I didn’t really read a lot when I was a kid. I could read, of course, but I didn’t really start a habit of reading on a continual basis until I was at least a teenager. So, since I missed out on a lot of the books that are written primarily for children, I’ve been reading a lot of “Young Adult” books lately, both old books and newly published ones as well. Once I find good ones I read them to Mr. C, or if they are too advanced for him now, I’ll at least keep track of them to read to him when he is older.
Recently, while browsing the remainder table of a bookstore, I came across some children’s books published by New York Review Books. NYRB specializes in reprinting neglected and out of print fiction, mostly adult fiction, but they do also have a large selection of books for children. One of the books on the remainder table was Bob, Son of Battle by Alfred Ollivant. From the cover, it appeared to be a story about a dog, and since Mr. C loves dogs, and I usually like books from this publisher, I bought it.
Once I came home, Ms. J told me that she thought that she might have an old copy of the book in a box somewhere. I thought I’d compare the two editions and was amazed that I actually found the original in our stack of boxes in the garage. Here they are, old and new.
I thought I would just have to compare how the books were published, book nerd things like differences in the illustrations, and fonts, but then I saw the note on the front cover of the new edition “A new edition by Lydia Davis”. It seems that the new edition is a “reinterpretation” of the original book by Alfred Ollivant. According to a blurb on the back cover, Lydia Davis has “rendered the challenging idioms of the original into fluent and graceful English of our day.”. When I bought the new edition, I didn’t know anything about the book or the author. I’ve since learned that it was a popular children’s book when it was first published in 1898, there is also a sequel ‘Danny’, published in 1902. The dialogue is written in the dialect of the setting, Northern England area of Cumbria. I then assumed that any changes to the original, more than 100 year old children’s book, would only be to make the dialog easier to read.
Here’s a sample of some dialog from the original, the speaker is a farmer who is bragging about his dog, the title character, Bob:
“G’long, Sam’l Todd!” he cried. “Yo’ never happy unless yo making’ yo’self miser’ble. I niver see such a chap. Never win agin? Why, oor young Bob he’ll mak’ a right un. I tell yo’, and I should know. Not as what he’ll touch Rex son o’ Rally, mark ye! I’m niver saying’ so, Sam’l Todd. Ah, he was a one, was Rex. I could tell yo’ a tale or two o’ Rex.
At first, it can be a bit hard to understand, but imagine reading it aloud to a six year old. You can’t help but read it in the same dialect, waving your arms around acting like the farmer in the story. At least that’s what I do!
And now here’s the same passage in the new edition:
“Come, come Samuel Todd!” he cried. “You’re never happy unless you’re making yourself miserable. I’ve never seen such a chap. Never win again? Why, our young Bob will be a fine example, I tell you, and I should know. Not that he’ll be anything like as great as Rex, son of Rally, mind you!
I can see why they “updated’ the dialogue. The updated version is easier to read, I suppose. Though there’s no acting required here to show the character of the speaker, you can just easily read the updated dialog. Definitely easier, but a bit bland. Sometime it will also loose the true meaning when it is updated. Here’s a passage that was updated, most likely for political correctness; “A proper Gray Dog, I tell yo’. Wi’ the brains of a man and the way of a woman. Ah, yo’ canna beat ’em nohow, the Gray Dogs o’ Kenmuir!” The updated version reads; “A proper Gray Dog, I tell you. As clever as any person, and as gentle as the spring sunshine. Ah, you can’t beat ’em, the Gray Dogs of Kenmuir!”. The meaning is just about the same, but also not really the same.
Only the dialogue in the original could be considered difficult to read. The rest of the book is written in fairly standard prose of the time. Maybe the changes to the dialog would be OK, if that was the only thing changed, but unfortunately it is not. It seems as though the whole book has been rewritten, not just the dialog, but words, descriptions, entire paragraphs are changed.
‘In the kitchen, a long room with a red-tiled floor and latticed windows, a woman, white aproned and frail faced, was bustling about her morning business.”
‘The kitchen was a long room with a floor of red tiles and windows covered in patterns of crisscrossing ironwork. In it, a woman in a white apron with a delicate face was bustling about her morning work.’
I don’t get it, is “latticed” a hard word to understand ?
One more example, the farmer’s wife is encouraging a neighbor boy to have breakfast:
“I welly thowt yo’d forgot us this mornin’. Noo sit you’ doon, beside oor Maggie.” And soon he, too was engaged in a task twin to the girl’s.
“I really thought you’d forgot us this morning. Now you sit down beside our Maggie.” And soon he was bending over his own bowl of bread and milk.
What’s wrong with ‘engaged in a task twin to the girl’s.’? I think if a kid is reading this, and has made it this far into the book, it’s only page 7, then they probably can figure it out. The new version has completely removed the style of the old. All of the examples above are taken from just the first eight pages of the book. Oh well, no returns on remainder books. I think I’ll stick with the old version.