I get excited whenever I see a literary-focused project, but an artist out of Missouri just started a Kickstarter campaign that has left me conflicted.
Matt Steel has created a "new" version of Walden, replacing antiquated and hard-to-parse language with a more modern lexicon. And he wants to raise $100,000 to print 2,000 copies.
Forget, for a moment, the delivery method and focus on the translated work. Here's Steel, explaining the project on his Kickstarter page:
"This version will be neither abridged nor dumbed down. It will still read and feel like Thoreau; still set in the 1840s. I am not replacing telegraphs with emails, nor wagons with SUVs. None of the story will be omitted, and none of Thoreau’s ideas will be altered. I have no desire to impose my personal style on this work. Walden is dense, layered, and complex. That’s part of what makes it such a treasure, and any attempt at making it less complex would be a travesty. So when I talk about removing literary obstacles from Walden, I’m only referring to structures, syntax, and words that have fallen out of use since 1854."
It's hard not to get behind that idea. First, we translate all kinds of literature and poetry between languages. Second, he is correct: Walden is a rewarding book with relevant ideas that is also a really tough, and at times boring read. Check out this example of his changes:
I can see this idea working. Whether or not you love his "translation," I feel like I get it. As someone who has struggled with Thoreau's most famous work, the idea of reading someone's updated version is both unnerving and something to get excited about.
But for me, it kind of breaks down when you get to delivery. The Kickstarter calls for printing 2,000 copies and the campaign wants to raise $100,000 for those costs. That's $50 for a translated version of a book that exists in the public domain.
A Kindle version of the "new Walden" will run $15, which raises some of the same questions.
Thoreau, in his time at Walden, kept meticulous records of his expenses -- down to the half-cent for bean seeds. And so when you ask whether a translation or adaptation is true to the original spirit, this is where it gets shaky for me. If you want to really spread the ideas of Thoreau then this project seems to miss an opportunity. A lower price point -- especially on the Kindle version -- would feel more right. Using funds from printing the sleek, luxe hardcopies to fund the wider dissemination of the digital work makes more sense to me.
That said, it is a very cool idea. And I agree, Thoreau's writing, because of his style and the passage of time, is no easy read. If Steel's work can introduce Thoreau's transcendentalist ideas to a wider audience then that is something to celebrate.
A favorite quote from Walden:
It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true today may turn out to be falsehood tomorrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields.” -- HDT
You can find Matt Steel's Kickstarter page here. The campaign closes in three weeks.