A short rant about Harry Potter

One of the very important things I had to bring back from Ireland this time was my own copies of the Harry Potter books, volumes one to five inclusive. (The other two were already here.) We’d started reading them to the kids last year, but to do so I had picked up the first three books cheaply in the thrift store here.

The problem with that, of course, being that they’re the US editions.

I have a beef with there being such a thing as a US edition of anything. Or a UK edition, for that matter; but, and maybe I’m kidding myself here, but I don’t think so, I can’t help thinking that the amendments made to UK books to change them to the US editions go deeper than the other way around.

So it was with a great sense of satisfaction and smugness that I went through the first few chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – sorry, that’s The Sorcerer’s Stone in the US, because heaven forfend the US publishers might credit readers with a little intelligence, apparently – and see exactly what changes were made. Here’s a little list I made.

Original (UK) vs. US edition

  • Philosopher’s stone – Sorcerer’s stone
  • dustbin – trash can
  • shan’t – won’t
  • sherbet lemons  – lemon drops
  • motorbike – motorcycle
  • bobble hats – bonnets
  • jumper with bobbles – sweater with puff balls
  • got – gotten
  • cooker – stove
  • Sellotape – Scotch tape
  • video recorder – VCR
  • comprehensive – public school
  • letter box – mail slot
  • post – mail (but the editor missed one!)
  • holiday – vacation
  • roundabout – carousel
  • food mixer – food processor
  • toilet – bathroom
  • rucksack – backpack
  • hoover – vacuum
  • crumpets – English muffins

(but not [luggage] trolley to cart, oddly enough, which I would have thought a very obvious one)

Now. Really. What a waste of time and a pandering to the US psyche and a dismissal of everyone else that all is. Why not just change the location to suburban New Jersey and be done with it? I mean, if the reader understands that this book is set in the UK, why not let the characters talk like Brits? As soon as Hermione says “gotten”, you can tell that something’s very rotten in the state of Hogwarts. Ron’s mother knitted woolly jumpers, not sweaters, for Christmas; and why on earth would anyone not understand what a motorbike is? Not to mention the fact that the changes aren’t even consistent – sometimes “sweets” become “candy” but other times not.

I want to know if they change the vocabulary in Pride and Prejudice for American readers too. Wuthering Heights? Or The Secret Garden, if we’re just talking about children’s books? If not, what a shuddering shock American students are in for when they have to decipher those tomes, since they’ve had everything handed to them on a plate whenever they read more modern British books.

Growing up in Ireland is not exactly the same as growing up in England, but nobody made any changes to all the British-authored books I grew up devouring. I learned what comprehensive schools were from the context (not in Harry Potter; well before that), because we don’t really have them in Ireland; the same goes for O levels and A levels and GCSEs. I’ve never eaten a sherbet lemon, but I would probably imagine it pretty easily, just as well as I could imagine a lemon drop, for that matter.

Looking in the other direction, my copy of The Outsiders was not a US edition, but I puzzled over the mention of a girl’s bangs for a long time, because we called that a fringe. I figured out that it was something to do with her hair, and the world must have kept turning because I managed to read the book anyway. Similarly with Amy March’s jar of pickled limes in Little Women. I was barely familiar with limes, never mind pickles of any nature, but I coped admirably in spite of it. (I still have very little concept of how you would go about pickling a lime, or why you would want to try.)

Massive generalization alert, but here goes anyway: people all over the world have a greater understanding of daily life in the US than the US does of other countries. People all over the world see US movies and television shows, for the most part not dubbed into their own languages but only with subtitles if necessary. And I’m pretty sure when we read American books they’ve been much more minimally dealt with than everything going in the other direction.

Far be it from me to take a good job from some editor’s hands, but turning UK books into US books (and vice versa) is totally unnecessary. At best it’s busywork, and at worst it’s contributing to the dumbing down of American society.

But (she said as she finally climbed down off her high horse) at least now I can read my children the right versions of Harry Potter without second-guessing every awkward-sounding phrase. It turns out there just are some of those anyway.

US and UK copies of Harry Potter first book

With bonus Star Wars cup because I didn’t bother to crop this.

20 thoughts on “A short rant about Harry Potter

  1. Megan

    Here’s the even more bizarre thing: Canada gets the British editions. Unless there are Canadian editions that are very like the British editions. We get the British covers too.

    We do not, sadly, get the Stephen Fry audiobooks, but then, we are only a colony after all.

    And, like most Canadian children of the 80s/90s, I grew up watching a lot of British children’s tv as well. I wonder if that’s still the case for wee Canucks now.

  2. Sarah

    Timely post – I’m re-reading mine at the moment and like you I treasure my editions from home (only 1-4 I’m afraid, I’d moved here by the time the rest came out). Agree completely with you – I prefer the covers on the British editions too!

  3. Sara

    I have been in so many arguments with Americans over this who actually believe that it is the sorcerers stone!!!! It pains me to read just how many changes they’ve made it’s actually very disappointing! I’m surprised they haven’t tried to bring out an American version of the movies (please don’t let them do that!!). So glad to hear you have your original copies back, may your children treasure them 🙂

    1. Beany

      Sara, we re-watched the first HP film adaptation last weekend, and I’m pretty sure that it’s already partially Americanized. They certainly have “mail” in there. And Hermione said “sorceror’s stone” at some stage, so it wasn’t just the title.

      Reading the second book to number two child, I noticed that while they switched Sellotape to Scotch tape, the magical version was still “Spellotape”.

  4. Lisa | Mama.ie

    Totally concur Christine. It’s localization for the sake of it, and completely unnecessary. I too remember puzzling over “bangs” – took me a while to figure it out, but eventually I did. And then years later when I visited the US, I was able to understand what they were talking about thanks to those books.

  5. Ana

    That is disheartening. I always loved reading books set in the UK or other English speaking countries precisely because I enjoyed seeing & learning the little differences in speech. I had no idea I was reading a “US edition” of HP.

  6. Karen

    I’m going to agree with everything here except for one: comprehensive – public school. The British/Irish school system is too complicated for American children of 8 years to understand. (It is not particularly complicated in and of itself, but all foreign school systems are complicated for outsiders.) And it makes a difference where the children are going. Even as an adult, I had trouble with sentences like “My children go to the local comprehensive.” Where are they going? A large store? The local prison? A reform school? A public-run day care? We just don’t know. Everything else in the list is obvious, or not that important: “Jumpers with bobbers” is not clear, but she is knitting something, we don’t much care what it is. (if I wanted to be difficult, I would now ask why on earth they are called “jumpers”–you jump into them? Are they suitable attire for jumping? But of course, I am not difficult 😉 Just my thoughts.

    1. Maud

      But what’s wrong with coming up against something you don’t understand once in a while? You ask a question, or you ignore it. Unless there’s a safety issue going on (like “Always walk on the pavement” – that’s one that could go horribly wrong) there’s no need for kids to understand everything straight away. I don’t understand everything that happens in the West Wing, but it never stopped me watching it.

  7. suzannacatherine

    I truly hate to admit this but I’ve never read the HP books. (I know, I could probably be stoned for that, in some literary circles). However, if I ever do read them, I will search to the ends of the earth for the UK editions. I love the differences in the language we both call “English”!

  8. Jennifer

    I ran into the same thing reading Bridget Jones’s Diary–I first read a UK library version of it (don’t know why my American library had that). Though in all honesty, I had NO IDEA what “stones” meant whatsoever, so Bridget’s ever-changing weight fluctuations meant nothing to me. So in that case alone, translation helped. But generally speaking, I know what “trainers” and “dustbin” and “rucksack” are.

  9. Therese

    I loved this post. My kid corrects me on some of my words and I just correct him back – the little yank. (P.S. I went to a comprehensive!)

  10. tric

    Great post. For starters I hated the harry potter books and had to ‘suffer’ through three of them as my son was not a good enough reader to read them himself.
    I do totally agree with you. What harm if we don’t understand fully, that is the joy of diversity. I do think we molly coddle the Americans who seem to think there is a very small world out there, all of whom probably wish they were American!
    A good friend of mine got a right roasting last night on facebook. He is in the US one year now and he commented on something and wrote about it being in ‘the trunk’ of the car. It was hilarious. His Irish buddies went to town on him.

  11. Viviane

    People in France watch so many US shows and movies that lots of them are quite sure that French president of the court is to be addressed as “votre honneur” (your honor) and that “jusqu’à ce que la mort nous sépare” (till death do us part) is actually said during a French wedding (which it is not)…
    But I did not know that British literature was edited for the US market.

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