The Dangerously Non-Dangerous Book for Boys

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  The Ten Commandments has been replaced by — wait for it — an essay on international human rights.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.

13 thoughts on “The Dangerously Non-Dangerous Book for Boys

  1. Please note the cultural difference beetwen Germany and Britain when it comes to heroism in war.

    While in Britain military history and the portraying of it as glorious and honourable is a essential part of the national psyche, in Germany it is not.

    I wouldn’t buy my children a book that glorifies soldiers as role models and what they do as heroic. I want my children to know that it is commiting violence against others and nothing else. I therefore wouldn’t buy the book. The book wouldn’t sell. The publisher would loose money. The publisher changes the book.

    Why translate such a book at all if it is cleary culturally incompatible? I have got no idea.

    Your point is valid Andrew, but if the book wouldn’t sell….

  2. As a pacificist I normally would not support “selling” the idea of war, BUT this book has its time and place, and this sort of censorship is never good. I would rather a son (or daughter) read that and ask questions about it then never be exposed to such “dangerous” ideas. Human rights are far more convincing when one considers the alternatives first, and react to them, rather than be confused why a chapter on human rights is stuck between two chapters that match the book’s title.

    Please do update if you hear from the authors.

    What is the German title?

  3. > the ‘opinion elite’ sense of privilege seems to have struck again

    ‘Sense’? There is no sensing going on here. The official intellectuals have done their assigned job of doing the thinking for everyone else. Even some do-no-good German parent that, in a surreal fit of disobedience, attempted to look behind the scenes to question the book’s origins would find that in fact it originated in the foreign Ausland where people hadn’t been raised with their precious Kultur. No wonder some things had to be rectified.

  4. Andrew:
    > because they might end up wanting to fight them. I rather doubt that would happen

    When I read/heard/learned about battles as a young boy of course I wanted to fight them. And quite often I did. I singlehandedly killed at least two million orcs while defending Minas Tirith. Ahhhhhhh, that were the times. 😉

    Anyway, I see the hubris of the German publisher and the book won’t reach the same audience as it did in the UK and that was it, but beside that maybe it’s not the end of the world just yet? As isn’t the US-edition of the German childrens book -heck, I forgot both the name of the book and the author- where they changed every picture containing nudity, ’cause the poor innocent american toddlers definitly couldn’t be confronted with that much truth.

  5. “What, a reasonable 12-year-old boy might ask, is so bloody dangerous about human rights?”

    A resonable German boy maybe. But in many parts of the world, being engaged in human rights can be more dangerous than playing rugby.

    One might of course also ask if the Ten Commandments really go so well with artillery fire.

    But I fully agree with you about censorship issue. Which does not mean that I would buy my son a book to teach him the Glories of War. Does it come with a body bag?

  6. If you click on the name link of the translator of this dangerous book you’ll notice that amazon comes up with 5 other publications this person hast either translated, published or written as an author. One that sounds particularily thilling is “Charakterisierung von Lipoprotein Rezeptoren mononuklearer Zellen mittels Fluoreszenz derivatiserter Lipoproteine (Taschenbuch)”. All I do understand of that is “Taschenbuch”, “paperback”. If amazon is not misleading by an accidental equality of names, this dangerous translation might have been the translators first attempt in the more literary realm of books. Perhaps it’s good behaviour in the world of science to improve books when translating them and he just wanted to do the original authors a favour?

  7. @Simon:

    Please note the cultural difference beetwen Germany and Britain when it comes to heroism in war.

    While in Britain military history and the portraying of it as glorious and honourable is a essential part of the national psyche, in Germany it is not.

    I wouldn’t buy my children a book that glorifies soldiers as role models and what they do as heroic. I want my children to know that it is commiting violence against others and nothing else. I therefore wouldn’t buy the book. The book wouldn’t sell.

    The whole point of the book is obviously lost on you. The book is about things that many British parents would find unsuitable for children too. If this was just another British children’s book, we wouldn’t be talking about it. A British parent might just as well have said: “I want my children to know that it is commiting violence against others and nothing else. I therefore wouldn’t buy the book. The book wouldn’t sell.” – but it did indeed sell. And it might have sold well in Germany too. Your prediction is completely unjustified.

    The publisher would loose money.

    Only losers spell “lose” like “loose.” Aside from that, when do German publishers (coughbuchpreisbindungcough) lose money on books that don’t sell well? Only if they paid too much for the publishing rights.

  8. “While in Britain military history and the portraying of it as glorious and honourable is a essential part of the national psyche, in Germany it is not.”

    In theory, it’s a good attitude. But as so often, it’s taken way too far in Germany. Pacifist here are outright militants; and that’s not an oxymoron.
    But it’s so typical of the German left. They’re in a constant state of real and played indignation about the most trivial issues. And they’re seemingly only happy when they can dictate what others have to think and how they have to act. One can’t voice a dissenting opinion in public without a barrage of superficial criticism. Unfortunately the whole media and education system is dominated by the left movement of the late 60s who are now in position of power, swung back and are exactly as intolerant and oppressive as the conservatives of the 50s they fought; if not more. I’m sick to death of worthless do-gooders, be they radical pacifists or environmentalists.

    Anyways, if you don’t like it, don’t read it. It’s as simple as that. Don’t demand that it’s censored as to not offend your precious sensibilities, and don’t have the nerve to dictate others what to consume and think.

    All in all, some countries could do with some more pacifism, but Germany also desperately needs a healthy sense of patriotism and a normal relationship to its military. Not everything is black and white, and there is a healthy middle ground there. Britain, among others, has it for the most part.

  9. *While in Britain military history and the portraying of it as glorious and honourable is a essential part of the national psyche, in Germany it is not.*

    Well, I’m English; but the only military history that stirs me is the German Tradition from Arminius to 1918. British — and American — abilities in that field of endeavour seem rather inadequate in comparison.

  10. @Stefan: you are either the biggest idiot on the internet or a nazi propagandist. Since I don’t want to debate either, I will only give you a quick pointer: crying about “liberal media” and “oppressive lefties” only realiy works in America, since europeans know what an actual left movement (I don’t think thats the right word, but I believe you can get what I want to express) looks like.

  11. The decision to alter the content of the book was almost certainly made by the German publisher. The translator may have made some initial suggestion, but the final decision would have been made by the publisher. Translators do not normally have the power to alter the contents of a book to anything like this extent. So the author’s decision to direct his complaint to the publisher is correct, and everyone else should aim their criticisms in that direction too, and not at the (relatively) hapless translator!

    Beyond complaining, the author probably has no legal grounds for action against the German publisher, although obviously that would depend on the terms under which the German rights to the book were purchased. Generally speaking, the publishers have a great deal of power in these situations; the translators and even authors have far less.

  12. I note that in the Dutch translation of this book, which my son just received for his birthday, has battles like Thermopylae, Waterloo and D-day. The ten commandments and the brief history of artillery are still in place. I haven’t found the rabbit-hunting yet.

  13. Bas, Or anyone who has bought or owns the Dutch translation,
    I have some questions: Are you Belgian or Dutch? Where did you get the Dutch translation? Do you like it enough to buy it again? I am looking to get it for my Flemish nephew.
    Any input is appreciated!

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