Nobody outside a Trappist monastery on Mars can have failed to hear that the fourth Harry Potter book was published on 8 July.
In the New York Times on 10 July, Peter Gleick wrote that he had discovered with disappointment that the American publishers, Scholastic Press, had translated many British terms in the first of the books into their American equivalents — sellotaped to taped, lorry to truck, fortnight to two weeks, pitch to field, and so on. They also altered the title from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
You might feel these are minor changes, since few American readers will realise they have been made, much less care. But they do tend to obscure the British setting of the book, a large part of its appeal. And the title change is a clumsy conversion that loses the reference to the original philosopher’s stone, that mythical substance beloved of the alchemists that could turn base metals into gold, cure all disease and prolong life indefinitely.
However, Scholastic Press tells me they have made virtually no alterations to the most recent book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, seemingly feeling that with greater success comes greater willingness to accept such British terminology as skiving off (avoiding work).
The changes to the earlier volumes are surprising when you consider that Briticisms have been readily accepted in other imports. Take the recent film Chicken Run as an example. The Yorkshire dialect (you great lummox, nellypodging, I didn’t do owt!) hasn’t stopped it being successful in the US. Nor has its ironic homage to British World War Two prison-camp films, nor its gentle send-up of the WW2 fighter-pilot idiom and attitudes of the old cockerel (“Chocks away!”, “When I was in the RAF!”), nor the affectionate depiction of a certain kind of middle-aged British female (think of the knitting chicken in the big escape scene). I doubt that even the sly repetition of that complaint of the British about wartime GIs — “over paid, over-sexed, and over here” — puts American audiences off.
Mr Gleick’s greatest castigation was reserved for crumpet, which the translators of the first book reportedly changed to English muffin. There are two things wrong with this: one culinary, one cultural.
It is true that English muffins and crumpets are related things, though neither should be (or could be) confused with an American muffin, which to British eyes and taste buds is a sweet-tasting cake. Both muffins and crumpets are flat discs about three inches across and an inch or so deep, cooked in a pan or on a griddle. The main difference between them lies in the composition of the mixture used, which makes muffins feel and taste rather more like bread; in addition, muffins are baked on both sides, so they must be cut in two before they can be toasted. With crumpets, the cooking process generates distinctive deep dimples on one side.
It’s the cultural associations — immediately recognisable to most English readers — that matter most. Toasting crumpets for tea in front of an open fire on winter days in the company of parents or friends is an old image of comfortable, unthreatening middle-class English life of an older period. It’s associated especially with boarding school, and features in school stories going back more than a century, of which the Harry Potter books are just the most recent. You can’t expect an American youngster to appreciate all these subtleties, but to remove the potential of doing so is a pity.
Crumpets have been known for several centuries, though the origin of the name is obscure. It is first recorded in the modern spelling and sense in the eighteenth century, though earlier there was something called a crompid cake, where crompid means curved up or bent into a curve, which is what usually happens to thin cakes baked on a griddle; the word may be linked to crumb, crimp and other words from a common Germanic origin.
In the 1930s, the word became British English slang for a woman regarded as an object of sexual desire. No doubt men remembered their schooldays and associated female pulchritude with something tasty. (In the 1960s the British broadcaster Joan Bakewell was infamously described, in a quote attributed to the late Frank Muir, as “the thinking man’s crumpet”.) It was earlier a slang term for the head, and also served for a while as a term of endearment (as in P G Wodehouse’s Eggs, Beans and Crumpets).
It’s a word with many cultural undertones that’s worth retaining. Mr Gleick’s conclusion seems valid, at least for the first in the series: buy the British edition, not the attenuated American one. Let’s hope the forthcoming film is more faithful to the original.
[Thanks to Donald G Yeckel for telling me about the New York Times piece, and to Julane Marx for extra information and comments.]