The American version

The recent buzz around Harry Potter has reminded me of an odd experience I had back when the series was new. It was sometime after the launch of the first book in the series, well before “Harry Potter” had become a household name and a record breaking best seller. A guy who worked in a bookstore in Seattle recommended that I get this new book by an unknown British author, which, he said, was starting to fly off the shelves [no, dear reader, not literally].

I bought the book — “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” — took it home and read it, almost in one sitting. I was soon so smitten with all things Harry that I was practically speaking Parseltongue (not to be confused with Python, another language capable of casting wondrous magic spells).

As I read this delightful book, the only thing that bothered me was the eponymous phrase “Sorcerer’s Stone”. As this magical object was described in the book, I couldn’t help but notice that it sounded awfully familiar. In fact it was — in every way I could think of — an exact description of the famed Philosopher’s Stone, the long sought after rock that could turn lead into gold and allow its alchemic possessor to achieve immortality.

“Why,” I asked myself, “is this author, J. K. Rowling, going through all of this trouble to write about something everybody knows about, and then giving it the wrong name?” After all, the Philosopher’s Stone already had a wonderfully resonant name, richly steeped in history and lore. Calling it something as ridiculous as “The Sorcerer’s Stone” just made it sound, well, dumb.

It wasn’t until later that I found out that that actual title of the book, as it was originally published in England, was indeed “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. When the book made its way across the Atlantic, American book publishers insisted that the name be changed from its perfectly good proper title to this perversely idiotic American variant.

The reasoning, apparently, was twofold: (1) no American could possibly have heard of the “Philosopher’s Stone”, and (2) a big word like “Philosopher” in the title of a book for our children would scare off us monosyllabic knuckle-dragging Yanks.

Harrumph. It’s a wonder those publishers even considered us capable of the arcane act of reading words on paper.

It makes perfect sense that Rowling subsequently demanded so much control over the film versions, given that she now knew she was dealing with idiots and lunatics. Ever since this incident, I’ve found myself wondering how many other perfectly good books from overseas may have been damaged in “translation” by overly patronizing American book publishers.

Here are some other “American” versions I’m glad we never had to see in bookstores:

  • “A Story about Two Towns”, by C. Dickens
  • “Frank’s Stone,” by M. Shelley
  • “The Study that Somebody Painted Red”, by A. C. Doyle
  • “Loud Winds in High Places”, by E. Bronte
  • “Sense and, um, Sensing,” by J. Austen

Perhaps you can think of one or two more.

4 thoughts on “The American version”

  1. There’s also:

    “The Dollar Store” by Charles Dickens
    “Big Wind” by William Shakespeare

    The Philosopher’s Stone was the first book I’d come across where the title got changed, but it is routine to “translate” UK volumes into American English (words like lift and lorry are replaced with elevator and truck, colour is changed to color, etc.).

    As we are a bilingual nation, Canadian editions don’t get changed. We actually speak 3 languages: English, French, and American 😉

    Terry Pratchett’s books even have different cover art in the US than they do elsewhere. It needs to be ‘americanized’ or it doesn’t sell as well, apparently.

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