Last month, UCT made an announcement about Emeritus Professor Richard Whitaker’s new version of the Illiad which made use of many South African terms. I am not in a position to judge whether this is a good idea or not, although the announcement includes the endorsement, “As for the South African vocabulary and idiom, words like inkosi, indaba, induna and impi actually take us much closer to what Homer was singing about than their English equivalents,” but I want to address this issue of reworking literature or other creative outputs to suit a specific culture.
I think that while the intention to open the work up to a wider audience is admirable, in doing so we lose an important aspect of the work. At times the change could be so major that it’s hard to see the two works as the same thing; for lack of a better term, the soul of the work is destroyed. I think that is more likely with an adaptation that jumps from one medium to another than with a simple translation though. The other aspect, and the one hinted at in my title, is that we lose a vital educational opportunity. Rewriting a book to better fit a culture and perhaps increase accessibility also has the effect of reducing the opportunity to learn something new, whether about another culture and time or even about a new subject.
I strongly believe the world, including entertainment and popular culture, is filled with opportunities to learn. I doubt anyone would disagree but just in case there are people that need convincing I would like to share an incident involving myself when I was younger. At one point I was playing Trivial Pursuit and was asked the question, “Who was Napoleon’s lover?” or something to that effect. I was just a kid at the time, wasn’t reading any history books on my own and hadn’t done anything on Napoleon at school yet I was able to correctly answer, “Josephine.” How did I manage that? All I did was watch The Swan Princess III. It’s not a great movie but in it there’s a song that contains the following verse:
Whoa, she’s gone and with her the greatest love the world has ever known
Has suffered a dagger right to the heart and lies as cold as stone
The passion of Romeo and Juliet, Josephine and Napoleon
Should have bowed to love of Rogers and Zelda, but now she’s gone
Completely unintentionally, I learned about Joesephine and Napoleon from watching that children’s film. Similarly, it’s possible to learn all sorts of things just from exposure to entertainment, but the only way you can learn something new is by being exposed to the unfamiliar.
Stories are great for the stories but books can also be seen as windows to a different time and a different culture. When you start tampering with the original you start to damage that ability to transport someone. That’s why I was rather upset when I learned that a recent version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was going to remove the word “nigger.” The word is offensive and it is not used in respectable society today but it was used at the time the novel was written and set and if you remove it you no longer have a glimpse at what life was like then. Sure the rest is the same but when you remove such a charged word you have lost an opportunity to show people why it has that charge in the first place. The article by Peter Messent, linked earlier in this passage, has a great example of why the word is important but Sean Ferrell also has a good post on Why the N-word matters saying that the reason it’s removed is primarily cowardice:
The motive is to avoid tough questions from children who might ask why it was okay for Mark Twain to write “nigger,” but it’s not okay for them to yell it at the park. It avoids difficult conversations with parents who object to their children reading a difficult word because they themselves don’t understand the opportunity to teach means facing horrible truths about our own past.
That there is a lost opportunity to learn about history, racism and why people are offended by certain words. As society becomes more connected you would hope that people would take opportunities to learn about other cultures through their cultural exports. I understand this is happening more often now but in the past it didn’t. If we look at anime we find, among other depressing examples of censorship and editing to suit various people’s preconceived notions, the idea of cultural streamlining, where the anime is changed to make it more acceptable for, generally, American audiences. This can be seen in the screenshot from Pokémon below where the onigiri is changed to a sandwich. It’s a small change but it’s a lost opportunity. Instead of providing an opportunity to learn about another culture and different food someone has made it familiar, and nothing was gained.
While I am supportive of bringing anime to America or classic literature to South Africa I am concerned about making it so familiar that all the opportunities to learn something are removed. The world can be full of learning opportunities that require minimal effort when if we remove them then the only exposure to learning a child, or even adult, has is in school, and that’s often a poor place to learn.