Dear American Publishers: Please Trust Your Audience To Appreciate Non-American English

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Jen Sherman

Staff Writer

Jen is an urban and cultural geographer who did a PhD on public libraries and reading. As a researcher, her interests are focused on libraries, reading, book retailing and the book industry more broadly. As a reader, she reads a lot of crime fiction, non-fiction, and chicklit. And board books. All the board books. You can also find her writing about books for children and babies at babylibrarians.com. Instagram: shittyhousewife / babylibrarians Twitter: @jennnigan

Dear American Publishers,

I understand that you have quite a large market, what with the US having a population of some 325 million people. Australia is considerably smaller, with a mere 24 million. I also realise that there are differences in language across these two countries, with Australian English being different to American English (and for that matter, British English is also different to American English). But must you translate everything you publish by Australian and British writers into American English? Can’t you trust your audience to have some intelligence and use context and a dictionary?

When reading works in translation (from languages other than English), something often seen as important is whether the meaning is truly, properly captured. For translations of Australian/British English into American English, it seems that meaning is kept but at the cost of flavour. You translate words that you think your audience will not understand but in doing so, you lose the distinctive Australianness or Britishness of the language and, in doing so, you lose a bit of the author’s voice.

I moved to America in early 2016. Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty came out that year, and I bought my copy of the book in America, without realising that it would be translated into American. I read it, and found the experience incredibly jarring. In the American edition, these were the words I read: barbecue, neighborhood, ‘with a view of the busy shopping center parking lot’, ‘which had gotten stuck to the backs of her legs’, cabdriver, ‘drove out of the library parking lot … her windshield had suddenly, cruelly, fogged over’, pajamas, ‘On a 103-degree day!’, gray, realize, ‘He couldn’t mindlessly bang a wrench against a pipe for twenty minutes’, harbor, colored, stock portfolio, ‘worriedly wiping down already clean kitchen countertops with dish towels’, model airplanes, counselor, checking account.

When I went back to Australia for a visit, I bought the book again, because I wanted to read it in the original language. In that edition, these are the words I read: barbeque, neighbourhood, ‘with a view of the busy shopping centre car park’, ‘which had got stuck to the backs of her legs’, cab driver, ‘drove out of the library car park … her windscreen had suddenly, cruelly, fogged over’, pyjamas, ‘on a forty-degree day!’, grey, realise, ‘He couldn’t mindlessly bang a spanner against a pipe for twenty minutes’, harbour, coloured, share portfolio, ‘worriedly wiping down already clean kitchen benchtops with dishcloths’, model aeroplanes, counsellor, cheque account.

These are not big things. These are actually quite small things. But given that these are small things, why do they need to be changed at all? Why do you need to take the letter ‘u’ out of all the words where we use them, change the ‘s’ to ‘z’? Why do you need to change car park to parking lot (is that really so hard to figure out from context?)? And these may be small things, but there were a lot of them and that led to a reading experience that felt wrong. I will happily read a book written by an American author, set in America, published in America, that is written in American English. That is the original language. But this was a book written by an Australian, set in Australia, that is suddenly in the wrong language. And it’s not like it even needed to be translated—Australian English is not that far removed from American English. This loss of flavour and character of language, that seems entirely unnecessary, is irksome.

This kind of translation happens in children’s books too. Which I find just as bad, if not worse. In Room on the Broom by Julia Donaldson (a Scottish author), this is the opening sentence of the original: ‘The witch had a cat and a very tall hat, and long ginger hair which she wore in a plait.’ Later, there is this: ‘The witch laughed aloud and held onto her hat, but away blew the bow from her long ginger plait!’

In the copy I bought in America, it opens with: ‘The witch had a cat and a cat that was black, and long ginger hair in a braid down her back.’ The corresponding later sentence is this: ‘The witch laughed out loud and held onto her hat, but away blew the bow from her braid—just like that!’ So the meaning isn’t changed, but the feel of the story is different. And this book even has pictures! You can see what a plait is! Why did that need to be changed to braid?

Isn’t it a good thing to capture authenticity? Isn’t language one way of doing that? Why can’t you keep authenticity and distinctiveness in the books that you publish by non-American authors? In Australia, we didn’t get American books translated into Australian English for us. Do you want to know how that affected my reading experience? It made me realise that Americans use different words to me for some things, despite both America and Australia having English as a main language. That there even are different types of English around the world. That America uses different measurements for temperature and distance and weight, that difference in language is okay. It taught me new words and a new flavour of English. Why would you want to deprive American audiences of this?

Can’t you please trust American readers to know (or at least look up and realise) that a footpath is a sidewalk, a carpark is a parking lot, and an aeroplane is an airplane?


An Australian reader living in America who is buying a lot of books on her trips back to Australia because she wants to read Australian books as they were written