In 2006, a British father and son wrote The Dangerous Book for Boys. It’s supposed to evoke those long-past days when, instead of vegetating for hours in front of glimmering consoles, young boys dreamed of adventure, played outside, and sometimes got hurt. It had information on Antarctic explorers, famous historical battles, building catapults, tying knots, navigating in the woods. Plus anecdotes about bone-crushing sports and their heroes. And some sections on history and honor and loyalty and other old-fashioned virtues. It sounds like a kind of updated Boy Scout manual. I should note that I haven’t read the book. As will shortly become clear, this post isn’t really about the book’s contents.
The book was a success in Britain, and soon an American version came out. Some changes were made — mainly removing Britain-specific themes like rugby, and adding in more references to American history.
Now, the German version is here (G). But wait — we wouldn’t want to make Germany a dangerous place, would we? No, we wouldn’t. So the entire chapter on historical battles has been removed, as has the "Brief History of Artillery." The Ten Commandments has been replaced by — wait for it — an essay on international human rights. Any mention of rabbit hunting is also gone. The first reviewer (G) on the Amazon.de page is disgusted: "[T]he English version was so successful because, among other reasons, it addressed subjects that run contrary to the gobbeldygook of ‘peace education’, and which boys would actually find interesting, at least in secret."
I’m with him. These changes do at least two impermissible things. First of all, they alter the contents of the book. This is the capital crime, the cardinal sin, of the translator’s art. It would be equivalent to me translating a German novel and substituting all the sex scenes with uplifting homilies to chastity, because I personally believed that people like the ones portrayed in the novel shouldn’t be having sex. Second, the ‘opinion elite’ sense of privilege seems to have struck again. The changes were not made because the original references would not be understood in Germany (which would be a legitimate reason, given authorial consent), but simply to ‘disappear’ aspects of the book which might make the average German literary professional uneasy. The chapter on human rights is especially ludicrous. What, a reasonable 12-year-old boy might ask, is so bloody dangerous about human rights?
These changes reflect almost unimaginable self-aggrandizement, I would say. Whatever German literary professional made these changes expressed the unmistakable belief that his values and his sensibilities are more legitimate than those of his audience. The fact that many people may have bought this book precisely because it’s the kind of book that might have information about battles seems to be irrelevant. The changes also reflect a fundamental distrust of the public — boys are being denied information about battles presumably because they might end up wanting to fight them. I rather doubt that would happen, but who am I to question the immortal wisdom of a German editor?
I don’t want to be too hasty assigning blame here. I don’t know whether the translator himself was responsible for any or all of these changes. And if the authors approved them or instigated them, then I suppose we’ve just got to grit our teeth and accept it. I have send off an email to the authors to see whether they know of these changes. I’ll let you know what I find out.
UPDATE: I got a nice response from one of the authors of the book. He said that he understood there would be some changes to the book to make it more suitable for a German audience, but that he was not aware of the extent of the changes and did not approve them. He said he would be complaining to the publishers.
I should note that negotiating translation rights is a complex business. It’s always good to keep in mind that authors may have less control over translations than the lay public might think.