Danger lurks when words are changed to suit modern sensitivities.

Consider the children’s books of best-selling author Roald Dahl, who died in 1990. In 2021 Dahl’s family sold video rights to streaming giant Netflix for £500 million.

Now publisher Random House/Puffin, with agreement from the Dahl family, is reissuing Dahl’s books with sanitized language. Hundreds of words deemed offensive have been altered in the dozens of Dahl books that collectively sold over 300 million copies in multiple languages. 

For example, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a character is no longer ‘enormously fat,’ he is simply ‘enormous’. In The Witches a female character is a ‘business owner’ not a ‘cashier in a supermarket’. Elsewhere ‘mothers and fathers’ is changed to ‘family’, ‘boys and girls’ to ‘children’, ‘ladies and gentlemen’ to ‘folks’.

And so on, all in the name of inclusion and tolerance, of not wanting to offend.

Dahl himself was a vehement opponent of his words being censored. In a 1982 conversation with painter Francis Bacon, he said: ‘I’ve warned my publishers that if they later on so much as change a single comma in one of my books, they will never see another word from me. Never! Ever!‘

Being dead, Dahl lost the battle.

Censorship and banning books have been around for centuries. Shakespeare was censored, and Mark Twain’s works even now are under attack, particularly Huckleberry Finn which was published in 1884. 

We’re aghast

What we now euphemistically refer to as the ‘N’ word appears over 200 times in Huckleberry Finn. To our 21st century sensitivities we’re aghast that the New York Public Library in the 1890s removed Huckleberry Finn from its children’s reading room not because of the ‘N’ word but because Huck ‘scratched’ when he itched and because Twain used the word ‘sweat’ instead of ‘perspiration.’

Asked for comment, Twain said publicity over the incident would sell more books. He was right.  Huck Finn is still in print and has sold 20 million copies in over 50 languages.

Decades passed before opposition arose to the ‘N’ word.

Like Dahl, Twain objected to censorship and opposed any alteration of his published manuscript.  Concerning censorship of Huckleberry Finn, Twain wrote, ‘censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.’

Scholars like Peter Messent of the University of Nottingham say that ‘to tamper with the author’s words because of the sensibilities of present-day readers is unacceptable.  The minute you do this Huckleberry Finn stops being the book that Twain wrote.’

Is he right? There is of course another side to the censorship controversy.

Twain scholar Alan Gribben of Auburn University in Montgomery writes concerning Huckleberry Finn that unless ‘hurtful epithets’ are removed ‘this important work of literature will fall off curriculum lists worldwide.’  The argument being, make some changes to keep the book on library shelves.

One solution

Wouldn’t one solution be a note in the preface specifying the words that have been excised and their replacements?

Bear in mind that William Faulkner called Twain ‘the father of American literature’ while Ernest Hemingway wrote, ‘all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn’.

Censoring words is not as bad as banning entire books but the restrictions have the same intent. As a journalist in apartheid South Africa in 1975 I gained access to the banned books collection at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Off limits to the public, the locked cabinets in the library annex took up an entire wall.  My permit approved, I literally gasped when the librarian turned a key and opened the locked doors of the L and M section revealing dozens of titles by Vladimir Lenin and freedom fighter Eduardo Mondlane, whose Struggle for Mozambique was the book I sought.

 Altogether South Africa’s Afrikaner nationalist government banned 45,000 books, most on the grounds of they were ‘undesirable.’ Five decades later book publishers– without government prodding– have become the censors. Why are certain Roald Dahl words excised? Because they are deemed undesirable.

Under threat

Freedom of speech, which encompasses censorship, is under threat throughout the English-speaking world. Campus activists shut down or cancel speakers whose views are at variance to prevailing woke norms. These zealots are blissfully unaware that their acts are opposite to the tenets of the free speech movement launched on American campuses in 1964.

Thank goodness we’ve not reached the dire straits that George Orwell warned about in his classic 1984.

‘Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.’

We ignore the warning signs at our peril.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Washington writer Barry D. Wood for two decades was chief economics correspondent at Voice of America News, reporting from 25 G7/8, G20 summits. He is the Washington correspondent of RTHK, Hong Kong radio. Wood's earliest reporting included covering key events in South and southern Africa, among them the Portuguese withdrawal from Mozambique and Angola and the Soweto uprising in the mid-1970s. He is the author of the book Exploring New Europe, A Bicycle Journey, based his travels – by bicycle – through 14 countries of the former Soviet bloc after the fall of Russian communism. Read more of his work at econbarry.com. Watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07OIjoanVGg