Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Distortion of literary works / Enid Blyton

with 6 comments

While I have always been strongly opposed to censorship, political correctness, intellectual dishonesty, (mis-)editing of the words of others, and similar, there is a particular area that troubles me with an eye on my own contemplations of becoming an author of fiction—presenting distortions of the works of dead authors as if they were the actual works.

For instance, I recently stumbled over the Wikipedia page on “The Famous Five”, and was distraught to read:

In modern reprints, George still wants to be a boy, but the statement that her short hair makes her look like a boy has been removed as it is now considered offensive to assume that girls need long hair to be considered feminine. Anne’s statement that boys cannot wear pretty dresses or like girl’s dolls has been taken out. Julian and Dick now help the girls with cleaning the house and washing dishes.

This increases the series of children’s’ books* that have been distorted in an irrational and destructive manner, contemptuous of both the author and the readers. (To boot, the claim “now considered” is a further inexcusable lack of encyclopedic standards on behalf of Wikipedia. A correct claim would be that e.g., depending on what applies, the “censor’s** considered it offensive” or “some population groups considered it offensive”.) Not only are such distortions despicable in general, but here the reasons appear to be particularly weak. I note, concerning the hair, that in such young people it can be the only physical differentiation and that judgments like “looks like a boy” and “looks like a girl” have to be measured against the time in which they occurred. To boot, George almost*** certainly otherwise dressed and whatnot as a boy, making the hair just one piece of a puzzle. Removing references to the hair thoroughly distorts the original intentions. Similarly, removing Anne’s statement distorts her character and misrepresents the times. This is especially bad, as it removes the contrast between the boyish/unconventional George and the girly/traditional Anne, weakening the two characters and the “group dynamic”. That the boys help with house-work again misrepresents the times and risks a character distortion—how do we know that they would have helped, had they lived in today’s world? Worse: I strongly suspect that these changes, especially the last, is not so much a matter of wanting to avoid offense as of deliberately influencing modern readers to hold a certain set of values—an utterly inexcusable reason for an already inexcusable act.

*Other examples include “Huckleberry Finn”, “Doctor Dolittle”, and the Swedish “Ture Sventon” and “Pippi Långstrump [Long-Stocking]”—among the at least dozen cases I have heard of. (The true scope of the problem is likely orders of magnitude greater and afflicting many more languages.)

**I call a spade a spade—these people are no better, arguably worse, than regular censors. (To “call a spade a spade” is another example of how unjustified censorship is common: Here, “spade” refers to a digging implement in a saying that goes back to ancient Greece. Still, there are people who consider it offensive because the same sequence of letters, much more rarely, has been used to refer to Black people…)

***It has been a very long time since I read one of the books, and there is some minor room for a combination of character being misremembered and contents not matching what would be reasonable based on first principles.

I note that the motivations give in other contexts tend to be very poor. For instance, Swedish censorship and distortion have been directed at the word “neger” as being offensive—however, unlike the English “nigger”, “neger” was never offensive. This changed at some point in the 1980s or 1990s when the PC movement presumed to declare it offensive. This with no reasonable motivation and likely based on a mindless analogy with the English “nigger”—if the one is offensive, then so must be the other…

A particular perfidious version, inexcusable beyond the inexcusable, is the claim that certain changes were made because “we” are sure that this is what the (long dead) author would have wanted—a presumption so moronic and/or dishonest that I feel like punching the speaker in the face.

Such changes, worthy of the Ministry of Truth, are a crime against the author, who sees his work distorted, and a crime against the reader, who is refused the opportunity to read the original work and whose view of the world of old is potentially distorted. Indeed, for a member of the politically correct who actually had a brain, would it not make more sense to let the children see that the world was different in the past and draw their own conclusions? Would it not be better that a girl noted that Anne did house-work and that Julian did not—and questioned the “why”? To look at Anne and George and ask who she would rather be? For the girl-who-wants-to-be-boy* (or vice versa) to look at George and how she had the courage to go against convention even back then? Etc.

*However, I am uncertain to what degree George’s wishes were comparable to some modern cases and to what degree she just wished for a more boyish life-style, considered girly-girls silly, whatnot. Not only are my contacts too far back, but I doubt that Blyton would have been explicit on the topic (if it even occured to her).

As for myself, I have not yet made up my mind on whether to become an author of fiction, and chances are that I would never have a sufficient and enduring popularity that such concerns would actually be relevant. However, I state now and for the record that I absolutely and categorically forbid such distortions of any of my works, current, past, present, and irrespective of type. If I am alive, I will exercise legal options; if I am dead, I will come back to haunt the culprits. The latter especially if someone presumes to try that utterly inexcusable excuse “we know that this is what he would have wanted”—you now know that it is not!

Excursion on other distortions:
Unfortunately, the general problem of distortion is not limited to e.g. censorship and children’s literature. Notably, newer German editions of older texts often come with the claim that the orthography has been “behutsam angepasst” (“cautiously adapted”) or similar, in order to match modern German—and this even for works that were written as late as the 19th century… This might be less harmful than the above, but still brings risks and disadvantages—and most changes are pointless in that the average reader could take the old spelling in a stride.* (A better solution would be to add a few corresponding notes. For truly extreme examples, a parallel original and “translated” text is an option.) For instance, one reason to read older books is to get a feel for the historical language, which is no longer possible. For instance, any such change risks an unintended distortion.** For instance, it is possible that the author deliberately chose a more traditional spelling over a more new-fangled one, in which case the alteration is in direct contradiction to his will.

*A notable example is the common use of “th” in many cases where today “t” is used, e.g. “Thal” vs “Tal” (“valley”). Consider e.g. the extinct Neanderthals vs. the valley Neandertal—at the time of their discovery, the valley used the “th” spelling, which is preserved in the anthropological name, while it uses the “t” spelling today. (And, yes, Neanderthal is correctly pronounced with a “t” sound—not with a lisp.)

**E.g. because two words that used to be spelled (slightly) differently are now spelled the same or vice versa, because some rhyme or play on words does no longer work, or because some spelling choices might have been very personal. (The latter especially in times when the orthography was less standardized than today.) An interesting example is the disappearance of older words, word cases, whatnot. Consider e.g. a modernized version of Shakespeare that replaces “thou” with “you”, etc.: This would lose a lot of nuance as to who is in what relationship to/with someone else and how the relationship might change over time.

The problem is not necessarily limited to dead authors either (but is particularly perfidious there, because they cannot defend themselves). Translations are a horrifying source of problems, at least in Germany, where I have encountered many efforts so awful that they should have led to a summary firing. The German translations of Terry Pratchett’s books have often been disastrous (cf. portions of a text on Pratchett’s death)—and do not get me started on German movie translations… While this is often the result of mere incompetence, e.g. ignorance of what a certain word/phrase/reference/… means,* it can also be deliberate. Notably, there is a school of translators who attempt to hide the fact that a work actually is a translation at any and all cost… (Including rather losing a play on words than giving an explanation of it, or rather re-writing cultural references to some highly approximate local equivalent.) This is an anti-intellectualism and dishonesty that is truly deplorable.

Excursion on Blyton:
Blyton might have mass-produced works with little literary value and might, by reputation, actually have approved in exchange for a bit of extra money. None of that matters: The editors have no such actual approval; the distorting effect for the readers remain (cf. above); the works have, irrespective of literary value, a great following and have been loved by millions (implying that any change is likelier to do damage than to do good); and, above all, if this is accepted for one author, what protects other authors? Indeed, even “To Kill a Mocking-Bird”, widely considered a work of considerable literary accomplishment, has been targeted by the PC crowd. It is important that not one inch be given to these people.

Excursion on tomboys and Feminists:
A peculiarity when it comes to e.g. Feminists and tomboys vs. girly-girls is that “tomboy” is often described as some type of insult or framed in a context of boys/men looking down on the tomboys who “should” be proper girly-girls instead. This repeats a pattern of ignorance and over-generalization about what men are actually like and what they actually think about women—I very much preferred George to Anne at that age, I have preferred girls/women with boyish/mannish interests later in life, and the same applies to a very sizable portion, likely a majority, of the male population. Yes, when it comes to sex and romance, there are many cases where a certain femininity in behavior and style can be attractive; no, when it comes to playing, socializing, whatnot, the tomboy and her adult successor tend to do better. For that matter, too much femininity and/or stereotypically female behaviors are a turn-off in romance too. (Too much make-up, too many shoes, too much emotionality, etc.—the likes of Carrie Bradshaw are not a good ideal.) Of course, even a boyish girl/woman can be quite physically attractive, aesthetically pleasing, and even feminine—this is not an either–or area. (Consider e.g. Evangeline Lilly in “Lost” or Keira Knightley in “Bend it like Beckham”*.) When a man says “tomboy”, it is more likely to be a compliment than an insult.

*Incidentally, a good example of German mistranslations: It was renamed to the alleged English title “Kick [sic!] it like Beckham”… Also a good, if fictional, example of how men tend to view tomboys—compare the positions of the two fathers and the two mothers towards the respective daughters and their “boyish” interests.

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Written by michaeleriksson

December 18, 2018 at 8:22 pm

6 Responses

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  1. […] of the dangers of e.g. censorship (cf. any number of previous texts), opinion corridors, distortion of literary works, echo chambers, and other limits on thought and […]

  2. […] of in such a manner would be doubly unethical—with strong parallels to a recent text on distortion of literary works. Or what about a text (e.g. this one) discussing the spelling, which is now unable to quote the […]

  3. […] So it is. I do recall a certain vehemence on your part against distortion of literature. […]

  4. […] to ‘gender-neutrality’ is not at all far-fetched:”. Indeed not: Consider e.g. my (much later) text on distortion of Blyton, where I lament that the actual events and characters of her books, not just specific words, have […]

  5. […] ways, even when uncalled for and unnecessary, and even when allowing for a switch of medium (cf. a discussion of changes to Blyton’s works, where there is not even a medium […]

  6. […] have been an impossibility, had it been written today, or that it would have been very heavily PC-ified. The three main protagonists are all Westerners; the antagonists appear to have been something in […]


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