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In the beginning was the word (and things went downhill thereafter)

April 6, 2023

The New York Times recently highlighted a debate over whether or not the estates of best-selling authors should amend or delete passages from books that contain words or phrases that might be considered offensive in today’s social ethos.

The article makes the obvious point that publishers and royalty beneficiaries are keen to maintain sales of these books, which might otherwise disappear from the book stores because of their “offensive” content. They claim that the changes are insignificant and don’t affect the value of the work.

A few observations from my point of view.

First, many great works are read in translation. Changes made in updated or new translations are usually unlikely to be noticed, let alone greeted with howls of outrage. Perhaps it would be easier for purists – those who believe that the writer’s work should never be altered – to accept new versions if they’re described as translations. Temporal rather than linguistic, if you like.

Linguistic fashions go out of date, so why not change expressions that cause the reader to stumble through lack of familiarity, or otherwise cause offense? If this were not acceptable, Anglican Christians would still be reading the King James Bible rather than a succession of new editions, such as the New English Bible, that are designed to make the language more accessible to us ignorant laity. Personally, I would prefer to read the original versions of the author’s work, even if they cause me to stumble through surprise or incomprehension. As someone who’s written a few words myself I can well understand living authors objecting to the bowdlerisation of their carefully crafted words, especially if in their view those changes alter the sense of the original.

But when the written word miraculously turns into heritage, the situation is perhaps different. To read the earliest available source of the New Testament, for example, one would need to go back to the original Greek, as I once did at school. One would then find significant differences between what was originally written and what was subsequently accepted as gospel truth. Even the Holy Quran, which is held by Muslims to be the pristine and unalterable word of God, contains words and phrases for which no generally accepted meanings exist and which are thus open to interpretation.

And secondly, there’s nothing new about books, especially those out of copyright, being updated to reflect social changes or to satisfy the demands of official censors. Back in the day, we used to read “expurgated” versions of controversial work. Later, when the social climate changed or the censor had been kicked into touch, we would eagerly seek out unexpurgated editions to find all the naughty bits.

Nowadays, we can read the erotic poems of Catullus, but how long will it before the worm turns again, and the book-burners of, say, Florida, deem that such material is no longer suitable for our delicate minds?

The fact is that once a writer is deceased or their work is out of copyright, like it or not, their cherished creations are released to the world, to be chopped, refashioned or distorted as publishers – legal or otherwise – see fit. It’s worth remembering that the greatest works of literature often outlast the lifetimes of their creators by hundreds if not thousands of years. So for only a fraction of their life cycles are they subject to any formal controls beyond their acceptability to successive generations of readers.

And since so many of us are not readers, often enough the only way a wide audience gets to appreciate an author’s work is when it’s adapted into a movie or TV series with varying degrees of faithfulness to the original. How many people who have loved the various movie versions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet have actually read the play?

And how many living writers, I wonder, object to the large sums they earn from media rights (not to mention enhanced book royalties), even though they know that they will thereby lose control of their output? At times methinks they doth protest too much.

All of which hopefully goes to show that issues such as the integrity of the written word are far from simple, as many a politician skilled in equivocation would happily agree even if they pretend otherwise to please their voters.

  1. Sorry for not commenting more often Steve, but I got “doxxed” by an ex-friend of mine who became a rabid anti-vaxxer some time back.

    She plastered my personal details all over the www, after I’d posted a comment online in defence of Dr. Anthony Fauci.

    The amount of abuse and vitriol I received not just online but also in the bloody post was quite astonishing and rather scary!

    Therefore I’m very wary about posting comments online these days.

    But please rest assured that I still always read your blog, which as you know already I consider to be one of the very best out there.

    Cheers Mate, and Happy Easter! 🙂

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