If we start editing the work of Roald Dahl when do we stop?

20 February 2023

Puffin, an imprint of book publisher Penguin, has altered a selection of words in some of the children’s books written by late British author Roald Dahl:

In 1964 novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which has been adapted twice as films in 1971 and 2005, starring Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp respectively, for example, the phrase “enormously fat” has been edited to just “enormous.” The same phrase in 1970 book “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” adapted as an animated film by Wes Anderson with a voice cast of George Clooney and Meryl Streep in 2009, has also been edited to “enormous.”

The removal of the word “fat” is one of a number of such changes.

A sentence accompanying the copyright notice in the most recent prints of Dahl’s books, alerted readers to the amendments, according to Ed Cumming, Genevieve Holl-Allen, and Benedict Smith, writing for British newspaper The Telegraph:

The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvellous characters. This book was written many years ago, and so we regularly review the language to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.

This is a thorny issue. Times have changed, and language, and use of words, once considered commonplace, have the previously unrealised, or unacknowledged potential, to offend some people. But — and say what you will about Dahl — changing words written by someone who is no longer alive, when they clearly have no say in the matter, is also problematic. The question posed by the practice is obvious. Once we start amending someone else’s previously published work — especially that of a deceased person — where do we stop?

It’s best we don’t start, and instead educate people, says Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America:

Better than playing around with these texts is to offer introductory context that prepares people for what they are about to read, and helps them understand the setting in which it was written.

It’s well worth taking the time to read through the entire of Nossel’s Twitter thread on the subject.


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