Aidan Wilson writes…

Alan Walker put a question to us regarding syndicated comics and the changing of American spelling to other varieties in foreign publications. He was prompted by a Zits comic strip reproduced in yesterday’s The Age (5/3), in which the spelling mum appears, rather than the original mom:

Alan complains:

Does someone think Australians are unaware of the word “mom”? Or do they think we will be tricked into believing Zits is a local strip? (If the latter, there are many other things that would have to be changed – “Social Security Number” would have to be changed to something else – perhaps Tax File Number, but it’s not an exact equivalent. It would obviously be ridiculous to attempt to rid the dialogue of all American features.)

I agree. In my opinion editing wording and spelling for a foreign audience causes more problems than it fixes. If you make the decision to ‘translate’ various elements for local equivalences, then where do you stop? Will gas be replaced by fuel in tomorrow’s Zits*? It’s just easier to let audiences figure it out for themselves and not change anything than to deal with questions of what to edit or just how much license to take.

This sort of thing has been going on for years in book publishing and other areas of the media. The Harry Potter series, for instance, was edited extensively for American audiences, not only for spelling, but also entire lexical items: jumper substituted for sweater and muffin replaced crumpet. Interestingly, I now read on Wikipedia that J.K. Rowling vetoed the changing of mum and the Irish variant mam to the US mom in the US versions of all but the first novel[citation needed], although she allowed all other edits.

Closer to home, the classic Australian film The Castle was edited in around thirty places for various lexical items. The most well known, and denounced, replaced a reference to Hey Hey it’s Saturday with one to Funniest Home Videos. One wonders what happened to the subsequent line – Gong him, Red – which would have then made no sense at all.

The Zits case is different though. We’re quite used to our locally produced content (or British content, for that matter) being edited for US audiences. But changing mom for mum in the Zits cartoon goes the other way. And this is something we’re not used to. We in Australia are effectively bidialectal – we hear US English (and likely other dialects too) very frequently and can effortlessly translate phrases, lexical items and spellings without it even breaching our conscious mind. For this, I suppose we can thank fifty years or more of pervasive US culture dominating our media.

Perhaps this is the reason that such substitutions irritate Alan – just like everyone else, he knows that Americans spell it mom, and has no problem understanding it, but critically he also knows that Zits is an American comic strip – the characters’ voices in his head would most probably have American accents. So when he reads mum where he expects mom, it’s clearly going to be quite jarring.

Then again, I think back to my childhood cartoon reading, which consisted of very healthy portions of Garfield and Mad magazine, and I remember that quite a lot of the content of those confused me. This was probably because I hadn’t been exposed to terribly much American culture by that point in my life, and I was probably not even very aware of the differences between Australian and American language and culture, just that there was a difference. That said, Zits isn’t exactly aimed at kids who are that young.

It’s also not clear who’s responsible for the edits [update: it’s done at the syndicate level; see Chatfield’s comment], but throughout this discussion I’m assuming it’s The Age or Fairfax. Jerry Scott may well have written a version each for the US and British/Australian market, or it could have been a bit of Photoshopping by some copykid in a Fairfax office somewhere. The similarity between the U’s in mum and security suggests the latter, if only weakly, and in any case I don’t see why a cartoonist would bother producing an additional version for a minor slice of their audience.

So to answer Alan’s question, I doubt that anyone thinks we don’t know what mom is, nor are they trying to fool Australian readers into thinking Zits is a local strip; the content is just so glaringly American that this would just never fly. What I think is happening is that the editors are sensitive to the broader public’s concerns about the growing Americanisation of Australian media, real or imagined, and routinely localise content to manage this, but in my opinion, have overstepped the mark in applying this to comic strips. I wouldn’t be surprised if spellings and maybe some whole words from, say, Associated Press reports routinely get edited locally, but that process shouldn’t extend to creative works at all.

*When you see tomorrow’s Zits contain the word gas, don’t think me psychic; The Age is two weeks behind the US, so tomorrow’s (7/3) will probably be this one.