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.
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.
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.
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?