The Special Relationship Between American and British English in Modern Fiction

Howdy, do you speak American? Or do you prefer conversing in Estuary English with some Cockney rhyming slang thrown in? The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once observed that “England and America are two countries separated by the same language”. If the modern publishing industry is anything to go by, then this sentiment certainly applies to the large numbers of books edited in both British and American English.

Harry Potter Hagrid Yer a Wizard

Harry Potter Wizard GIF

Book marketing and editing often reflects the assumption that British and American readers have different tastes. One of the most famous examples of a book being edited specifically for an American audience is ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ by J. K. Rowling which was published as ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ in the United States to be “more suggestive of magic” than its original title. Numerous other words in the main text were also changed so that Harry and his Hogwarts chums (sorry, friends) ate candy rather than sweets, studied for their exams instead of revising for them and went on vacation rather than holiday.

Despite the universal themes of the series and its fantasy genre, I would have thought much of the appeal of the Harry Potter books for readers across the world would be their Britishness, not just in terms of language and setting but also humour, traditions and many other cultural references. I very much doubt that keeping the original vocabulary would have had a significant impact on the popularity of the books. The publishers themselves eventually recognised this as fewer amendments were made to the later volumes.

I can understand why publishers make these changes but the potential consequences of their assumptions about their audience ought to be considered more seriously. At university, I remember using the term “high school” in a conversation with American students as I thought it would be highly unlikely that they would know what a “sixth form college” is. I therefore deliberately modified my normal vocabulary so that my friends would understand what I was referring to. However, this meant that they didn’t find out what a sixth form is because of my conscious self-censoring. Publishers presumably make editorial decisions for similar reasons: to market a book in a way which appeals to the intended audience, matches their existing cultural reference points and avoids confusing or alienating them.

However, publishers may seriously underestimate the capacity of readers to understand the original versions of texts written in different styles and dialects. I’m sure my American friends would have understood my explanation that a sixth form college is roughly the equivalent of high school in the United States and I shouldn’t have felt like I needed to protect them from this. From watching American films and TV shows and reading books written by American authors over the years, I have learned that a sidewalk is a pavement, garbage is rubbish, gas is petrol and pants are trousers without needing a glossary. Moreover, language is constantly evolving. Americanisms and Britishisms have been adopted by people on both sides of the Atlantic and aside from the most obvious slang terms, the origins of many words are no longer as clear as they used to be.

Harry Potter Ron Wicked

It’s hard to ignore the fact that editorial changes of this type appear to be rather one-sided. I can’t think of any books from the United States which have had their title or vocabulary significantly adapted for a British audience (I would, of course, be interested to hear about any examples if they exist). Sometimes the spellings of certain words might be changed such as the title of ‘Flight Behavior’ to Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver but even that doesn’t always happen. Similarly, American remakes of successful British TV sitcoms from ‘Fawlty Towers’ to ‘The Inbetweeners’ are very common. However, it rarely happens the other way around and the results of the adapted versions often generate poor reviews – it turns out that humour doesn’t always translate well either.

Editorial changes also have a significant impact on English translations of books from other languages. Writing in the New York Review of Books, British author and translator Tim Parks recounts how he was commissioned to translate ‘The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony’ by Roberto Calasso for publication in both the United Kingdom and the United States. He describes the impossible task of translating the book from its original Italian to a version of English which avoided words “that might strike American readers as distractingly English or English readers as distractingly American”. Perhaps this explains why many other novels written in foreign languages often end up with two English translations such as Maylis de Kerangal’s fifth book which was recently translated by Jessica Moore in the United Kingdom as Mend the Living and by Sam Taylor in the United States as ‘The Heart’.

There is no question that editing is an essential part of producing a book and there is a lot more to the process than simply changing odd words here and there. However, it shouldn’t be done in a way which completely homogenises (or homogenizes…) the way language is used. Writers choose their words for a reason and stylistic elements such as regional dialect shouldn’t need to be suppressed. Most editorial changes appear to be unnecessary or patronising at best, perhaps even amounting to censorship at worst if the original author has little control over the decisions taken on how their prose is amended by publishers in other countries.

Overall, books shouldn’t need to be edited in a way that specifically appeals to those who are only willing to see the world through the prism of their immediate surroundings. English is a fascinating language to be celebrated in all its forms, whether or not you share Ron Weasley’s choice of exclamations.

Harry Potter Ron Bloody Hell

What do you think? Should books written in British English be translated into American English? Is it necessary for a reader’s understanding or enjoyment of a book or is it a major insult to their intelligence?


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44 responses to “The Special Relationship Between American and British English in Modern Fiction

  1. I completely agree with you! When I read a book that uses British English I find it so charming and it adds to the atmosphere of the book. For example, any of the books in the Persephone catalog wouldn’t be the same if they were marketed and edited for an American audience. Thanks so much for the great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. hls

    I often have discussions about this. Added to the mix there is also Australian English, South African English, Indian English, Singaporean English… all of them have their own unique quality, style, and vocab.. I think the American editors need to believe that the American population can understand and learn to understand other Englishes. In fact, different Englishes can only enrich American culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, you’re absolutely right about the many varieties of English which is a truly global language. I wonder if there are other examples of editing between other languages too, perhaps between standard French and Canadian French?


      • hls

        I know from German that generally Austrian, German, and Swiss texts are left in the original dialects. Although if it is translated from English to German, then standard German is used.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Canadian French can be very different than standard French. Some words are common, but they have a total different meaning, for instance ‘un char’ is a (military) tank in France, but a regular car in Québec. Syntax is different as well, and so many different idioms that we would not understand between both countries if we did not know the meaning already. I’m a literary translator, I translate into standard French (I was born and raised in France), but there’s no way I can translate in Canadian French, nor Belgian French, nor Swiss French. This goes way beyond writing color or colour, or the like.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. You make a good case there and I don’t think translation from one to the other is necessary, however, at times a footnote may be needed for a term but that could be beneficial to teaching others about the culture/country the story is based in. While reading your discussion, I thought maybe publishers wanted to avoid the footnotes so they just change the words.
    I agree with you though that Americans and the British are familiar with terms from both sides so people might understand certain terms if they are left in. I’m from the Caribbean so I’ve used to certain British terms but I speak the American English and I find both easy to understand.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I agree that for particularly obscure and culturally specific words where the context isn’t obvious in the text then a note for the reader is very useful. I do feel though that many of the changes in the Harry Potter books for example were quite trivial and unnecessary.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Brilliant post!
    As a non-native English speaker compelled to learn both sides, I find it fascinating that publishers believe they must change a book to make it more appealing to a certain nationality. Keeping the British language in Harry Potter reinforces the magic and the atmosphere of the story. The same can be applied to all books. I do believe it is important to keep the original because otherwise you kind of cut the roots of the book. I bought both editions of Harry Potter to study the differences.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Some really interesting points here. As a Brit myself, living in Canada, it irks me to see novels set in Britain use American English. Generally the context should explain what the word means. Or to put it another way. If a novel was set in Paris, you wouldn’t expect croissant to be changed to crescent roll would you?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hmm, interesting! I didn’t know that so many words were changed in Harry Potter. It feels just a little like I’ve been duped!


    • A lot of people probably know that the title was changed from Philosopher’s to Sorcerer’s but I’ve been wondering how many people are aware of all the other changes in the book. The story itself is obviously the same but I think it does make a difference when the vocabulary is altered.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Translating from British English to American English is somewhat insulting to the Americans, I would have thought! And it wouldn’t happen the other way – if it did, I certainly wouldn’t want to read The Bell Jar in an Anglicised version. No, books should reflect their country and we should be intelligent enough to read them and look up bits we don’t understand.


  8. I love reading books in British English, and ESPECIALLY if the book takes place in Great Britain at all, I feel like it should stay in British English to be more immersive!


  9. Bibliosa

    As an American I don’t think we need to translate British English or any other English. If you don’t know a word or a phrase, it really isn’t all that hard to look it up. I appreciate books that aren’t translated because it gives me an insight into the culture that I’m reading. I wish our editors would stop trying to cater to us and let us enjoy the richness and complexities of other cultures. Great Post!


  10. Really enjoyed this. I think it goes further than Britishisms and Americanisms, as well–there are a couple of books I’ve read where characters’ speech changes pattern or dialect slightly based on who they’re speaking with. This would be lost if publishers ironed out all the dialectic ticks!

    (A side note–I *hate* faux-British speech by American authors–where idioms from opposite sides of the country are crammed into the same sentences! Probably it is the same when we write American speech, but it’s *still* annoying).


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  12. This sort of thing has only recently occurred to me, when I was listening to the Australian author Charlotte Wood talk about her award winning novel. A lot of the swear words and the references to smoking were taken out of her book for the American audience. That can only lessen the ambiance, and is just so patronising!


    • I’ve heard a lot of positive reviews about The Natural Way of Things – it sounds like a really interesting book. Surely that kind of editing must count as censorship?!


      • Yeh, I don’t know. She also said the American pulishers wanted her to change the ending (the ending is pretty dark) but she refused. I admire her for that. You should check out my review of it – it’s my highlight of this year.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. I’d heard that the title of the first Harry Potter book was changed but didn’t realise there were more ‘invasive’ edits involved in the American version. Personally, I don’t think changing the spelling of words would make much of a difference e.g. colour v color.

    However, changing the colloquial wording can have a big impact on the reader and don’t think it makes sense. Maybe this is because I’m Irish and our own use of the English language is a bit different from either the British or the Americans. I’ve heard that this can be a bit of an issue for Irish authors whose books are being published in the UK. UK editors dealing with Irish authors can sometimes find themselves questioning the use of wording – when it would be very common to use the terms in Ireland.

    For example, it wouldn’t be unusual for an Irish person of a certain generation to use the word ‘mineral’ when they mean ‘soda’ or ‘soft drink’. If I read an Irish character using the word soda, I would find it very weird.


    • Yes, spelling is less of an issue but slang terms can change the meaning or context of text quite significantly. The British vs Irish perspective is very interesting – I wonder if that happens with South African, Australian, Jamaican etc authors too?

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I think changing the title is the worst trick of all because occasionally the title is completely different and one is lulled into thinking that a favourite/favorite author has published a new book. I was pre-warned by one author who’s new novel came out in America under a quite diffetent title, but fell right into the well with Alice Weir’s book about Katherine Swynford. So have two copies both looking and sounding like different books. Hey ho!!


  15. Totally feel that books should be left in their original. Even if “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Trousers” is more PC in England, it just doesn’t have the same ring to it. 🙂 I also think that English television aired in countries where the local language is not dubbed in but rather sub-titled, has contributed to the local population speaking English better and more willingly…(Netherlands vs. Germany and France).


  16. Such an interesting post to read!!! I agree, I don’t see why such changes need to be made between American and British English translations. I mean, I love learning that a line is a cue, a biscuit is a cookie or cracker, and all those other word changes, and it makes understanding interviews by authors so much easier. Just because you change words in the books doesn’t mean the author will use the changed words. J.K. Rowling will always use British English in her interviews, so the books might as well be consistent. But, as a linguistics student, I find it fascinating to hone in on the differences in word choice and pronunciation.


  17. It takes out some of the flavor (flavour) of a British book if the words are translated. As a child, I imagined that the children in my books who wore “jumpers” were wearing a special kind of sports garment that helped them jump. It didn’t really hurt my comprehension of the books, and it added an interesting element that having the word translated as “sweaters” would have made me miss.


  18. This is amazing! I love the Ron Weasley additions but I agree with you. I don’t think Sorcerer’s Stone was a necessary change. It’s a way to show young children, or in my case a grown adult, a different culture while still providing entertainment that isn’t in the form of the history channel.


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  20. Great post! I remember hearing Jim Dale’s narration of Harry Potter on audiobook and being very confused about him saying ‘sidewalk’ and ‘sneakers’ etc. I’m sure people in America can easily work out the British English for these words, just like we can understand American English words over here. There again, I only recently found out what a ‘faucet’ was, but it’s all part of learning new things! 🙂

    I think it’s a bit of a shame to change the main title of the book though. Philosopher has a much better ring to it than sorcerer. And in the case of Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, I was so upset to hear the title had been changed to The Golden Compass, which just sounds rubbish!


  21. Bookpalast

    Hello, I´ve just read your post and have to admit that I´m really surprised that there are different english versions of the same book. I come from Germany and still have to learn the language but I read a few English and American books and of couse I remarked the differnce between Joanne Rowling and Jennifer Estep but these different styles of writing and unique expressions are what makes the books special. It would be strange if an American Girl liked watching films instead of movies.
    Another strange fact about translations: for some reason a translated novel written by an American author always contains the word “highway” or “high school” but “motorway” and “secondary school” never remain…


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