Roald Dahl's Matilda has been one of my favorite books since childhood. I pulled it out recently and re-read it. Favorite books have a way of revealing new things as the reader gets older, and this time I was in a position to notice just how many little details there are that reveal the book's English origins.

Some of them would be familiar to anyone who's read Harry Potter, even the US-English translated editions (more on that later). Miss Trunchbull is a headmistress, not a principal; for a post-Potter world that's probably the easiest one, after calling a female parent Mum instead of Mom. Matilda's mother has her "favourite television programme" and her father counts his car profits in pounds. Others are trickier. The book notes that Matilda sometimes prepared Borovil or Ovaltine instead of hot chocolate when reading her library books. We know about Ovaltine pretty well in the US, but not so much Borovil--now that I have Wikipedia access I was able to look it up. The grade levels in Matilda's school are called forms. There are too many of these little "tells" to count.

Speaking, as I am, from the relatively privileged position of someone who learned to read early and had little trouble with it, I always enjoyed these little details, even as a child. I felt like I was learning about other places in the world even as I was enjoying the story, and I loved that although a word wasn't quite the same one I would have used, it was clear from context what it meant and I could figure it out anyway. These books were quite popular when I was young, and I don't remember anyone complaining of difficulty in reading them.

That was why Scholastic's decision to translate Harry Potter into American English was so mystifying to me. I picked up the first book at about age 12, knowing it was a book that had been both written in, and took place in, the United Kingdom. So I couldn't understand why female parents were addressed as "Mom" and the bags Mr. Dursley tried to burn were "bags of chips" (in the original, they're "crisp packets"). The editors felt like they could trust us with Roald Dahl; why couldn't they trust us with J. K. Rowling? A glossary would have been sufficient. My guess is that Scholastic, having seen the runaway success of these books in the UK, realized they had a sensation on their hands from the beginning and wanted to make sure no one would be put off by anything the least bit foreign-sounding. To their credit, they did ease off after the first book, probably because of complaints from readers like myself.

I get the same disappointment from badly-translated anime that paves over the quirks of life in Japan.

There's no better time than childhood to learn that you can still enjoy a story even if you hear it in someone else's words.

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