Before you read beyond the first couple paragraphs of this post, write down or answer mentally what you think about yesterday’s news that a newly published edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was altered to remove the word “nigger” and replace it with the word “slave.” The edition also replaces the word “injun” with “indian.”
For those who haven’t seen the news, the edition is credited to Auburn University English professor Alan Gribben, who is worried about Huckleberry Finn being dropped from reading lists because of its language. The publisher of this edition is NewSouth Books, a decade-old publisher that produces about 15 titles a year.
Actually, Gribben is right that the book has been threatened recently. For example, in 2009 the Manchester, Connecticut School District added a requirement that teachers who use Huckleberry Finn must attend seminars on how to deal with issues of race before using the book in the classroom after parents complained in 2007 that the book used the word “nigger” 212 times. It was also challenged in Lakeville, Minn., Minneapolis, Minn., and North Richland Hills, Tex. in 2007. [See pdf reports on Bannedbooksweek.org]
My wife says that this is just pandering to those who would censor the book. And I do agree that this clearly violates the author’s intent.
OK, so, now let’s ask another question. Honestly, before you found out about this new edition of Huckleberry Finn, what was your opinion of CleanFlicks and the other efforts to “clean up” films? When you comment below, please answer both questions before drawing your conclusions.
In my own case, I thought the criticisms of Gribben’s project were overblown. Huckleberry Finn is in the public domain. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of editions available in almost any format you might wish. The book is available for free in many places on the Internet (including images of first or near-first editions, such as this one at the Internet Archive).
Because of this, and the relatively small size of its publisher, its hard to imagine that this edition will be any real threat to the book or to the author’s intent. Instead, I think its possible that this edition will reach some who wouldn’t read it otherwise. Yes, I agree that it would be better for them to read it as the author wrote it.
But I’m also certain that Huckleberry Finn has a lot of value beyond just 212 uses of the word “nigger” and a bunch more uses of the word “injun” (or the value of its unmodified language). Surely Huckleberry Finn still has value, even modified! I’d prefer that readers get at least that value from the book, and then, perhaps after reading it, they might seek out the original wording.
As for CleanFlicks, like many people I’ve had doubts about the wisdom of editing of films. It is a little disrespectful to think that you know better than an author or director. But it is also somewhat disrespectful of authors and directors to ignore the deeply felt beliefs of their readers and consumers. While I’m queasy about the legality and propriety of editing, even with those methods that are clearly legal, I even more favor providing the reader or viewer with a way of seeing or reading the material that has some impact on them.
What makes me uncomfortable about these editing jobs is their indiscriminate, hatchet-job, search-and-replace approach. If I replace all the profanity in a work, I am also likely to replace any use of profanity that is important to the plot or crucial to what the author is communicating. In some few cases it could make the work impotent (if the point of the work is closely related to profanity or being made by profanity, for example). Better would be editing by someone who understands the work well—in the best case the author or director.
Authors write their works for a particular culture — usually one very close to their own culture. When another culture involves another language, the work must be translated into something that the culture will understand, and almost always that means not a literal translation, but a translation that brings the authors intent to the new culture. The translator then tries to write what the author would have written if the author himself were writing for the new culture.
In both of the cases here (those editing Twain and Cleanflicks), I think what is being sought is a kind of cultural translator—someone to bring the author’s intent to a new cultural viewpoint. While I’m sure that this won’t work for all cultures (just as some works simply can’t be translated to certain languages), certain American subcultures are requiring some kind of translation—even if just the equivalent of something far less sophisticated than Google Translate.
I’m sure there is a point where indiscriminate editing makes a work worthless. But for most works, be they in text or in video, that point will never come. They simply don’t require the offensive content to communicate well enough, and even a hatchet-job translation allows the work to communicate the essential.
After all, there is a worse fate for any work than being made impotent or hacked up — not being seen or read at all.