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Roald Dahl’s European publishers refuse to make changes to beloved author’s books

Roald Dahl’s French and Dutch publishers have said they will refuse to change the beloved author’s books, as backlash grows to a decision to tone down the language and rewrite the books to make them more ‘relevant’. 

Sir Salman Rushdie was among those speaking out at the British publisher’s decision, describing the actions of Puffin as “absurd censorship”.

Now the Dutch and French publishers of the famed British author say that changing the language in his famous stories would only mean the books would “lose all their power”. It comes after Puffin and the Roald Dahl Story Company vowed to make hundreds of changes after hiring sensitivity readers to remove language deemed inappropriate.

British paper The Telegraph reported over the weekend on the hundreds of words which have been changed or totally removed in order to make the books, which have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide, more ‘relevant’ and suitable for modern Britain.

As his famous books were written decades ago, publisher Puffin said it regularly “reviews the language” in the stories to “ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today” in a disclaimer on the new editions of the books.

“Language related to weight, mental health, violence, gender and race has been cut and rewritten,” the Telegraph reported. In the new English version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the gluttonous Augustus Gloop is no longer described as “fat”, while the Oompa-Loompas are now gender neutral.

The Telegraph investigation also cites examples including the Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach, who are now “the Cloud-People”. Meanwhile, the Small Foxes in ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ have become female, while in classic, Matilda, a mention of Rudyard Kipling has been replaced by Jane Austin.

The author’s 1983 novel The Witches is one of the novel’s which has been subject to a significant overhaul by Puffin. A 2001 version of the text, which includes a passage about pulling women’s hair to check if they are witches, has been changed to note that there are “plenty of reasons” women wear wigs and “there is nothing wrong with that”.

The new text now also refers to women in the role of “top scientists” as opposed to cashiers, while “chambermaid” becomes cleaner”.

The exclamation, “You must be mad, woman!” has been sanitised to become, “You must be out of your mind!” Meanwhile, “The old hag” has been edited to the less offensive “the old crow”.

Other edits clearly focus on weight. In The Witches, “fat little brown mouse” becomes “little brown mouse” while one mention, “He needs to go on a diet” has been erased.

In Matilda, there have also been dozens of subtle changes. In the new English version of the book, Matilda no longer escapes in “olden day sailing ships” with Joseph Conrad, or to India with Rudyard Kipling, but still travels to Africa with Ernest Hemingway.

Miss Trunchbull’s “great horsey face” is now referred to in the new edition simply as her “face”. In another part, a character turns “quite pale” instead of “white”. Other examples are found in The Twits, where an African language is no longer referred to as a “weird African language”. In James and the Giant Peach, Miss Sponge is no longer called “the fat one” and Miss Spider’s head is no longer described as “black”.

However, European publishers appeared to join the backlash which has emerged following the rewriting of the much-loved children’s novels. The publisher of Roald Dahl books in French said it had “no plans” for a rewrite of the classics to make them seemingly less offensive.

French publisher Gallimard said on Tuesday it would not be following English publisher Puffin’s example and making any edits to the world-famous texts.

The publisher said the books would “remain intact” – adding that the rewriting would only affect Britain.

A spokesperson for Gallimard children’s department said in a statement: “This rewriting only affects Great Britain. We have never modified Roald Dahl’s writings and we have no plans to do so today”.

Meanwhile, Dahl’s – who died in 1991 – publisher in Holland, Joris van de Leur said he may keep the original text, as he criticised the decision by Puffin and the Roald Dahl Story Company to make such sweeping changes.

Van de Leur said of Dahl’s unique, captivating writing style:

“Exaggerations are a figure of speech with him: if a person is fat, it represents gluttony and excess. Children understand what such literary hyperbole is. They really don’t think all fat kids are greedy.”

He added that De Fontein, the Dutch publishing company of which he is director, would be given the go ahead to publish the old versions rather than making changes.

Meanwhile, Antoine Chéron, a lawyer with ACBM, a Paris firm which specialises in author’s rights, warned of the impact of such censorship. She said that while it is not illegal to change the words of a deceased author, it is “dangerous for culture” and an attack on freedom of expression.

“How far back should we go? Baudelaire? Voltaire? The Bible? If books are changed in this way they are not the original works. It’s not far off censorship,” Chéron said.

“This is our artistic history. I would be in favour of completely getting rid of the work rather than changing it if we feel it offends current thinking, but again, where do you stop? Who decides what is now offensive or goes against current thinking? This seems to be an attack on artistic creation and freedom of expression.”

Author of the Satanic Verses, Sir Salman Rushdie was among those to hit out at the attempt to sanitise the books. Taking to Twitter, the author, who is recovering from a brutal assassination attempt which took place last year, described the actions of Puffin as “absurd censorship”, writing:

“Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship/ Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.”

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also weighed in on the debate. A spokesperson for Downing Street expressed the PM’s opposition to the move, stating: “When it comes to our rich and varied literary heritage, the prime minister agrees with the BFG that we shouldn’t gobblefunk around with words.”

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