Thursday, July 8, 2010

Separated by a common language




I’m working on Americanizing a YA novel from the UK for our spring 2011 Carolrhoda Lab list. That was a hard sentence for me to write, because I’m somewhat allergic to the idea of Americanization. As a reader, I really enjoy encountering the subtleties of different forms of English usage in fiction. I think children’s books in the US have benefitted in the Harry Potter era from letting UK English stand—from leaving those chips and mums alone. So, at least in theory and as a reader, I’m inclined to say Americanisation is rubbish.

In practice/practise, though, I’m finding it’s not quite so simple. For example:

It was long past midnight when the Horror appeared at the
end of Westmoreland Road. No one in the run-down estate saw it. No one heard it as it burst through the washing lines of the poky little gardens.

This is the first sentence of the novel in question. On the face of it, no Americanization is needed here—at least there are no British spellings or unfamiliar words. However, a young American reader is very likely to read the word “estate” quite differently from the author’s intended meaning (“gardens” won’t help things), and all of a sudden, the reader is picturing something quite different from what the author imagined. It’s an unfortunate way to start a book. I need to find a way to get readers picturing a British “council estate” not some grand country home—more Zadie Smith than Daphne Du Maurier .




This kind of dissonance between UK and US usage is a much bigger problem than the usual “mum” to “mom” and “chips” to “fries.” It’s not so much the words that are spelled differently; it’s the words that are used differently that trips up readers. As an editor, I’m coming to the realization/realisation that it’s this kind of Americanization that makes a difference for readers.

And how you make the change really matters. It’s not translation. For example, from the same book, a little later:

We walked into a wall of drum and bass. The usual assortment of year 13s were lounging about on Tori’s boxy sofas and chairs, and it was noisy, but at least the lamps in the room were subdued and indirect.

The Britishism is obvious here, but I would argue the change isn’t so simple as changing “year 13” to whatever the American high school equivalent is (I actually don’t know at the moment). I don’t want to replace a peculiarly British usage with a peculiarly American one if I can avoid it—after all, the book is still set in the UK. So, since the ages of the characters are well established and the nature of the “assortment” isn’t important, I’m probably going to change “year 13s” to “people.” The meaning is unharmed and no uniquely American syntax disrupts the British setting.

Later on, readers will encounter another different British school term: “maths” instead of “math.” I’m not going to change that. Why would I? No reader will be remotely confused, and any reader with familiarity with British usage will see evidence of my having been there if I change it—and that’s antithetical to good editing.

With Americanization, I say less focus on types of fried potatoes and more focus on making sure the story works for readers with minimal “translation.”

UPDATE: You should read this post from a commenter.


Blythe said...

This would drive me mad.*

Every sentence can become a gumption trap of La Brea proportions. The estate issue is a sticky one. Did you settle on something like "neighborhood" and trust "run-down" to carry the water? English: It's a whole nother language.

(*As it clearly has done you: z/s/z And that's just the damn spelling.)

Andrew Karre said...

Exactly. I went with "neighborhood" or occasionally "block." When things cooled down, I introduced "council estate." They can look it up.

Catherine Johnson said...

That makes me americanizing a few picture books look easy. Are you familiar with this site?:

Good luck

lynneguist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lynneguist said...

You might be interested in my blog on this topic. (Google sent me your post based on the similarity of name.)

I hope you won't mind me pointing out a problem in the Briticization here: 'practise' is a verb only; 'practice' is the noun.

Good luck with your translation.

Andrew Karre said...

Lynneguist: what an interesting post! Thanks for finding me.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

:) I'm English, but have spent most of my life in the US...The pb and hf mg I'm working on are based in England. I have relatives reading them for me. It's helpful...