Choking on ire

I am indignant. I am fuming. I had a blog post scheduled for this morning, but it has been obscured by the deep red anger that is clouding my vision.

Are any of you, my lovely readers, speakers of English as a second language? Because if you are, you’ll no doubt agree than the opening paragraph above is fairly inaccessible. Until you’re truly fluent – and even after you have become so – the nuances of English can be hard to grasp.

This fact seems to have slipped, unnoticed, past Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, as he lambastes our Macmillan Graded Reader rewrite of The Great Gatsby.

Let us put aside the fact that, as an experienced journalist, Ebert should first and foremost have done enough research to realise that the Macmillan Graded Readers are not for native-English-speaking American or English students. Let us chalk that down to the eternal tendency journalists seem to have to ignore the full facts of any situation if they might obstruct a good story. (But may I suggest, with his talent for stirring up the angry mob via half-truths, Ebert might consider writing for The Daily Mail?)

You all know how I feel about reading. You all know how I feel about the abysmal state of grammar and punctuation as applied by otherwise intelligent adults across the UK. You all know how much I love books, how much I loved working at the Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle, at Waterstone’s as a Children’s and YA specialising bookseller, as a volunteer at a local school in Leamington listening to young readers who struggled with their words. I am passionate about reading. Much of my life is spent in discussing books, and much of my income on buying them. I am that Aunt – the one who eschews toys and games in favour of books every birthday and Christmas.

And yes, I do judge people by what they read. I did used to clock the women who came into Waterstones to purchase Katie Price’s “novels”. I would steer Dan Brown aficionados away from the ill-written popularist fiction under B and towards Foucault’s Pendulum by Eco instead. And I would laughingly tell the 30-something woman buying Twilight that no, she wasn’t alone, yes, I too had stayed up into the small hours hooked on the saga, and yes, I did judge both her and myself for it. (I still maintain that Meyer’s novels are absolutely appalling – but there is no denying their addiction factor!)

But sometimes judgement is not an option. Sometimes we have to accept that sharing the canon is about the culture more than the literature. Sometimes we need to hook people in to the story in order to allow them access to the words.

No-one would deny the link between booksales and television or film adaptations. After Channel 4’s Pillars of the Earth last autumn, we sold Ken Follet’s masterpiece by the crateload. Following last winter’s BBC adaption of Small Island, we received and sold more Andrea Levy books than our pyramids could hold. And don’t make me return to the Twilight saga, and the effect Robert Pattinson has had on Dark Fiction across the YA genre.

Yet no-one slates movies for oversimplifying the story. No-one identifies that film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings fail to include the songs and poetry for which Tolkein’s novels are often discussed. It is accepted that films are about telling great tales – and about converting some small percentage of the audience into readers, who’ll go out and either devour the original classic with joy and delight, or persevere with the language of the original because they already know it’s worth it.

The Macmillan Readers are about the story. They’re about allowing an audience with a limited vocabulary – and a limited understanding of the huge complexities the native-speaker can apply to English sentence structure – access to an important aspect of our culture. They’re about opening doors to conversation with natives on intellectual topics. And, as one commenter explains, they’re about encouraging learners to persevere with their studies:

I teach English as a foreign language in Japan , mostly to adults. I give my students these type of novels by MacMillan and other publishers.
Why? Because most of them will never achieve the level of English ability to read the original, but mainly, for the hope that one or two may be motivated to work hard enough and long enough to read the original.

The skill that goes into condensing a classic into an enormously limiting vocabulary of only 1,600 words (there are recognised to be over 1.2 million words in the English language and 8,500 new words added every year. The average person has an active vocabulary set of approx 50,000 words, a college graduate of about 75,000. This 911 word blog post alone employs 471 unique words.) is beyond extraordinary. I urge anyone who doubts that fact to try converting just one chapter of a canon classic into the Intermediate level 1,600 vocabulary set – Fitzgerald, Conrad, Hemingway – their language range is frankly humongous.

Our Readers are not designed to dumb down America students. They are not designed for American students AT ALL. They are no comment upon, nor indication of, the state of the education system in any native-English speaking country. They are designed to provide ESL learners with a gateway to English’s great, varied and internationally recognised abundance of classic literature.

Should we be criticised for such a thing?


4 thoughts on “Choking on ire

  1. Thank you for bring up a very interesting topic. English is my second language, and I have been communicating in exclusively in English for almost a decade now, but am still not as nuanced in my expressions as I would be in my native language. I would like to hear your opinion on reading translated work instead of the simplified English versions, since that is another good option to share the story and culture. A truly excellent translation may capture more of the story,
    Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings I read first in German (the poems and songs in the classic translation are wonderful, and did not lose any of their magic, I actually still prefer some over the original… the most recent German translation was supposed to be easier to understand, but turned out terrible. In that case I would prefer a simplified original over a terrible translation. (If you think Dan Brown is bad, think of badly translated Dan Brown.) Simplified great novels still have a good narrative, better than other simple texts that may end up plain boring to read. On the other hand I improved my English simply because I wanted to read my favorite author’s original words (Terry Pratchett’s books are difficult to translate, and some references took me years until I really got them). It did not matter to me that I did not understand many of the less common words at first. It was frustratingly slow, and took a lot of patience. I would have never thought out a simplified reader of the work (German is close enough in a sense) but they may work much better for others – especially if their native language in is very different from English. I could not have done the same for Chinese (and it did not work as a technique to improve my French), and the ignorance of Ebert that not everyone has the same background and talent for language that would allow to skip the simplified reader level. I have to admit that I did not see the point of simple readers before, but you changed my mind. Condensing a classic to Simplified English should be counted as a translation, which takes the same amount of skill as translating into a different language. Translators do not get enough credit as is, and sadly less and less effort is made.It may take actually more skill, since the spirit of the work has to be kept intact, and most nuanced expressions are missing that would exist when translating to another “full” language. I apologize if I rambled on too much, but hope you find my comment interesting.

    • Feel free to ramble, Mona, it’s fascinating to hear the other side of things from, someone with experience of ESL learning!

      Translations can be a bit hit and miss in my experience. Some of my favourite authors include Umberto Eco, who is Italian, Boris Akunin – Russian – and Cornelia Funke – German. Having never read the originals I cannot say for certain how well the author’s voice has been translated across, but both Eco and Akunin in translation have a very individual and recognisable voice, and Funke’s Inkheart Trilogy are unmistakable in tone. And I’d have no chance of reading any in the original, let alone grasping their nuanced meanings!

  2. Caroline, you’ve hit the nail right on the head as usual. Please tell me that you sent this blog post directly to the very irritating man himself: Roger Ebert? I’d love to hear his reaction. Let’s get this post to go viral against his article… Uh it really gets to me when journalists don’t do their research and then offer a very strong opinion based on completely incorrect facts. In more than half of the conversation that followed that article, people were talking about an incorrect fact! Urgh. Now I’m really riled up too!

    • Oh no – don’t get riled up! You should have seen/heard Laine and I on Friday, seething at our desks…

      Happy to go viral – not sure how to achieve that though!

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