Across the Pond: Translating English into, well, English.
One of my first jobs of 2021 was a little different to my normal fare but one that also got me thinking. Not only because it was a speculative novel that transported the to the not-so-distant future and questioned the role of AI and also what it means to be human, but also because I was tasked with translating the novel from English, into… English!
Now you may well be scratching your head, but to clarify, I was translating the text from American English to British English. Why do that, you ask? They’re the same language, right? Well, yes, but also no. And depending on your aims when you’re publishing your manuscript, which you choose could be very important.
In fact, that’s one of the most frequent queries I receive from authors: should I publish in US or UK English? (and that’s not forgetting all the other variants of English too – Canadian, English, Indian, South African, Irish…) And the simple answer is, it’s up to you. At which point, said author groans. (I know, I’m so helpful!) However, the point is there is no one answer to this as it depnds on different variables.
So, for example, are you publishing fiction or non-fiction? What market are you aiming for? Where are you (the author) from and what English do you write in? As well as things such as your budget and schedule.
If you’re publishing fiction, which ‘English’ you write in doesn’t really matter most of the time, because what matters is the story! Readers all over the world are reading your novel as a chance to escape and be entertained, and as long as your writing and plot are doing that, which ‘English’ you use is less of a worry. However, if you’re writing non-fiction, this might be something to bear in mind because depending on the subject matter, you may want to publish different editions of the book to target different audiences; for example a book about budgeting and finance may be written with the US tax laws etc in mind, but this is less applicable to British or Australian readers. Therefore the author may consider writing perhaps an additional chapter for the other readers or even a completely different edition to cater to these audiences (although this, of course, can then be extrapolated to all the countries in the world and different language in this example but that’s a very ambition project – see budget below). So in this way, when considering which language to publish in, content itself is key.
This leads nicely into the biggy: your target market. You want to make sure that your book is hitting the right notes with your target market so they don’t have a reason to put your book down (or write the dreaded scathing Amazon review!) So for example, a saga set in 1940s Liverpool, is probably going to look a little weird written in US English if its target audience is your average saga reader. Or a romance novel set on a farm in the Outback of Australia is going to look a little peculiar in British English. (Did you know Australians call their kettles, jugs?)
However, the world is global marketplace and if they wanted to, anyone in the world can read whatever book they want, wherever they are – thank you, internet. Which puts a spanner in the works, because, of course, authors want their books to be read by the widest audience. Which is why the next factor is perhaps, in my mind the most crucial point: what English do you write in?
‘Huh?’ you say. ‘Surely you should be writing for the biggest audience?’
Well, no. For example, if you’re setting your novel in a coffee shop in Melbourne, Australian English sounds like the best choice? However, if you write in American English, it’s going to slow you down an awful lot if you essentially re-teach yourself a language you’re already fluent in order to write your story. If writing in a different English just so that it matches your novel is going to be an obstacle to your authentic writing voice, the simple answer is don’t. Because your writing will suffer for it. And I can tell you this much – readers would rather read a fantastic story in one version of English, than a less good one in the ‘most appropriate’.
However, what if you’ve listened to all of the above but you still desperately your Britain-set novel full of British characters written in British English for authenticity, but you write in a US style? Well, this is where the practicalities of budget and timescale come in, as you can ask someone – like me – to translate for you. This will add authenticity to your writing and help you target your market, but it does cost money and also adds to your timescale – as the editor/translator will need to work on a finished manuscript, extending your overall publishing schedule. So if you have the luxury of that resource, then this is a very useful tool to bear in mind when considering your publishing strategy.
Whilst this is all well and good, and you’ve been very patient, but I can hear your clamouring:
‘So, Rebecca, which English should I write my story in?‘
My main piece of advice is this: it depends. As I’m British, I find it much easier to write in British English, using British idioms and spelling. Therefore, my first piece of advice would be to write in the English you know; this will make the writing experience much easier and probably more enjoyable. If however, you want to set your manuscript in New York, you can still write in British English (spelling, style, grammar etc), but if your characters are American, you’ll need to keep this in mind because they’ll be using American idioms and phrases and it’s most important that you remain authentic to your character. So they’ll be talking about catching the ‘subway’ as opposed to the ‘underground’.
However, if you’re really stuck and you’re currently just shaking your fist at the screen saying, ‘That still doesn’t answer my question!” Fine, I’ll tell you.
I will have to plump with US English. If your main concern is getting your story to the widest audiences, it’s hard to forget that the US is the majority stakeholder in the world publishing market, taking up over 30% of the global share(2017). What’s more, because so much of the world’s media is produced through a US filter – Hollywood, celebrity culture, music industry etc – most of the English-speaking world is used to reading and absorbing English-language material in US English. However, it’s less common for US readers to read in British and other versions of English. In fact, I was speaking to an American author the other day who had recently read a crime novel set in the UK and written in British English, and he explained that as much as he loved the story, he was often confused by some Britishisms. (I mean do have some odd phrases…) However, this is also illustrative of the wider US reading market; when I worked in-house whenever we bought books off the Americans, we wouldn’t ‘translate’ the text to British English, but if the Americans bought titles from us, they often Americanised it to fit their market. Funny, huh?
But to be honest, it’s much of a muchness, write whatever works for you. However, whichever you choose, I’d advise you stick to that choice. For example, if you’re starting a series, or want to write more books, there is nothing more off-putting that inconsistency!
Bonus tip; if you’re thinking of publishing two editions, one for either side of the pond, you might also need to consider different book covers. Take a look at Barnes and Noble and Waterstones – you’ll find a lot of the same titles, but the US and UK covers will be very different!