Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The British Invasion

File:Flag - Great Britain.jpgOne of the very first jobs I ever did in publishing was intern for the craft and lifestyles division of Creative Publishing international (yes, small “i”), and one of the more memorable jobs that summer was helping to “Americanize” a British entertaining book for the American market. I was 21 or so, and this was probably the first thought I’d ever given to the concept of Americanization. It was fun—at least more fun than sorting and scanning film, which is much of what I did the rest of the summer (I also learned a fair bit about quilting and baking).

So what, you might ask. Well, the issue of Americanizing books has returned to my job and to my reading habits in a prominent way recently. And it’s not a simple issue. That same summer I was an intern, I also read the first Harry Potter book, which I remember as the one most conspicuously Americanized (the title, of course, but also the text, if I recall correctly—didn’t they have “fries”?). Eight years and six more Harry Potter books later, it seems to me like readers have different needs and expectations when it comes to Americanization. I have no solid evidence of this, but I think Harry and others have probably made a generation of American readers more comfortable with foreign usage than they might have been and more sensitive to the sense of place that comes with unfamiliar language or usage. This is a good thing, and not just because I don’t have to change “chips” to “fries.” Part of the beauty of books is being transported by language. The words matter and the fewer of them we have to change, the better.

Do you notice Americanization in British books? Does it bother you when you do? Are there instance where you’d welcome it?

(Do I think there’s a place for Americanization? Yes, where meaning would be come insurmountably inscrutable. For example, the British and their weird insistence on using “public school” in exactly the opposite way we do is problematic.)


Brian said...

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the Paddington books and the Paddington books were NOT Americanized in any way. That was my first exposure to "other cultures," as I tried to figure out what a "lorrie" and a "lift" were.

I'm saddened by Americanization of British terminology. Hunting down the answers to those questions I had from Paddington was a great learning experience for me. To me, that's not unlike taking a manuscript about a Muslim teen and saying, "Can we make her Christian so she's more accessible?"

Steve said...

Excellent. One of my first duties at S&S was to Americanize a series called Harvey Angel (featuring cover art by the then-soon-to-be-famous Tony Diterlizzi). Anyway, we went to TOWN on that series, such that I was fighting with editorial to maintain voice (ironically) by stetting SOME UKisms. They wouldn't hear of it.

One of my last jobs at S&S was to oversee production of the Americanized Mates, Dates series by Cathy Hopkins. By the final title, we were just swapping (not swopping) single quotes for doubles, taking out lots of "u's," and changing ellipses spaces. Things changed a lot in five years.

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Being neither British nor American... I think the Americanisation of British books is sad - personally I like reading books from both sides of the pond in their original form - it adds to the sense of character and place, it creates a fundamental part of a book's reality.
I like it that I'm in the position of easily understanding the differences in both languages and I'm grateful for that because it allows me to appreciate the richness and colour that each language brings to its story.

Shelli said...

my husband is from great britian - he has not yet been Americanized - thankfully :)