Harry Potter

"Harry Potter, Minus a Certain Flavour"

by Peter H. Gleick ("New York Times," July 10, 2000)

BERKELEY, Calif. -- My family, like so many others, was excited about Saturday's release of yet another Harry Potter book. But although there are many legitimate reasons for praising the series -- the exciting plots, the new young readers being drawn to books, the quality of the writing -- I am disappointed about one thing: the decision by Scholastic, publisher of the American edition, to translate the books from "English" into "American." Scholastic even went so far as to change the title of the first Harry Potter book from "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Why? Were the editors worried that some people wouldn't buy the book because they couldn't understand it in its original language? Were they concerned that some children would be confused by new words for otherwise familiar objects or actions?
I like to think that our society would not collapse if our children started calling their mothers Mum instead of Mom. And I would hate to think that today's children would be frightened away from an otherwise thrilling book by reading that the hero is wearing a jumper instead of a sweater.
Are we afraid that when presented with new vocabulary, children will shrink away? Or that alternative spellings of previously known words will make children (and adults) suddenly start spelling things wrong, sending school test scores falling?
A careful reading of both the English and the American editions of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" reveals three kinds of substitutions. The first are spelling differences: gray for grey, color for colour, flavor for flavour, pajamas for pyjamas, recognize for recognise and the like.
The second are differences in common words or phrases: pitch turns to field, sellotaped to taped, fortnight to two weeks, post to mail, boot of car to trunk of car, lorry to truck.
The third are metamorphoses of truly English experiences or objects into something different, but distinctly American: crumpets to English muffins, for example (a particular odious change, in my opinion).

My two sons didn't have any difficulty understanding the British version of the book sent to them by their aunt in London.
I admit to occasionally offering the meaning of a new word the first time it appeared, but don't we do that with every book we read to our children, or help them read to themselves?
Do we really want children to think that crumpets are the same as English muffins? Frankly, reading about Harry and Hermione eating crumpets during tea is far more interesting to an American than reading about them eating English muffins during a meal.
Are any books immune from this kind of devolution from English to "American" English? Would we sit back and let publishers rewrite Charles Dickens or Shakespeare? I can see it now: "A Christmas Song," "A Story of Two Cities," "The Salesman of Venice."
By protecting our children from an occasional misunderstanding or trip to the dictionary, we are pretending that other cultures are, or should be, the same as ours.
By insisting that everything be Americanized, we dumb down our own society rather than enrich it.
As for Harry Potter's latest adventures, my children and I will wait for the British version coming by mail.