Whew, ALA is finished! The conference, I mean. I assume the organization is still limping along. The only fun news so far is that the ALA Council passed the resolution urging Congress to pass the DREAM Act. When the Council passes resolutions on tangential political topics, they almost always take the losing side. It’s almost as if Congress does whatever the ALA doesn’t want them to do. But they usually at least pass the resolution before the political failure, rather than after. Next they urge Congress to not pass TARP or something.
A kind reader sent this on to me even before it started making the library news rounds, but I was so busy preparing for ALA Midwinter that I didn’t pay attention. Now that I’m finished with Midwinter, and have exhausted myself with free food and drink, I wanted to comment, even though the news is sooo last week.
As the newspaper of record tells us,
A new edition of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is missing something.
Throughout the book — 219 times in all — the word “nigger” is replaced by “slave,” a substitution that was made by NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Alabama, which plans to release the edition in February….
(The book also substitutes “Indian” for “injun.”)
For some reason, librarians are interested in this news, and they don’t seem impressed with the delicate sensitivities of the editor and publisher of this volume. LJ Librarian of the Year Nancy Pearl isn’t at all happy. (Ahem, LJ, just when am I going to be the LJ Librarian of the Year? Or at least a Mover and Shaker? Haven’t I moved and shaken more librarians than anyone else around?)
I can certainly see why some librarians would be upset about it, especially those at the Office of Ineffectual Freedom who remind us about “banned” books every year. Huckleberry Finn is a “banned” book goldmine for them because lots of people challenge the book on school reading lists, and it has for some bizarre reason the designation of “classic literature.” That way librarians can tell everyone they’re defending a classic, rather than another flash in the pan children’s book about penguins.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of anything by Mark Twain, since I consider Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and the rest to be glorified local color fiction, like Uncle Remus but with more words. If I wanted ignorant country boys pulling pranks and speaking in dialect, I’d watch old episodes of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” At least those boys look good in tight jeans.
But if it is a classic, it’s that much more worth defending! The problem is, a bowdlerized Huck Finn is no longer a classic. This takes away some of the OIF’s best armor.
No longer a classic, you say! Yes, I do say. The bowdlerization has made an already boring book even more boring. It’s not the political correctness of the word substitution, but it’s inaccuracy that bothers me, persnickety librarian that I am.
Look at the first substitution, “slave” for “nigger.” Problem #1: the word “slave” also appears in Huck Finn (11 times). How do we know which is which?
Problem #2: the bigger problem. The two words do not mean the same thing. For example, here’s a quote from Huck Finn:
“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio–a mulatter, most as white as a white man.”
In the bowdlerization, this sentence would have to read, “there was a free slave,” thus making complete nonsense of the phrase.
If the editor wanted to protect delicate sensibilities and keep some sense, he would have needed to use another word or phrase, and there’s just not one. You can’t say, “There was a free African-American,” because the two terms aren’t the same.
This is why lexicographers get it wrong, too. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives the definition as “usually offensive; a black person.” But “black person” no more translates “nigger” than does “African-American.” Also, I would be willing to bet, that the word as used today is usually not offensive, because it’s not used in the charged interracial social context that gives the word its power to offend.
There is no adequate synonym of the word that captures the nasty connotations the word has developed in the last 150 years. It’s just not possible. You can define it, maybe. It’s a deliberate racial slur in some contexts referring to an African-American.
Yet one can’t substitute something like “racial slur in some contexts for an African-American,” because then the sentence would have to read, “There was a free racial slur for an African-American,” which would be gibberish, plus historically inaccurate, since no Twain character would ever say African-American.
Maybe they could put brackets around the explanatory phrase. “There was a free [racial slur for African-American].” The brackets couldn’t be any more distracting than the dialect.
Similar problems exists for the other substitution, “Indian” for “injun.” Injuns are not Indians. Indians are people from India. Other than their self-proclaimed names, no one seems quite sure what to call the peoples formerly known as injuns.
“Native American” is inaccurate, since anyone born in the U.S. is a native American. “American Indian” is just as problematic.
Besides, 5 of the 11 times the word “injun is used,” it’s in the saying “Honest injun,” which is an idiomatic phrase with a distinct meaning. No one has ever said, “Honest Indian.”
One would have thought a professor of literature would be more sensitive to issues of dynamic and formal equivalence in translation, but I guess not. He’s turned a teachable moment into a forgettable book.
As I said, this bowdlerized Huck Finn will no longer be a classic, which will make it harder for the ALA to defend when it’s challenged, which it’s sure to be on grounds of literary taste alone.
If I had a child assigned this edition, I would protest on the grounds that the editor had taken a book for semi-literates and turned it into a book for complete illiterates. I wonder what the OIF would have to say about that!