Friday, May 23, 2008

Of References and Readers

In the course of a recent child_lit discussion about food in children's literature, specifically in the Chronicles of Narnia, a listmember remarked "But [children] don’t easily tolerate something that’s assumed to be normal but isn’t normal to them. What do all our brilliant editors – Cheryl? – think on this point?" I wrote a response that I thought might interest some of you, so I'm cross-posting it here, with some amendments. (And yes, I admit I'm posting tonight partly to make another diagonal line in the calendar.)

I work on a lot of translations, so I usually deal with this problem not so much in terms of outdated references [the problem that Narnia presented us for discussion] as cultural unfamiliarity. . . . For instance, in the first-draft translation of our marvelous Japanese fantasy novel out this month, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Chapter 2 described the main character as taking a bath indoors in a bathhouse, then going outdoors to another hot pool in the garden. This is of course entirely standard behavior in Japan, where bathhouses are an established part of the culture, but it would seem odd to an American child, who would be much more likely to view a bath as a place for hygiene than for relaxation or socialization (and two baths -- perish the thought!). Taken to the word level, this is also the debate over "Americanizing" British or Australian texts -- changing "jumpers" to "sweaters" -- and even in American books, we deal with it in "aging" a text: Will a third-grader understand the word "anticipation"?

The editorial options when faced with something that would likely be strange or difficult for the target audience are:

  1. To let it stand as-is: The reader can pick it up from context, or it's not significant enough in the overall reading experience to change, or it can be looked up, or it's a mystery whose answer they can discover as they age. (I'm still learning some of the references in the Lord Peter Wimsey novels -- "Vagula, blandula," anyone?)
  2. To emotionally contextualize the reference: The Narnian example we were dealing with on child_lit was that Father Christmas gives the Pevensies a tea tray for Christmas, which would be a wonderfully luxurious present amidst the privations of WWII but perhaps makes less sense to the well-fed children of the post-war years. But if the books were revised so it was established in the text that the Pevensies were usually very hungry, that they never saw sugar or hot tea or any of the other delicious things on a tea tray, then we readers might have the same reaction to the tea tray that they do, and the reference would make perfect sense. [Note that I am not advocating that such a change be made -- I'm just observing one way that the problem might be solved.] Or, in the third-grade book, if you see the kid simmering with excitement about getting to see his new baby brother, jumping up and down as his father escorts him down the halls of the hospital, then the meaning of "anticipation" should be clear.
  3. To explain the reference outside the narrative text: For instance, in the lovely Australian novel The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley, which we published a few years ago, my boss Arthur Levine suggested to the author, Martine Murray, that we add a glossary at the back of the book to define fun Aussie terms like "footy" and "drongo" and "hoon around." This allowed us to keep those words but also to feel that the reader wouldn't be totally lost in the language. E. Lockhart also does this in her most excellent The Boyfriend List and The Boy Book -- the main character Ruby Oliver is a huge movie buff, and when she refers to an old film most contemporary teenagers might not have seen, she uses a footnote to explain the reference. (E. recently had a post on her blog asking teenage readers to fill out a survey about what references they recognized and what needed footnotes for the third Ruby book -- a pretty smart use of the Internet, I thought.)
  4. To change it: "jumper" to "sweater," or "anticipation" to "excitement," or just by adding a little context. In our wonderful Spring 2009 novel Marcelo in the Real World, the religiously-interested narrator refers in passing to Ezekiel jumping on dry bones. The reference made sense to me, thanks to many hours spent in Baptist Sunday Schools, but I knew other readers may not have had such a religious education, so I suggested to Francisco that we add the phrase "in the Bible" to tell these readers where "Ezekiel" came from. The line now reads something like, "I think of Ezekiel in the Bible, jumping on dry bones" -- a change that barely slowed up the action and yet made the reference clear.
  5. To delete the reference altogether if it's not fully necessary in the text.
When I come upon a reference or word that gives me pause, and which I think might cause the child reader pause in turn, I try to figure out which approach to the difficulty seems to be the right one -- including, of course, leaving it alone -- and then I suggest that to the author or translator. We discuss it as needed (sometimes extensively) and settle on a plan of attack. All of these decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, as what works for one book may not work in another, and a reference that doesn't work at one point in the book may be perfectly fine later. To return to the Moribito example, the translator (Cathy Hirano), author (Nahoko Uehashi), and I decided to cut the reference to the first of the two baths, because:
  1. The baths took place early in the book, so the reader may not have fully committed to the story, and we didn't want to give that reader an excuse to put the book down because s/he found something difficult or weird. If the two-bath reference had come in chapter 12 or 13, say, instead of chapter 2, when the reader is fully invested in the characters and the (awesome, unlike-any-Western-fantasy-you'll-read, kick-ass) action, then we might have left it alone.
  2. Along similar lines, the main plot of the book has not yet started (that happens in the very next scene), so having two baths was slowing up our getting to that action.
  3. While the book draws on elements of Japanese culture, it is a fantasy set in a fantasy world, so we were neither being untrue to Japanese culture nor losing the opportunity to teach children about it by changing the reference.
And that is the way it was published. We editors think about this a LOT, trying to imagine our ideal reader for each book, what that reader will tolerate, what adult gatekeepers think child readers will tolerate, whether the reference really detracts from the pleasure of the book (my first priority in editing as in reading -- pleasure), and so forth. But the final decision is always the author's.

In the followup discussion, another listmember posted a link to a fascinating article by the British author Anne Fine on updating her own books' references: Read it here.


  1. When I was a child reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I had no idea what Turkish Delight was. (Actually, I googled it recently, and still don't have the perfect concept.) But I imagined something sweet and perfectly wonderful--so wonderful that if I ever have occasion to taste it I'm sure I'll be disappointed.

  2. I was 22 went I went to England for a year and had a minor freak-out at the newsagent's when I saw Turkish Delight at the register. I only knew of it through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and HAD to try it. Sadly, it was a Cadbury product of chocolate covered horrible gelatinous mass. It was vile. I consoled Edmund's obsession with it by reminding myself of some other British food I think is icky...

    But then a few years ago we went to Istanbul and had a lot of real Turkish Delight. The first words out of my mouth were "I love my sister, but she's doomed. I want more." And I love the fact that my husband knew exactly what I was talking about. :)

  3. Sweet, fickle little soul...

  4. Lord Peter to Harriet (that is)

  5. I'm a passion advocate for leaving the references to other cultures and the linguistic terms from other cultures as they are. How better to learn about another place and time? A few years ago I read a rather dreadful Americanization of a British YA novel that confirmed me in this opinion. What was clearly a British school was suddenly, and jarringly, situated in Chicago!

    I had a similar experience to those others are describing with Turkish Delight. My child self was perfectly happy imagining it as most likely some delicious form of chocolate. Then I made the mistake, as an adult, of trying some imported Turkish Delight. It was like gelatinous dish soap. How could Edmund have betrayed his brother and sisters for THAT?!

    Incidentally, I remember, as an urban child, learning what "manure" was from Charlotte's Web. My father read the book aloud to us, and I started pretending I was Wilbur, tying a string to his tail atttempting to weave a web like Charlotte's. I created a nice, warm "manure pile" out of a heap of blankets to soften Wilbur's fall. After I had leaped into it a few times, my father, laughing, told me what manure was. I leaped out of the heap in horror and I never looked at those blankets quite the same way again!

  6. For some reason, I always thought Turkish Delight was a sort of delicious, foamy, hot drink... Lord only knows why.

    I really enjoyed your comments on the topic, though. It makes me wonder how American books are edited for other audiences-- if they are to such an extent.

    On that note, I had a French professor who was married to a French man, and someone gave them the french translation of Chamber of Secrets. Well, they went to see the movie together, and afterwards her husband was really confused.

    "Where was the chicken?" he kept asking, and Mme Fritsch had no idea what he was talking about.

    Well, she read the books in English first, and then read them in French. Apparently, in her copy of the book, Fawkes was a magic... chicken? Phoenix had somehow translated to poulet.

    Imagine, Harry Potter and the Order of the Chicken (extra crispy with chips, please).

  7. Love this topic. I also went right to my Narnian-laced ideas of Turkish Delight as a child; the first time that I had actual Turkish Delight I was bitterly disappointed. My fantasy of such a sublime treat included an entirely different combination of ingredients!

    Madeleine L'Engle wrote once that Hamlet's words, "Angels and ministers of grace defend us" were translated in one French edition to the equivalent of "Hey, what's all this?"

    Not quite the same.

  8. I don't remember this being an issue when I was a (British) bookwormy child - surely cultural references are part of what makes the book? For instance, as an English child reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, or Anne of Green Gables, there were many physical and social things in the stories which were strange to me, but which I either ignored (and found out about later) or absorbed, and my reading experience was the richer for it. Indeed, one can return to classics such as these again and again, and discover new things within them, even as an adult.

    I think this may be more of an American trend? I certainly don't remember reading non-British books which had been tampered with in this way; it must be difficult to do without changing the feel of the book, not to mention adulterating the author's writing style.

    How else are we supposed to learn of different places and cultures? Or, with reference to the Narnia case, that indeed, once upon a time in recent history, Western children did go hungry in Wartime?

  9. Wow, thank you so much for this informative post, Cheryl!

    I've tasted excellent Turkish Delight and the first thing I thought was, "I so understand Edmund." Then I ate some more without asking for permission... I'm sorry! The Turkish Delight made me do it!

  10. Oh gosh! About the time the first Narnia movie came out my sister sent our kid a box of Turkish Delight from Australia. It was gross, like rubber eraser jello dusted in baby powder. I sent it on to school. The kids in his class still haven't forgiven me.
    The food reference from the Narnia books I still remember is in Prince Caspian where one of the kids eats a raw onion for breakfast with a mug of water. At that point I'd pass. I still remember being jolted out of the story and thinking, "What the?"

  11. Ah, but the bear meat wrapped around the apple, baked over the fire (in Prince Caspian)--that sounded good!

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