Of References and Readers

In the course of a recent child_lit discussion about food in children's literature, specifically in the Chronicles of Narnia, a listmember remarked "But [children] don’t easily tolerate something that’s assumed to be normal but isn’t normal to them. What do all our brilliant editors – Cheryl? – think on this point?" I wrote a response that I thought might interest some of you, so I'm cross-posting it here, with some amendments. (And yes, I admit I'm posting tonight partly to make another diagonal line in the calendar.)

I work on a lot of translations, so I usually deal with this problem not so much in terms of outdated references [the problem that Narnia presented us for discussion] as cultural unfamiliarity. . . . For instance, in the first-draft translation of our marvelous Japanese fantasy novel out this month, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Chapter 2 described the main character as taking a bath indoors in a bathhouse, then going outdoors to another hot pool in the garden. This is of course entirely standard behavior in Japan, where bathhouses are an established part of the culture, but it would seem odd to an American child, who would be much more likely to view a bath as a place for hygiene than for relaxation or socialization (and two baths -- perish the thought!). Taken to the word level, this is also the debate over "Americanizing" British or Australian texts -- changing "jumpers" to "sweaters" -- and even in American books, we deal with it in "aging" a text: Will a third-grader understand the word "anticipation"?

The editorial options when faced with something that would likely be strange or difficult for the target audience are:
  1. To let it stand as-is: The reader can pick it up from context, or it's not significant enough in the overall reading experience to change, or it can be looked up, or it's a mystery whose answer they can discover as they age. (I'm still learning some of the references in the Lord Peter Wimsey novels -- "Vagula, blandula," anyone?)
  2. To emotionally contextualize the reference: The Narnian example we were dealing with on child_lit was that Father Christmas gives the Pevensies a tea tray for Christmas, which would be a wonderfully luxurious present amidst the privations of WWII but perhaps makes less sense to the well-fed children of the post-war years. But if the books were revised so it was established in the text that the Pevensies were usually very hungry, that they never saw sugar or hot tea or any of the other delicious things on a tea tray, then we readers might have the same reaction to the tea tray that they do, and the reference would make perfect sense. [Note that I am not advocating that such a change be made -- I'm just observing one way that the problem might be solved.] Or, in the third-grade book, if you see the kid simmering with excitement about getting to see his new baby brother, jumping up and down as his father escorts him down the halls of the hospital, then the meaning of "anticipation" should be clear.
  3. To explain the reference outside the narrative text: For instance, in the lovely Australian novel The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley, which we published a few years ago, my boss Arthur Levine suggested to the author, Martine Murray, that we add a glossary at the back of the book to define fun Aussie terms like "footy" and "drongo" and "hoon around." This allowed us to keep those words but also to feel that the reader wouldn't be totally lost in the language. E. Lockhart also does this in her most excellent The Boyfriend List and The Boy Book -- the main character Ruby Oliver is a huge movie buff, and when she refers to an old film most contemporary teenagers might not have seen, she uses a footnote to explain the reference. (E. recently had a post on her blog asking teenage readers to fill out a survey about what references they recognized and what needed footnotes for the third Ruby book -- a pretty smart use of the Internet, I thought.)
  4. To change it: "jumper" to "sweater," or "anticipation" to "excitement," or just by adding a little context. In our wonderful Spring 2009 novel Marcelo in the Real World, the religiously-interested narrator refers in passing to Ezekiel jumping on dry bones. The reference made sense to me, thanks to many hours spent in Baptist Sunday Schools, but I knew other readers may not have had such a religious education, so I suggested to Francisco that we add the phrase "in the Bible" to tell these readers where "Ezekiel" came from. The line now reads something like, "I think of Ezekiel in the Bible, jumping on dry bones" -- a change that barely slowed up the action and yet made the reference clear.
  5. To delete the reference altogether if it's not fully necessary in the text.
When I come upon a reference or word that gives me pause, and which I think might cause the child reader pause in turn, I try to figure out which approach to the difficulty seems to be the right one -- including, of course, leaving it alone -- and then I suggest that to the author or translator. We discuss it as needed (sometimes extensively) and settle on a plan of attack. All of these decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, as what works for one book may not work in another, and a reference that doesn't work at one point in the book may be perfectly fine later. To return to the Moribito example, the translator (Cathy Hirano), author (Nahoko Uehashi), and I decided to cut the reference to the first of the two baths, because:
  1. The baths took place early in the book, so the reader may not have fully committed to the story, and we didn't want to give that reader an excuse to put the book down because s/he found something difficult or weird. If the two-bath reference had come in chapter 12 or 13, say, instead of chapter 2, when the reader is fully invested in the characters and the (awesome, unlike-any-Western-fantasy-you'll-read, kick-ass) action, then we might have left it alone.
  2. Along similar lines, the main plot of the book has not yet started (that happens in the very next scene), so having two baths was slowing up our getting to that action.
  3. While the book draws on elements of Japanese culture, it is a fantasy set in a fantasy world, so we were neither being untrue to Japanese culture nor losing the opportunity to teach children about it by changing the reference.
And that is the way it was published. We editors think about this a LOT, trying to imagine our ideal reader for each book, what that reader will tolerate, what adult gatekeepers think child readers will tolerate, whether the reference really detracts from the pleasure of the book (my first priority in editing as in reading -- pleasure), and so forth. But the final decision is always the author's.

In the followup discussion, another listmember posted a link to a fascinating article by the British author Anne Fine on updating her own books' references: Read it here.