I participate in several Harry Potter fan groups on Facebook.
I probably shouldn’t, because when I see questions such as “who cast the doe by the lake in Deathly Hallows???” they fill me with the need to apply my head to my desk. I can’t seem to quit them, though, because very occasionally they do provide me with fresh insight on the series.
One of the biggest revelations I have had is the degree to which Americans have been insulated from the original text as JK Rowling wrote them. They are so accustomed to their Americanized versions that they don’t even realize how much their experience differs from that of the rest of the globe.
Most people do know that Scholastic altered the name of the first book, and insisted on changing some of the more “British” words, such as jumper, bogey, pudding, and so on to their American equivalents (sweater, booger, dessert).
Rowling allowed it at the time because they were offering her a lot of money. She had no way of knowing that her books were going to explode in popularity or that she would become one of the world’s most powerful authors.
To be honest, I wish I hadn’t agreed now, but it was my first book, and I was so grateful that anyone was publishing me I wanted to keep them happy…
– JK Rowling to BBC, March 12 2001
What most people don’t know is that the changes are not all minor alterations in syntax. Entire sentences are sometimes added or altered.
For example, Dean Thomas is explicitly described as “a Black boy, even taller than Ron”.
In Chamber of Secrets, the line changes from
A second later, Harry spotted something that made him hit Ron over the hand with his pruning shears.
A second later, Harry spotted something. Several large spiders were scuttling over the ground on the other side of the glass, moving in an unnaturally straight line a though taking the shortest route to a prearranged meeting. Harry hit Ron over the hand with his pruning shears.
In Prisoner of Azkaban, the American edition deletes Sirius’s vault number (711) and Sybill Trelawny’s name is spelled differently: strange things like that.
(For an exhaustive list, look here.)
Not all of the changes are bad. For example, I hear that the US editions employ the Oxford comma, which I wholeheartedly applaud. Some of the changes are corrections that later turned up in British editions, too. Others are for esthetic purposes – a line describing Hagrid’s hand writing is deleted, and the note from Hagrid is actually written in a messy font, which is pretty cool.
But other changes are more questionable – I hear that the the US editions abuse the semicolon more often then the UK versions. And some changes can actually subtly alter the meaning of the text.
Look a this scene from Half Blood Prince:
‘Come over to the right side, Draco, and we can hide you more completely than you can possibly imagine. What is more, I can send members of the Order to your mother tonight to hide her likewise. Your father is safe at the moment in Azkaban…when the time comes, we can protect him too… come over to the right side, Draco…you are not a killer…’
Now here is the American version:
“He cannot kill you if you are already dead. Come over to the right side, Draco, and we can hide you more completely than you can possibly imagine. What is more, I can send members of the Order to your mother tonight to hide her likewise. Nobody would be surprised that you had died in your attempt to kill me — forgive me, but Lord Voldemort probably expects it. Nor would the Death Eaters be surprised that we had captured and killed your mother — it is what they would do themselves, after all. Your father is safe at the moment in Azkaban…when the time comes, we can protect him too. Come over to the right side, Draco…you are not a killer…”
In the British version, Dumbledore speaks slowly, with many ellipses. He promises Draco safety for himself and his family and tells Draco that he is not a killer. In the American version, he speaks more briskly, and offers to help Draco and his mother by faking their deaths, claiming that nobody would be surprised that the Order of the Phoenix had captured and killed someone’s mother.
Personally I would have been really surprised if the Order of the Phoenix had captured and killed someone’s mother. I would also have been surprised if Dumbledore killed a student who tried to kill him. After all, Dumbledore escaped the Miniser for Magic and his Aurors without even breaking a sweat. He wouldn’t need to kill a teenage wizard and he certainly wouldn’t want to. It seems strange that in the American edition, this willingness to kill is “expected”.
In some ways, the Scholastic editions are great books. They are much more decorative than the Bloomsbury/Raincoast editions, with fancy fonts and illustrations. Americans seem particularly attached to the three stars on the corners of the chapter pages, which many Harry Potter fans have used as tattoos.
But those stars make me sad because they tell me how very attached Americans are to their weird, bastardized versions of the books. It makes me wonder how much they realize that their editions are mocked by the rest of the English speaking world.
You see, America was the only country that got altered text. The rest of the English speaking world has the original UK versions, where Dumbledore isn’t “expected” to kill Draco Malfoy and where Sirius Black dies on page 711… the same number as his bank vault.
Nor do many Americans seem to realize how insulting this is.
When it is brought up, many of them make the argument that young American children wouldn’t understand all those “foreign” words like car-park, pudding, jumper, dust bin, motorbike, lolly, toilet, football, dressing gown, and shan’t.
Just today an American said to me,
Experts in children’s literature know exactly how many “foreign” or unknown words children at the intended age can handle. So they couldn’t have the whole book say “jumper” because it would be too difficult for a roughly 10/11 year old American to successfully decipher.
-American on Facebook
Well, that’s funny, because just to the north of the USA there is a country called Canada.
While Canadians tend to use British spelling for words like colour, centre, and theatre, the lexicon is basically the same as American English.
In Canada, children hear “parking lot”, not “car park”. They play soccer, not football. They eat dessert, not pudding, wear bath robes instead of dressing gowns and they dream of riding motorcycles, not motorbikes. Canadian children watch American programming, not British programming, and get Scholastic book orders just like American children.
And yet Canadian children received the UK versions ofthe book, along with every other country, and Harry Potter was just as explosively popular here as down south in the good old US of A.
This leads to three possible conclusions:
- Scholastic underestimated the intelligence and linguistic flexibility of American children, assuming that they would be so confused by words like “motorbike” that they would be unable to enjoy the story… but Canadian children prove that this would not have been the case.
- American children are in some way genuinely less able linguists than Canadian children and would really have been put off of the books or seriously confused by British teminology, unable to figure things out from context the way Canadian children could.
- American children are so culturally insulated that they would have had a xenophobic reaction to the language, and felt unable to like or enjoy a book that said “Happy Christmas” instead of “Merry Christmas”, or in which characters who did well in school came out “top of their year” instead of “had the best grades”.
Now, let’s think about this.
The xenophobia idea, while somewhat believable to non-Americans based on America’s reputation, seems very unlikely. After all, the movies were enormously popular in the USA, despite retaining all of the British language altered in the books, with the exception of the name of the Philosopher’s Stone.
The “less able linguists” thing also seems unlikely since I didn’t an outpouring of American confusion over Weasley jumpers based on the movie. But it is possible that American children can draw things from context in a visual/audio format but not from written text.
Either way, let’s go back to a claim I saw made by the same American who insisted that the Harry Potter books are “too hard” for American children.
It is not taking a shot at American intelligence. It was mostly a marketing decision made by the people at Scholastic whose job it is to sell books to American children.
-The same American on Facebook
I don’t see how the above sentence could possibly be true.
Either Scholastic made the correct decision, in which case either point number 2 or 3 is correct and American children are genuinely less able to adapt to new language than their Canadian peers, or Scholastic made the wrong decision and underestimated American children.
Either way, Scholastic rightly or wrongly took a shot at American intelligence.
Personally, I want to give Americans credit. In fact, I have no reason not to: American and Canada have the same literacy rate, and American book lists (including Scholastic book orders!) still contain British authors such as Roald Dahl and CS Lewis. If anything, I think Roald Dahl translates poorly in North America because a lot of his rhymes just don’t work in a North American accent (he rhymes what with lot, for example).
I have no reason to believe that the average American child is less capable than the average Canadian child, or less exposed to British words than Canadian children.
Which means that Americans should be insulted by Scholastic’s decision.
If you are American and would like to get your hand on the “real” books, consider Ebay, a trip to Canada, or get an account with Canadian or UK Amazon and pay shipping… and you have my sincere condolences.
I’m sorry that Scholastic thought that you were stupid.