Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Translating from English to English

In the last post, I mentioned that American and British English are not always the same, even if they are, obviously, mutually intelligible for the most part. Something many people don’t realize is that there are translators who translate between American and British English.

Why would such a job be necessary? After all, if you can read English and have some basic knowledge about vocabulary and grammar differences among the various Englishes, why should seeing the word “boot” (UK English) instead of “trunk” (US English) bother you? Wouldn’t you understand if a character in a novel asked, “Do you have a pen?” (US English) instead of “Have you got a pen?” (UK English). Wouldn’t it just add to the flavor (or flavour) of whatever you are reading?

Well, I believe that is generally true for literary works; after all, just as it would be odd if, in a book set in Spain, a character suddenly used American slang, I think preserving the original style and feeling of an English text is important. Publishers tend to disagree with me, however, in part because they seem to assume the audience would find it confusing or disturbing if a book was in any way “foreign.”

This is especially the case with children’s literature, because it is erroneously believed that children don’t understand that people in other countries might speak differently or have different traditions. So publishers worry that Americans kids might think it is “weird” if an English boy in a book that takes place in England says “lift” and not “elevator,” and therefore such things are translated to American English (or to British English, in the case of American books). I have not read any of the Harry Potter books, but I have been told that the vocabulary and grammar in them is Americanized for US audiences, and that some American Harry Potter aficionados insist on buying their books from the UK, so they can read the original texts. And, as another example, I received some information not long ago about a children’s book translated to English from a Scandinavian language. An editor at the British publishing company implied that major, “neutralizing” changes were made in the translation (including removing all mentions of the setting), so the book would be ready for child audiences in both the UK and the US, and so a second, American translator wouldn’t later be needed, at an additional cost to the publishers. To me, this kind of translation amounts to a sort of dumbing-down of the book, because it makes it easier for readers to access. Sure, explanation may sometimes be needed, and that can be given in a footnote or by adding a word or two to the text, but remaking parts of a novel so it appeals to foreign readers is going a bit far.

When it comes to non-fiction, though, I have more understanding for publishers. In some non-fiction works, it is essential that the message not be lost because the audience doesn’t recognize the words or the style. For example, I have seen an ad here in Wales that says “Have you sussed it?” As an American, I had no idea what that meant when I first saw it. Then I learned that “to suss” means “to check out” or “to find out” or “to understand.” If that ad were used in the US, perhaps it would be changed to “Do you get it?” and the company wouldn’t have to worry about losing potential customers because of the incomprehensibility of their message. That’s the kind of thing an English to English translator can help with.

Cultural references can add quite a bit to a novel, but might need explication in a work of non-fiction. Recently, I read Simon Winchester’s book about the OED, The Surgeon of Crowthorne. That’s the original British title, anyway. In the US, the book is called The Professor and the Madman, apparently because the American publishers thought (correctly, I suspect) that their more dramatic title would appeal more to Americans. Knowing that fact made me wonder what else beyond the spelling and grammar had been adapted or translated for American readers. I have not read the American version, but I would imagine that the mentions of the Civil War are not necessarily as detailed in the American book, since Americans are presumably more familiar with the facts of the war, and that there might be more information about the locations in the UK, so American readers can understand distances and issues of, say, fashionability. I wondered, too, if the tone of the book, which seems rather British to me, might have been changed a bit.

In short, translators from English to English analyze texts for issues of grammar, vocabulary, and culture-specific references (locations, politics, educational systems, and so forth), and they adapt such “problem passages” to another kind of English. As I made clear above, I see the need for this in non-fiction documents, especially for ads, user’s manuals, tourist information, and other such texts that are to serve an informational purpose. But I don’t think much of it when it is applied to fiction.

Have you sussed all that?

To learn a little more about this very specific kind of translation, check out this article. It would also be interesting to know whether this type of translation is common in other languages that are spoken in two or more countries (such as German, French, Spanish, or Swedish).


Kristen King, Inkthinker said...

Fascinating post, Brett.


B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you, Kristen!

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an interesting post.

Readers might be interested in a few further notes about "translation" of fiction between US and UK. a list of differences between US and UK editions of Harry Potter (up to Book 4). A more comprehensive list of differences in the first book: An opinion on the subject can be read at .

Here's another interesting post, about an adult book this time:

But for all the British-written books that have been dumbed down, sexed up or censored, excuse me, Americanized, it's interesting to note what happened to American writer's Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. I don't have a reference to cite, but as I remember the anecdote, she was asked by her British publishers if she would mind a few localizations for the British edition. She trustingly said no, she wouldn't mind, but was thorougly dismayed when the edition appeared to find that her (deliberately clichéd) first line had been changed from "It was a dark and stormy night" to "It was a dark and stormy night in the United States of America."

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks so much for the comment and the links, Margaret! There is a lot of interesting information there, and I hadn't seen any of those websites before.
Your phrase "dumbed down, sexed up or censored, excuse me, Americanized" aptly describes what happens in the 'translation' of work from UK English to US English. We may speak the same language, but our cultures are quite different!

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

There was a great article in Translation Review (50):13-18, 1996. By Thom Satterlee and called "A Case for Smilla" comparing the American and British versions of Peter Høeg's novel. I believe Kristen Malmkjær's pro-UK retort, "A Tale of 'Two' Smillas" is available online.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment. I found the second article you mentioned at, but will have to try to find the first one.

Best wishes,

Kazakh said...

Thanks good post..
I need your help, Im writing diploma work about New words in American English. If you have some information about my theme can ypu post here?
Thank you very much!!!

B.J. Epstein said...

Well, I am not exactly sure what would be useful for you, but if you are working on new words, you should probably look for recent research on neologisms.
Good luck!

Best wishes,