Recently I had a conversation with a translator about why certain European books don’t make it to these shores as reprints. We were discussing ‘The War of the Buttons’ in particular, and he pointed out that its politically incorrect language has dated the book and made it difficult to translate for modern British audiences.
I read a version that had been edited for teens, but I fully take his point about the translation problem. He touched on a bigger issue that has dogged me since I began my ‘Invisible Ink’ series in the Independent several years ago. The reason why many authors go out of print is because society changes, and what was once acceptable is no longer palatable.
Since the column began, those featured authors who are still around have asked me if they should rewrite their books for e-versions, and I have resolutely said no from the start. I usually suggest instead that the republished book should be prefaced with a short piece setting the work into its social context. We now have the absurdity of ‘Fawlty Towers’ being re-edited to remove references to Germans, when anyone of the remotest intelligence should be able to realise that the lead character is embarrassing no-one but himself.
Although there are some books I would possibly re-edit for children (‘Where the Rainbow Ends’, for example, with its clear anti-Semitic stance) I would allow adult books to remain as they were published. As a consequence, words like ‘nigger’ and ‘queer’ have to stand within the context of the book’s time period, or you create a bizarre amalgam of period/modern work that fails to catch any time accurately. If anything, the originals stand as a reminder of how far we have come.
I agree that ‘Catcher In The Rye’ is a sweeter version of ‘The War of the Buttons’ (a little too sweet for my tastes) but the period when children start behaving like adults stands in every national literary canon. There are other novels, like ‘A High Wind In Jamaica’, that capture the nascent sexuality of children in a way that is difficult to convey today without drawing witch-hunt accusations of pedophilia.
When a book is obviously offensive I always draw attention to it (‘Bulldog Drummond’ saying that ‘all niggers smell bad’, for example). In fact, I may have accidentally killed a newly proposed film version of the book because I outlined the problems with the character in ‘Invisible Ink’.
Meanwhile, the collected columns are selling well in a book that features the first 100 authors in the series. I have covered a number of French authors in the past, and am about to cover Sébastien Japrisot, who desperately needs republishing!