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Is there really a need for a book to be translated from UK to US English? I'm nearing completion on my own great work, and just want to know if it is truly worth doing a British and an American version, or just release the current version in its UK form, as I am British.

I personally feel that works of fiction become truly great when the writing becomes invisible. When you're so lost in a novel that you don't even notice the sentence structure and intricately constructed prose.

So while I can't see an American throwing an otherwise enjoyable book away in disgust just because there's a 'u' in 'color', is it jarring? To an American, would the odd British word, (Grey, mum, offence, theatre) actually cause them to not be engrossed in a novel as much as they could be?

I'd like to think not, I'd like to think a British book with British spelling would make it a little bit more interesting, especially considering it's set in a post-apocalyptic UK and narrated by a British person. But publishers spend thousands of pounds translating UK books to US English, so why do they do this?

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Good question. It might depend in part on the prevalence of country-specific words and target audience. For example, I wouldn't expect anybody to really be bothered by colour and theatre, but young-adult readers might not know boot, getting p-ssed, and so forth. (On the other hand, kids these days are probably more worldly than we were when I was their age, thanks to the internet...) –  Monica Cellio May 20 '13 at 4:02
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@MonicaCellio Yes, though the internet does a good job of utterly destroying the innocence of youth, it does also connect us. It is homogenising countries and language, meaning issues like mine will diminish more and more and more as time goes on. But in the meantime, I suppose I should keep British spelling, but avoid (admittedly bizarre) British phrases such as "smoking a fag"! –  Starkers May 20 '13 at 4:17
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I'm not a publisher, so don't feel I can answer this with any authority, but here's a small anecdote for you: a client once complained to me about a website saying, "I would find something and it would be in British, not English." Amusing, but it does demonstrate that, to some, it really matters. –  Craig Sefton May 20 '13 at 6:45
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Astonishing! Sounds like an Anglophobe rather than someone who's truly having difficulty understanding "British" as they hilariously put it! –  Starkers May 20 '13 at 6:53
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Not all publishing is fiction, of course. If you were publishing a book on art, biography, or history then there's much less controversy about whether the "translation" damages the book's text. –  David Aldridge May 20 '13 at 11:34

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I think few would be put off by differences in spelling. But there are also words and phrases that many Americans would not recognize. Words that I know of that are different from American English include "lift", "underground", and "torch". There are likely many others I'm not familiar with as I've never been to the UK. Many of these are well-known in America; others might not be.

In some cases it might cause confusion. Maybe this one is out of date, but I recall an American a number of years back who had just returned from the UK said that a friend he made there was going on a business trip and asked him, "While I'm out of town, could you knock up my girlfriend for me?" To an American this means to have sexual relations, which seemed a rather odd request.

A reader might just stumble a moment before figuring out what an odd word must mean from context, or he might push on with some loss of meaning. (Unless it really leaves the reader baffled as to what is happening, I think few would stop to look it up.)

If it's a book set in Britain and that setting is important -- as I think you're saying is true for your book -- some "localisms" might add flavor and color (or colour), as long as they don't get to the point of making the book confusing. In other cases they would just be distracting.

I was watching a UK-made science fiction movie recently and I found it jarring that the aliens all spoke with British accents. It occurred to me that Britons watching American sci-fi movies must find it odd that aliens all speak with American accents.

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I find it jarring when villains in American movies speak with a British accent. :) –  Shantnu Tiwari May 20 '13 at 14:49
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@ShantnuTiwari But Brits make much better villains. c.f. Alan Rickman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Malcolm McDowell, David Warner... –  Lauren Ipsum May 20 '13 at 16:51
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@ShantnuTiwari Yeah, it used to annoy me that all the bad guys are British, but these days the bad guys are much more interesting and engaging than the main characters, and movie makers know this. And it's only devastatingly intelligent bad guys who are British, Bernard Cumberbatch in Into Darkness, Alan Rickman in Die Hard, Charles Dance in Game of Thrones, so it's not really that insulting! Even the Emperor in Starwars has all the best toys. –  Starkers May 20 '13 at 19:34
    
@Shantnu Good point. Logically, you would think villains would speak with French accents. –  Jay May 21 '13 at 13:21
    
Jay, lets not bring the poor French into this. They get abused enough in hollywood :) –  Shantnu Tiwari May 21 '13 at 14:43

Speaking as a self published author, I use British slangs all the time, but my editor(American) and beta readers have never complained. Neither have those who bought my book.

When you read an American book, do you feel confused when someone uses color (without a 'u')? It's the same on the other side, isn't it? Like Jay says, you may need to be careful of some words like lift, but even that isn't that big a deal.

"He took the lift to the 3rd floor" - It is clear lift is being used as a synonym for elevator here.

In one instance, the editor couldn't understand a swearing slang/insult, and asked me to change it. However, from the surrounding text, it was clear the character was swearing, so I kept it in, reasoning it would widen the cultural horizons of my non-UK readers, as they would learn a new swear slang in another language.

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I'd think swearing and insults would be the easiest thing. If a character says, "You stupid framnar! You did it all wrong!", I think you can pretty easily guess that "framnar" is some kind of insult. As most insults pretty much mean either "stupid" or "immoral", those would be easy to guess. –  Jay May 21 '13 at 13:16
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RE context: Yes, I tried to say something similar in my answer. A reader could be forgiven for reading that sentence and thinking that "lift" must mean escalator, or stairs, or supposing that in the UK there is some other means of travelling between floors. But unless it's important to the story exactly how the person got to the third floor, it doesn't matter. Of course, many Americans wouldn't realize that "3rd floor" here means "4th floor". –  Jay May 21 '13 at 13:25

Differences in spelling are a relatively minor impediment to cross-cultural culture. The use of completely different terms for the same thing (footpath, sidewalk) can usually be understood from the context.

Where you may have real difficulties is the use of the same word (such as solicitor) with completely different meanings (lawyer, street prostitute) or brand names (such as XXXX) attached to completely different products (beer, condoms).

There is a point at which exotic intrigue becomes a barrier to ease of reading, then your commissioning editor will suggest an adaptation.

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And then of course, there's all the rest of us who don't live in the US or the UK. I'm South African. I've grown up reading American and British books (and Irish, Canadian, Australian, South African, etc.). I learned that there are different varieties of English, and gained an understanding of them all.

I recently read the Hunger Games series, and the edition of the second book (Catching Fire) happened to be for the UK market. I didn't twig when it came to spelling (I guess I really don't notice colour vs. color), but when Haymitch said "Done the maths?" it jumped off the page at me - and not in a good way. And when Katniss went about a "KILOMETRE" along the security fence - well, I wanted to strangle the 'translator'. That was overstepping the mark. It really jolted me out of the story.

Publishers: your readers are not stupid. Those few who can't handle other varieties of English may well be greatly outnumbered by those who prefer to read a story in its original flavour. But the majority of readers probably don't care either way, as long as they are entertained. Stop wasting money on this nonsense, and use it to promote authors!

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