Reading & Literacy

Adaptation, Translation, or Bowdlerization?

By Amy Wickner — January 03, 2013 1 min read
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“Sanitizing Children’s Literature,” a Commentary that first appeared in the December 12 issue of Education Week, has been garnering a lot of attention online. In it, Anita Voelker, an associate professor of education at Messiah College, takes teachers and publishers to task for bowdlerizing literature for the classroom.

While the removal of references to smoking in “A Visit From St. Nicholas” first sparked her outrage, Voelker argues that a pattern of preemptive editing to “protect” children may be to their detriment. Voelker considers critical literacy and perspective on the past to be important ways for parents to get involved in their children’s education. She objects, however, when such engagement resembles attempts to “artificially sanitize the world.”

Voelker’s not alone in fearing that literature is at risk of being edited beyond recognition. In English Journal‘s High School Matters column, Michael LoMonico of the Folger Shakespeare Library recently lamented the use of modern translations of classics in English classrooms. Less Cliff’s Notes than full-length adaptations, modern retellings of Shakespeare, for example, paraphrase and reword the Bard’s lines to emphasize themes, characters, and plot over language. LoMonico argues that a great deal of art and opportunity is lost when students are not exposed to the original language of “difficult” classics:

When students are given a "modern" version of a play or novel, are they even aware that they are not reading what the author wrote? When a ninth grader tells her parents that they are reading Romeo and Juliet in class, does she even know that it's someone else's version? Do teachers tell them that the real stuff is too hard?

Like Voelker, LoMonico objects to the assumption, on the part of educators, parents, and publishers, that young readers must be protected—from unpleasant images, difficult language, and more. Do you agree? Do you find decisions of this kind with regard to literature objectionable, or do you consider them realistic solutions within the purview of educators?

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.