Bowdlerise: Literature

  • During Prohibition, there was a move to edit The Bible to remove all references to alcohol. Except, of course, the ones that discouraged overindulgence. Yes, they literally wanted Jesus to turn water into grape juice.
    • The strangest part of this is that the bowdlerizers reasoned that the translation must be wrong, since Jesus would never drink alcohol. This even though most of them were old enough to remember a time when it was necessary to drink fermented beverages because they wouldn't be infected by dangerous bacteria like plain water was. And without modern sanitation and refrigeration, you simply can't keep freshly pressed grape juice from fermenting. Grape skins are coated in yeast.
    • There are individuals who to this day maintain that when Jesus refuses οἶνος mixed with myrrh, or when Paul commands that a deacon be not given to οἶνος, the word οἶνος means "wine"; but when Jesus changes water into οἶνος, or when Paul (only two chapters after the previous reference) tells his friend Timothy to avoid drinking water but use a little οἶνος for his stomach's sake, the word οἶνος means "unfermented grape juice".
    • In the King James Version, the first of which being in the sixteenth century, the translators deliberately replaced the tetragrammaton, four Hebrew letters frequently translated to either YHWH (Yahweh) or JHVH (Jehovah), with the all capital, LORD. In the foreword for some translations the reason is given that, after the second century, the spoken name of God was bad luck. Which gives us the reason why no one can agree on the true translation.
      • Replacing God's name with a word meaning "Lord" is much older than KJV; the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate did the same thing ("Kyrios" and "Dominus", respectively). And so did (and still do) the Jews (replacing it with "Adonai"); the God's name was considered so sacred that only the High Priest was allowed to say it. ("Jehovah" is believed to have originated by combining the consonants of God's name with the vowels of "Adonai"; "Yahweh" is a modern reconstruction of the pronunciation.)
    • The Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon, is perhaps the raciest book in The Bible. However, even this version may have been Bowdlerized from the original, For instance, in the selection where the lover describes his beloved, he says her waist is like a heap of wheat. Given that this breaks the order of the narrative, many Biblical scholars believe that the original translation referred to a different part of the female anatomy.
    • And there was an interesting variation on removing certain parts of the Bible: the Wicked Bible. Said word was "not", which gave us the awesome seventh commandment: "Thou shalt commit adultery." Sure, they claimed it was an accident, but given the subject matter...
  • Discworld:
    • Terry Pratchett canceled plans for a movie of Mort when the producers told him they loved the story (about Death taking an apprentice) but wanted to lose the "Death" angle.
    • In Feet of Clay actually uses the word; a common dwarfish saying in regards to height is "All trees are felled at ground level," it is mentioned that this is merely an extremely bowdlerised version of the actual saying, which is "When his hands are higher than your head, his groin is level with your teeth."
    • In Hogfather, a choir sings "the red rosy hen greets the dawn of the day". A footnote explains that while it's usually not hens that would crow at dawn, a woman had thought that the original would offend listeners of a certain disposition and had rewritten it.
    • Parodied and inverted: A bit called "Medical Notes" (published in A Blink of the Screen) mentions Scroopism, named after Male Infant Scroop, who was compulsive about adding rude words to texts and would use his wealth to print editions of books with them inserted, and replace the regular editions with them.
  • There exists a condensed, 'kid-friendly' pop-up book version of Gulliver In Lilliput.
    • In fact, Gulliver's Travels is frequently censored due to the rather explicit material found throughout the different parts — such as Gulliver's account of how the Brobdinagian women would use him as a dildo. Which admittedly does sound rather Squicky.
  • Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories includes "How the Leopard Got His Spots", in which an Ethiopian and his Talking Animal Leopard friend, who both start out light-coloured, decide to change their colours for the sake of camouflage. The Ethiopian paints the Leopard with spots, of course, but chooses plain black for himself. In the original version he tells the Leopard "Plain black's best for a nigger". In more recent editions this is often changed to "Plain black's best for me".
    • Considering the etymology of "nigger", the original version is actually kind of Fridge Logic-y...
  • Sometimes changing cultural standards can leapfrog over attempted Bowdlerization. Many early English translators of The Count of Monte Cristo tried to disguise the lesbian subtext of one of the sub-plots; however modern readers should have little difficulty putting two and two together with the information left in the story (tomboyish woman abandons her fiancee at the altar, flees Paris with her close female friend, they're discovered sharing a room and a bed at a country inn). Translators also removed the part where a character takes hashish and has some rather vivid lusty hallucinations.
  • The Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (published in 1964) were originally a tribe of pygmies from "the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had been before." And they get recruited by a rich American/British guy to work for food in his overseas private factory! This was changed in the 1970s to present them as being native to the fictional Loompaland, and having "rosy-white" skin; illustrations followed suit, and all adaptations use the Bowdlerised version of their origins (each takes a different tack on visualizing them — the one constant is that they are Little People). While the 2005 movie still sets Loompaland in Darkest Africa, the Oompa-Loompas are all played by Deep Roy, an Indian.
  • Parodied in J. K. Rowling's The Tales of Beedle the Bard, where in his commentaries on the tales, Albus Dumbledore reveals that a witch named Beatrix Bloxam some centuries ago tried to bowdlerise the eponymous tales to make them more supposedly "child-friendly". The result, called "The Toadstool Tales", is, for Dumbledore and many child readers, nausea-inducing.
  • In Marie de France's poem Lanval, the original story has the faerie queen ride into town, and save Lanval from execution. He leaps upon the back of her horse as she rides away, providing a reversal of the traditional knight in shining armor archetype. In some translations/adaptations/what have you, people have had Lanval take the front of the horse, returning the archetype to its "proper" form. This has the unfortunate side-effect of removing a huge chunk of what makes the faerie queen so mysterious and alluring (her beauty is so great that she holds sway over everyone around her, and one of Arthur's knights gladly takes the traditionally "feminine" place).
    • Also in Lanval, Guenevere at one point accuses Lanval of being a gay misogynist with a stable of catamites. One early-twentieth-century translation reduces this to: "'Launfal,' she cried, 'well I know that you think little of woman and her love. There are sins more black that a man may have upon his soul.'"
  • Older Than Print: Gaius Vallerius Catullus' Carmen 16. Written about 50-100 years before the birth of Christ, it was considered so offensive that it wasn't openly published in English until the 20th century, and even then as a paraphrased version. It was written as a response to two poets who'd reffered to his work as soft and as a statement that though a poet is to act decently, he is by no means bound to write politely. The opening line is , roughly translated, "I will sodomize you and skull fuck you".
  • A number of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories were bowdlerized by his posthumous "editor" L. Sprague DeCamp. Sometimes it was for reasons of content, such as toning down perceived racism, other times it was for purely commercial reasons such as converting entire stories that weren't even written as Conan stories into Conan stories. A few changes are truly inexplicable though, such as wording changes to perfectly fine paragraphs that had already seen publication in magazines. Most serious REH fans despise DeCamp for these alterations.
  • Modern retellings of the Arabian Nights (e.g. the Hallmark miniseries) often soften the framing story: after the Sultan decides to take a new wife and execute her the next day, Shahrazad is the first to volunteer. (In the original tale he had married and executed so many women that his vizier had trouble finding a suitable wife for him; that's when Shahrazad [the vizier's daughter] volunteers.)
    • That may be less a case of Bowdlerization and more of a Historical Hero Upgrade. Considering Scheherzade's marriage to the sultan is supposed to be her happy ending, it's hard to believe she'll be happy (or safe) considering he's beheaded hundreds of women for no fault of their own.
  • In the storybook adaptation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? the wild turkey beer is changed to soda pop and all references to the words kill and die have been removed.
  • The Otherland series, set in the mid-late 21st century, lampshades the tendency for this to happen to fairy taleswith their version of the Red Riding Hood tale. Instead of being killed by the woodcutter the wolf repents, and everyone lives happily ever after. The incredibly old Mr. Sellars mentions that in the version he was told as a child little Red Riding Hood didn't survive herself, much less the grandmother and the wolf.
  • In the original book of Lord of the Flies Piggy says to Jack "You all look like a bunch of painted niggers"; reprints have him say "painted savages".
  • An edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has recently been bowdlerized, having all instances of the word "nigger" replaced with "slave". It's actually surprising that it took this long for something like that to happen.
    • Probably because the racism's a big chunk of Huck's Character Development, a fact that powered most of the ire over the edition.
  • Out there in the universe, the word Belgium nets you an award for Most Gratuitous Use of the Word Belgium... well, at least according to the US version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In the UK version, you have to use the word Fuck a lot instead.
    • On the plus side, the "Belgium" scene was adapted from a classic moment on the radio program that didn't otherwise see print, so that's nice.
    • From the same book, Wowbagger's insult to Arthur was changed from "asshole" in the UK to "kneebiter" in the US. Opinion is divided on whether it's funnier for the alien's insults to be blunt or inexplicable.
      • Making it more confusing, the US version of And Another Thing... leaves Wowbagger's insult as "arsehole", thoroughly confusing anyone who doesn't know better.
  • In the original prints of "Super Fudge," Fudge mentions his favorite TV shows are The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and The Electric Company. In modern reprints, the line was changed to "cartoons from Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network" due to a combination of licensing issues and an attempt at making the story less outdated note .
  • Modern reprints of Enid Blyton's classic The Faraway Tree children's series rename the characters Dick and Fanny to Rick and Frannie because of the "sexual nature" of their names. The villainous school teacher Dame Slap, so named for the punishment she dishes out to students, is renamed "Dame Snap" and now punishes students by loudly reprimanding them instead of spanking them.
  • In Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series, all of the Martians (and John Carter himself) enjoy their various adventures naked in nothing but leather harnesses. However, in all of the film adaptations and many of the artworks depicting Barsoomians (Martians), they are depicted as wearing loincloths and at least one image (depicted as the main image on the Barsoom wiki page) has John Carter in a distinctly non-leather type of armor.
  • Are U 4 Real, the American translation of Sara Kadefors’ Swedish young-adult novel Sandor Slash Ida, suffered from this trope. The story was relocated from the Swedish cities of Gothenburg and Stockholm to San Francisco and Los Angeles, the teenaged protagonists’ names were changed from Sandor and Ida into Alex and Kyla and several parts of the book dealing with Ida’s sexual experiences were censored or removed entirely. The author was not happy and stated that the censored parts are necessary to understand why Ida acts the way she does in the story. The American translator defended the changes, stating that the original contained ”too much sex” and that it would have been hard to sell in American stores.
  • The Canterbury Tales has gotten this treatment as School Study Media. Teachers will often only cover the pilgrims as characters and a few cherry-picked tales (the Pardoner's Tale, the Wife of Bath's Tale, etc.) in isolation from the other Tales. Not to mention the frequency with which they'll suppress any discussion of the other stories, most notably the Miller's Tale and the Reeve's Tale. As a result, the students (assuming that they have had no experience with The Canterbury Tales up until that point) only get to know about the characters and some of the stories, and don't get to read them in the context in which they're presented: as an argument where the pilgrims are telling their stories basically to prove their points and, sometimes, as take thats at each other.
  • The original edition of Book 6 of The Railway Series, Henry the Green Engine used the phrase "as black as niggers" to describe a group of boys who have been showered with soot for dropping stones on trains. The newer versions use the term "as black as soot."
  • The controversial Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books have recently been re-released with tamed down illustrations...a fact over which many fans of the classic, terrifying illustrations are very unhappy. And to rub salt in the wound for those who were never able to obtain copies of the books with the original illustrations, said books have had printing discontinued by their publishers, and online prices are being inflated in correspondence with the tamed-down editions.
  • Children's book parody Go the Fuck to Sleep proved popular enough to get an alternate, actually child-friendly version called Seriously Go To Sleep.
  • The title of Canadian author Lawrence Hill's novel The Book of Negroes was changed in the U.S. market, to Someone Knows My Name. The title is a reference to an actual historical document of that name, but according to Word of God (from The Other Wiki): "If you use (the word 'negro') in Brooklyn or Boston, you're asking to have your nose broken."
  • Occurs in-universe in Thursday Next; Bowdlerizers are exactly what you'd think: people who try to eliminate profanity from literature. The twist in this series is that books happen in their own living world that adapts to things in the real world, so the Bowdlerizers' actions can have serious repercussions.
    • An example given of Bowdlerizers in action is the deletion of all the vulgar tales in The Canterbury Tales. A reference is also made to the "Wicked Bible," mentioned above, with mention of several other famous Bible misprints. It's implied that someone (likely Christopher Marlowe) is fooling around with the texts as a joke.
  • The first English translation of the infamous Mein Kampf removed some of the more anti-Semitic and militaristic statements. A more faithful one was released later but it lost a copyright lawsuit.
  • The novel The Fountainhead has an In-Universe instance: the writer of a (bad) play called No Skin Off Your Ass has to change the title to No Skin Off Your Nose.
  • Occurs in-universe in short story "Laokoon" by Michail Veller. It depicts a school in the soviet-era Leningrad that has a sculptural composition of Laokoon and his sons in the front yard, all of them, obviously, naked. When a prudish ex-military guy is appointed the school principal, he's outraged at such a shameless display in plain view of children and decides to...rectify it, while the Arts teacher struggles to preserve the "cultural legacy" intact.
  • The classic poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" was reedited by a Canadian writer and anti-smoking advocate to omit every reference to Santa puffing on his pipe. Whether it will save lives or further prove that political correctness has gone berserk and is ruining time-honored media (classic film, TV shows, and classic lit) is up to you.
  • The Hebrew translation of Green Eggs and Ham was translated into "Lo Ra'ev Ve'lo Ohev" (Not Hungry, I Don't Want It) because it's easy to translate. Ham isn't illegal in Israel, but due to Jewish dietary law, it's not allowed.
  • Done in-universe in the Horatio Hornblower books because Hornblower doesn't like to swear at his junior officers. Lieutenant Bush is forced to bellow "You careless... young gentleman!" at hapless trainees from the Naval Academy.
  • The Irish Voyage of Máel Dúin follows its hero Máel Dúin as he is trying to avenge his father, who was killed before Máel Dúin's birth. But various English translations or retellings have omitted the fact that Máel Dúin was begotten when his father raped a nun. And so, while the original presents Máel Dúin's perceived duty to avenge his father as inherently questionable, the bowdlerized versions appear to back him up.
  • The translation of The Odyssey by M.A. Schwarz (which is considered to be one of the best translators to ever exist) is often accused of this. This is not helped by the fact that Schwarz was a big fan of Plato's philosophy and considered therefore The Odyssey to be rejectible.
  • After Karl May's death his widow Klara gave the firm that published the books (which renamed itself Karl-May-Verlag the right to make text alterations as it saw fit, and the publisher made extensive use of this. This took many forms, such as rearranging chapters, replacing foreign loanwords by more German ones, making deletions and additions, changing the names of many supporting and even a few lead characters, and suppressing some of May's more pacifist paragraphs to please the Nazis. As literary scholars and Karl May fans noted, this made the most commonly produced editions of May's works unusable for scholarly analysis. In more recent years new editions based on the original ones have been produced, however.
  • The very first published version of Max Havelaar removed all the political references from the book. It was only after the copyright changed owner that the political references were included.

Previous

Index

Next