It turns out that there are moves afoot to change the dialogue in the Famous Five books in order to make them more accessible to contemporary children. Some independent research has suggested that they find words like luncheon and squared (in the sense of sorted out or reconciled) difficult to get past. The initiative has come from the publishers who appear to have the rights to the novels, and to me it appears to be entirely commercial. If you’re going to sell more copies of Five Examine Their Responses To Anxiety And Stress by modernising the dialogue, then I guess it’s a no-brainer to do so.
The flip side of this argument is that texts are artefacts that have cultural significance, and that interfering with them is an act of vandalism. As the BBC Breakfast presenter pointed out, few people would have any time for someone who wanted to modernise the dialogue in Dickens novels. It’s the issue of whether the sanctity of the artefact is more important than how it meshes with modern culture. If it doesn’t mesh, then do the work to make it mesh. Learn the old vocabulary and the quirks of the old syntax – now a much easier undertaking in the mindset of the Googleverse. Some might say. Others might say that texts are and always have been essentially fluid, so the notion of sanctity is necessarily a slippery one. Chaucer’s work was never printed in his lifetime: the technology did not exist. Does that mean that we should really only distribute copies of his work in medieval handwriting? What we take to be authoritative versions of Shakespeare plays, widely studied in schools an universities, are the product of centuries of editing – modernised spelling, choices made by editors between disputed alternative versions, modernised punctuation, added scene divisions. The text we now read is quite a long way from editions published at time the plays were performed.
Translations. Is the Russian version of The Philosopher’s Stone actually a different novel? Languages divide the world up differently from each other, and our reality is very much determined by our native language. If we shouldn’t modernise Enid Blyton, should we therefore not translate Tolstoy but learn Russian instead? There’s also the argument that the practice of modernising old stories is not new. Witness Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare (1807).
I think in the end I’m on the side of expecting kids to deal with words like gosh. They’re perhaps a bit alienating, but children need to learn the habit of thinking about words and expanding their vocabulary. The mode in which a text is presented need not necessarily be the idiom of the moment.
The real test of a committed publisher would be providing free upgrades to the latest editions of a text, once you had bought the first edition. Now that would be something.
In other news, the hole our roof is finally fixed. Bring on the rain. It was nothing major – just some flashing near a chimney and a couple of slates. But breaches in your domestic space, especially from above, do create a sense of unease. So they do.