Crossing the language barrier by Mrs Condit

As an English author with American publishers, I have collided with the language barrier many times. Once I started basing my stories in England, I’d get comment after comment from my poor editors, “What does this mean?”, and there are some phrases which do not cross the Pond. So I thought I’d ask Becky Condit, reviewer and reader on Mrs Condit & Friends Reads Books  for her opinion on leaving in British words and colloquialisms.  She reads hundreds of books a year and must have tripped over this issue once or twice.


Over to Becky.

Thoughts on an American reader reading an “untranslated” British book…

I love reading books with the flavor of the country in which the story is set. That means that a book set in London should have the words used in the UK. There are examples that are common enough that almost everyone understands what is being said – boot and bonnet are car parts in the UK rather than clothing as they are in the US. A jumper in the UK is a sweater in the US, where a jumper is a dress. Then there are others that one learns from encountering them in stories, such as candyfloss, hosepipe, and lolly. Some words have opposite meanings, such as private school vs public school.

The great leveler for Americans reading UK words is the eReader with the capability to look up words. Most of them have as one of the definitions the UK meaning, so if the reader is confused it is a simple matter to highlight and click to look up the word. This keeps word meanings from being a distraction and soon the reader is sailing through without looking up words at all.

As the US for business reasons has delayed changing to the metric system, one does need to do a bit of mental conversion when reading references to distances and measurements, but if the reader learns easy estimates such as a kilometer is a little over half a mile and a meter is a little over a yard, even that fades to a simple perspective. Temperatures are more difficult with no easy conversion so the reader has to keep in mind whether it is winter or summer so that a 30 degree day in London is hot weather rather than freezing as it would be in Houston.

I’ve read many books set in the UK that have local words and slang translated to US English, and while that makes it easy to read, one loses the local color that is an important part of a story. I can only assume the reason is because the US market is a larger one and the book is edited in such a way to appeal to the American reader. As eBooks become more and more popular I can see the need for this to fade away, allowing readers on both continents to read the book as it was developed in the author’s head. After all, British readers have been reading American books for many years, haven’t they, and managing just fine.

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5 thoughts on “Crossing the language barrier by Mrs Condit

  1. I love reading books from the UK. As mentioned with instant access to dictionaries and the internet on devices it is easy to look stuff up and I love to look stuff up. I also have to admit I get some kind of strange pleasure from seeing words such as “flavor” spelled “flavour” and “center” as “centre” Life is boring when words are all spelled the same!

  2. As a UK reader, reading US stories does increase your knowledge. Lots of sporting terms from baseball, American football (as opposed to football ie soccer), ice hockey (as hockey here is a grass, or more technically an astropitch, sport), basketball. Clothing does present some issues, I got very worried about the amount of wife beaters before clarifying with an American friend! Pants and trousers are always good for some confusion too!
    I do think keeping it local is best – no good reading a book set in Texas where they say Goodmorning, how are you or one in London where they make their tea in the microwave (its a kettle all the way here!). The internet is a great source and I know lots about US and Australian life that I didnt know before!

  3. I had to look up ‘wifebeater’, too! The UK version of ‘pants and suspenders’ is much more fun and double the value if worn by men 😉 I’ve felt very frustrated recently by a couple of books written by British authors, set in the UK, but so Americanised, they weren’t recognisable as British. I love our language, our colloquialisms and our slang. By the same token, I really enjoy reading American books with a strong local flavour. If I’m reading a book set in the southern states, I want a sense of that slow southern drawl. I also love Australian books, although they’re a bit thin on the ground. I think the Aussies are like Antipodean scousers, they have a wonderful way with words and can be hilarious.

    Publishers seem to be driven to lower everything to the lowest common denominator with the result that everything seems very generic, which I think is a great shame and I don’t think they just do it with British books, although as a Brit, those are the times it’s most obvious to me.

  4. The metric / imperial measures thing is really mixed in the UK. Most people think of heights and weights of people in imperial. But I (as with many others) do weights for cooking in metric. Distances for driving is miles. Sizes of rooms are both. But temperatures for almost everyone are Celcius. It all makes it interesting!

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