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Divorcing a language from its social milieu

india Updated: Aug 01, 2010 01:26 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya
Soumya Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
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Enid Blyton’s publishers are “sensitively and carefully” revising the texts of 10 books of her Famous Five series, ridding them of expressions that might seem outdated now and replacing them with what they think are contemporary and immediately comprehensible phrases.

“Mercy me” will be changed to “oh, no”; “it’s all very peculiar” to “it’s all very strange”; “school tunic” to “uniform”; “she must be jolly lonely all by herself” to “she must get lonely all by herself”; and “mother and father” to “mum and dad”; and so on.

Next month, Hodder Children’s Books will publish these 10 revised Famous Five books (if you don’t know who the Famous Five are, and haven’t read their adventures, you should skip this column), starting with Five on a Treasure Island, which first appeared in 1942.

The others in the series will follow over the next seven months. If the demand for the redone books is huge, the publishers will look at reissuing so-called contemporary versions of much of Blyton’s enormous – and still enormously popular – backlist.

Children, at least in the UK (where the research based on which this decision was taken was conducted), seemed to have had trouble with the outdated phrases. This bringing up to date will apparently engender ease of reading and understanding, thereby inculcating in children the habit and love of the written word.

But this exercise runs counter to the whole philosophy of reading; it is at odds with how and why a child learns to be passionate about books. We tend to never acknowledge this, but close reading is a skill. More importantly, it is an acquired skill. A child needs to teach herself (and we her) to acquire the knack for close reading.

Writing is an act of imagination. But reading is also an act of imagination. Many of us grew up on Enid Blyton. The experiences of the Famous Five (or Adventurous Four or Five Find Outers) were remote from our own, but that was the charm of it. It was one of the first lessons in reading: the imaginative leap we make when we immerse ourselves in a text, the manner in which — to borrow from the critic Louis Bayard — we “grasp the mystery by which words make worlds”.

Shakespeare’s language may not be our own, but it makes a travesty of the experience of reading as much as of writing to suggest that we make it “accessible”. Language cannot be divorced from its historical and cultural context.

“There is no nation but the imagination,” the Scottish writer, Andrew O’Hagan, is fond of saying. “How do we keep company with our imaginations, what do we do to be so alive? It’s easy — we read books.”

To rewrite children’s books and divorce a particular kind of language from its milieu is to traduce the place imagination has in our – and our children’s lives.