A faithful sheepdog is the eponymous hero of Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Gray Dog of Kenmuir, a novel about the rivalry between two canines and their masters, and the boy who’s caught in the middle. Set in a small town in northern England, the novel was written by British author Alfred Ollivant and published in 1898. In August, the New York Review Books’ Children’s Collection will release a new hardcover edition, in which author Lydia Davis renders the original, now obscure dialects into modern English.
Although this is Davis’s initial foray into children’s literature, she has published numerous acclaimed books for adults. She is the author of seven collections of stories, including Break It Down, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, and, most recently, Can’t and Won’t, as well as one novel, The End of the Story. Her Collected Stories were published as a single volume in 2009, and in 2013 she was awarded an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit Medal for the Short Story, as well as the Man Booker International Prize. She has also translated many books from the French, including Swann’s Way and Madame Bovary.
Davis’s desire to modernize Bob, Son of Battle (titled Owd Bob in the U.K. edition) sprang from her memories of first reading the book as a child. “The story is so convincingly told that you simply forget that it isn’t real, and even if you tell yourself it did not really happen, you believe the story, enter fully into it, and are moved by it,” she said. “I found that this continued to be true even as I was working on it. I found the ‘suspension of disbelief’ immensely effective.”
The author was concerned that Bob, Son of Battle, which was praised by Life magazine as “probably the greatest dog story ever written,” was “disappearing from reading lists and from conversations about children’s books, animal stories, and dog stories.” Realizing that the novel’s prevalence of Cumbrian and Scottish dialect made it difficult for contemporary children to read, she decided to write a new version.
“I did not want to see the book vanish altogether,” she said, “So I conceived the idea of doing a sort of translation into more standard and more contemporary English, while still retaining as much as I could of the local character of the original and the time when it was written.” Retaining the look of Ollivant’s version, Davis’s new edition features the original art by Marguerite Kirmse, an illustrator who was best known for drawings of dogs, including those in Eric Knight’s 1938 classic, Lassie, Come-Home.
Tackling the Task
Though Davis initially intended to limit the changes she made to Bob, Son of Battle to reworking the dialect, she soon realized that other features of Ollivant’s story also impeded its accessibility to today’s young readers. “When I saw that some of the structures and word choices of the narration were also difficult, I decided to make them a little easier,” she explained. “It was hard to know just how far to go with that, of course. And I’m also aware that the way we learn new words is by encountering unfamiliar words in a context in which we can figure them out for ourselves – so there were many difficult words that I didn’t change.”
Acknowledging that her experience translating the works of others likely fueled her interest in reworking Bob, Son of Battle, Davis added that that didn’t necessarily facilitate the project. “I had already ‘translated’ a chapter of a novel by Laurence Sterne into contemporary English, as an experiment,” she said. “Strangely, it is in some ways harder to translate from English into English than from a foreign language.
Though Ollivant did not write Bob, Son of Battle for young readers, it became known as a children’s book, Davis explained, mainly because it featured dogs and several young protagonists. The fact that she was creating a new version of a novel that has made its mark in the children’s market as well as the adult market presented Davis with a new challenge.
“It was certainly a different experience for me to work with young people in mind, because I did not know exactly how easy to make the text, and had to decide whether I was writing it for a 10-year-old or a 14-year-old, or maybe even an adult who would have been discouraged by the dialect and difficult syntax of some of the narration in the original version.”
Though Edwin Frank, editorial director of the Children’s Collection, was not familiar with Ollivant’s novel when Davis’s agent, Denise Shannon, told him that Davis had a yen to translate it into modern English, he was immediately interested in the project. “I am always interested when someone says they passionately loved a book as a child, as Lydia did in this case, and I was intrigued by the whole concept of such a great writer taking on something very different from what she’s known for, though of course Lydia is a great translator. This is a very different kind of book than we’ve done in this series, and we’re very pleased with it.”
Musing on whether other books for children are on her future writing agenda, Davis mentioned the innovative work of an enterprising author, Mary Godolphin, who in the 1860s wrote and published versions of The Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe for beginning readers – comprised solely of one-syllable words. “I think that’s wonderful, and she did an excellent job,” said Davis. “I may be tempted to follow her example, though I have other projects underway. Or revise her versions into more contemporary English. But is there enough time in the day?”
Alfred Ollivant’s Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Gray Dog of Kenmuir: A New Version by Lydia Davis. New York Review Books Children’s Collection, $17.95 Aug. ISBN 978-1-59017-729-7