, or Canada, or Australia. Why do publishers (at least some of them) insist on smoothing out the differences? Do they think readers will be tripped up by them? Are readers really so bumbling?

The question became pressing to me when the proofs for my novel The Dark Lantern (which is set in late-Victorian London) came back not only with American spelling but with other changes, such as areaway (which means nothing in Britain, and probably means nothing to most Americans) substituted for area (the sunken area outside a basement kitchen). I persuaded my publisher that such vocabulary changes were nonsensical, but I lost the fight on the spelling—“We’re an American publishing house,” I was told, “so we use American conventions.”

It’s a strange business, this translation of one English into another. Over here, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone became Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, despite the fact that the philosopher’s stone existed, as an ideal if not an object, whereas a “sorcerer’s stone” is pure, rootless invention. What do we gain from such messing with our books? Nothing much, I’d say. But we lose a lot. A couple of years ago when I flipped through an American children’s edition of Treasure Island that I’d planned to read with my sons and found Jim Hawkins talking about dollars and cents, I hurried the book out of the house. What can I say? I don’t want my children to be misinformed; I don’t want them coddled into thinking that everywhere is like here, the country they already know. Reading is about learning, isn’t it?

Originally from south-west England, Gerri Brightwell first came to Alaska in 1991 for three years but, after time away in Bangkok and Minneapolis, returned in 2004 to teach in the MFA program at UAF. Set in the late Victorian era, her novel The Dark Lantern considers secrets coming to light and respectable people not being all that they seem—or that they should be.

3 thoughts on “Messing With Books: A Guest Post by Gerri Brightwell”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Good post, and I'm so looking forward to reading The Dark Lantern, Gerri. As an American who lived in Canada for two years, those little details (like colour, and even the difference of toward vs towards) do signal something for me as well. The reading voice in my head starts using a slightly different accent, which flavors (or flavours) the book.

  2. Lynn Lovegreen

    I grew up reading both American and English versions of books, and kind of liked finding "colour" instead of "color" and such. It added an exotic touch. I'm sorry our kids won't see that so often. And messing with the vocabulary too, how sad!

  3. Great post, Geri. But it works both ways, as we're finding out here in Europe. English editions of American books get their American spellings Britified, and that's been going on at least as far back as Moby-Dick. Even an interview of an American celebrity we saw last week had him referring to his "mum." It ain't only the Americans who are at risk of thinking the whole world sounds more like them than it does.

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