Yuval Noah Harari: Why I Allow Local Adaptations of My Books—Including Under Authoritarian Regimes | Opinion

As a thinker and author, I do my best to reach diverse audiences around the world, and not just readers in Western democracies. The ideas and subjects I write about—from human evolution to the danger of artificial intelligence—are relevant to all people, and in order to face the challenges of the twenty-first century global cooperation is certainly needed.

To enable my ideas and messages to easily reach people from various countries and cultures, over the years I have authorized and even initiated adaptations of all my books for different audiences. The adaptations take into account different cultural, religious and political backgrounds. If I could, I would rewrite my books from scratch for each and every country, but this obviously goes beyond my capacity. When making adaptations, my guiding principle is to adapt the examples I use to explain my ideas, but never to change the ideas themselves. The purpose of examples is to clarify things. If an example creates barriers to understanding instead of clarity, it's best to replace that example.

By the same token, in cases where I had reason to believe that using a sensitive example could lead to the book being completely banned in a specific country, I authorized a local adaptation of the text. That is to say, I agreed to replace the sensitive example with a less sensitive one, provided the change did not cause any alteration to the core idea the example was supposed to clarify. This happened with the example of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in my latest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which was meant to illustrate the use of disinformation and "fake news." I was warned that my description of these events would likely lead to the book being banned in Russia. So I was faced with three options. One option was to change my description so that it corresponded more closely to the official Russian version of events. This I flatly refused to do. Another option was to give up the opportunity to reach readers in Russia. A third option was to change the example to a less sensitive one, and this is the option I chose. The consideration was not a financial one (the Russian book market is not particularly lucrative.) The main consideration was to reach Russian readers with messages about the dangers of dictatorship, extreme nationalism and religious intolerance. I authorized several other changes in the Russian edition, but there might also have been small unauthorized changes in terminology, especially as no translation is ever identical to the original.

Similarly, hundreds of thousands of copies of my books have been sold as pirated, unauthorized editions in Iran. I don't receive a single cent of royalties from those sales. The Iranian translators deleted or changed several sensitive examples about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Although I did not authorize this, I think such changes are a reasonable price to pay if they mean that Iranian teenagers who do not read English are able to walk into a Teheran bookstore and walk out with a book full of ideas about evolution, gender equality and religious tolerance.

Even the British and American editions of my books are somewhat different from each other, reflecting the cultural differences between the UK and the USA. Where the UK edition gives an example about football, the US edition refers to the game of basketball. While the UK edition includes many examples from British history and geography, in the Turkish and Chinese translations some of these references are replaced with examples from the history and geography of the Middle East and of East Asia—based on the assumption that the latter would be more familiar to readers in those countries. Similarly, where the UK edition talks about Queen Elizabeth I and Paddington train station in London, the Chinese edition refers to a famous Chinese Empress and to the central train station in Beijing.

Some will no doubt disagree, but I think that as long as local adaptations of books are done in the form of altering specific examples rather than core ideas, they are worth the price. Wherever I have authorized my books to be adapted, the only thing guiding that decision was the hope of bringing new ideas to diverse audiences, and in particular to audiences living in non-democratic countries that suffer from censorship.

Yuval Noah Harari is a bestselling author whose books have been translated into over 60 languages and sold over 20 million copies worldwide.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

Yuval Noah Harari: Why I Allow Local Adaptations of My Books—Including Under Authoritarian Regimes | Opinion | Opinion