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The Independent Culture
N When I found myself staring at a scene of death and panic in an airliner cockpit, while reviewing Fuzzy and Floppy: The Adventure of the Golden Bee (pounds 24.99) for our Christmas children's issue a few weeks ago, my first assumption was that this sequence had slipped through the editorial net on its way from its native Italy to Britain. On checking with Macmillan Interactive, though, I learned that they had approved the sequence as suitable for the entertainment of our seven-year-olds.

They had, however, insisted on some changes. The story includes a sequence in which the eponymous boy and girl have to get a lift home: the cars fail to stop until the girl, rather than the boy, is selected to flag them down. Originally, she hitch-hiked; in the British version, she hails a taxi. The Italian treatment also reinforced the message with a wolf- whistle, which has been deleted. Elsewhere, the player has to light a match to illuminate the contents of a skip. The British editors added a spoken warning about playing with matches, though they gave up in the face of later sequences featuring cigarette lighters, candles, flares and oxy-acetylene cutting torches.

Translating cultural niceties is part of a process known in the multimedia trade as localisation. As in book publishing, the economics of the CD- Rom business demand that titles be aimed at a global market. Dorling Kindersley's disks for children have been translated into 18 languages, including Korean, Arabic and Farsi. According to Jane Lintonbon of SDL, a specialist localisation company, up-and-coming countries in this arena include Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Greece.

For the biggest player of all, though, the global market means the countries with the most computers. Microsoft grants America, Britain, Japan, France and Germany the status of "tier 1" countries, to which its localisation investment is geared. This can be considerable. Editorial subcontractors Websters International (not related to Webster's Dictionary) took two years to produce an English version of the Encarta Encyclopedia (pounds 49.99); they employ about 40 people on updating the title.

It is known as the "World English" version, so as to endear itself to customers in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India (but not Canada, which buys the US product). Of the 26,000 articles in the American original, 2,000 were dropped and replaced; the total number has grown to 28,000. Some of the substitutions are obvious: replacing baseball with cricket, or American cities with British regions. New for 1997, Encarta boasts, are articles on the unitary authorities that resulted from last April's local government changes.

According to Encarta's representatives, that's about as controversial as it gets. I was assured that even the treatments of the American colonists' secession differ only in that the US version talks of the American Revolution, while the World edition calls it the War of Independence. The message was that Encarta deals in fact rather than opinion.

That is the logical approach for it to take, in a globalised market which requires the costs of local adaptation to be minimised. The pressure may have virtuous effects on an encyclopedia, but not on a creative work. In the over-corporate world of multimedia, rare imaginative spirits like Daniele Panebarco, author of Fuzzy and Floppy, need to be celebrated as well as edited.