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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...) 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. 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. May 20 '13 at 11:34
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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. :) 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... May 20 '13 at 16:51
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    @Shantnu Good point. Logically, you would think villains would speak with French accents.
    – Jay
    May 21 '13 at 13:21
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    Actually, if a friend asked you to "knock up" his girlfriend in the US, he's looking to get her pregnant.
    – tylerharms
    May 23 '13 at 9:56
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    @DavidAldridge While I'm reluctant to correct a self-proclaimed Englishman on such matters, I'm pretty sure that Britain is the island, and Briton is the term for a person from the island. Oct 15 '20 at 20:59
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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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    Just to be technical, while a prostitute is said to be "soliciting", I have never heard a prostitute called a "solicitor". Bu then, I don't claim to have a lot of experience with prostitutes. :-0
    – Jay
    May 15 '15 at 13:55
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    As an American, i consider a "solicitor" somebody trying to sell me something. "No Solicitors" or "No Solicitation" is a common street sign (like a stop sign) at the entrance to upscale neighborhoods, and even gates to apartment buildings or fenced-and-gated homes. It means nobody trying to sell something door to door.
    – Amadeus
    Oct 20 '19 at 22:43
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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
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This far in and no one has mentioned Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone? As an American, I actually read the British edition prior to the franchise becoming so popular in the States, so to me it's always the former. That said, I didn't pick up on the cultural stuff in the British Release until somewhere in the third or fourth book where the Jolly Gift Giving Christmas figure is called "Father Christmas" rather than "Santa Claus" that I realized that this was British.

As a general rule, spelling changes are not that noticeable and there is little difference between the American 3rd floor (two floors up from the ground floor) and the British 3rd floor (Three floors up from the ground floor) to be made... unless you're falling from them... even then...

Most Americans are aware that Brits and Americans do not speak the same English (not to mention the Aussies, who say the speak English... but we're all sure that making up words and convincing foreigners they're real is an Australian Sport). In fact, a lot of humor on both sides of the pond is just how different the language can be.

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  • When I was first read the first Harry Potter book (in USA; Goblet of Fire had just come out), I was confused as to why the described item was NOT called the Philosopher's Stone. When I found out the title had been changed for mass market appeal, it made more sense. Oct 13 '20 at 15:53
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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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I'm a Brit who has enjoyed living in the US for the past 10 years. Personally, I find reading a book in British English far more enjoyable. It's not just the differences in spelling and particular words, but those of sentence structure that subtly change tone and meaning. On moving to the US I had no idea that books were 'translated', until I read some of my favourite books, or new books by a favourite author, and found them more hollow than I would have in British English. I imagine it may be the same for Americans the other way around, and, for publishers to have been doing this for so long, it does rather support that. For me, this applies only to books of fiction.

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The issue is very much cultural and largely only works in one direction. The US is an internal, isolated culture. Americans are very intolerant - everything must be specifically for them as that is their experience. The rest of the English speaking world have enjoyed a different experience.

Most media is US dominated. Those of us in the rest of the world grew up watching US TV and movies. Australian soaps: "Heighbours" and "Home and Away" were huge in the UK. We watch international sports with commentary from international pundits. As a result of this we possess a broad range of International English with an internal autocorrect that allows us not to break stride: Theatre / OR, Chicken / chook, pavement / sidewalk, attorney / solicitor, motorway / freeway . . .

It's hard to explain: It's like we have broader internal thesaurus.

Apart from the word ALUMINIUM! There are TWO occurrences the letter I not ONE . . . When Americans say it . . . . it just grates.

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    This answer comes across as quite chauvinistic and prejudiced against Americans. Also, "aluminum" was the spelling given the element by its discoverer. Oct 15 '20 at 21:22
  • This also ignores that British television is very popular in the U.S. of late and much more accessible (we no longer have to stay up until 1 pm to watch Dr. Who and Sherlock was a hit in the states when we got it on Netflix). Additionally, Harry Potter is massively popular here (where is it not) and the Philosopher's Stone version of the book was sold very early into the franchise's life in the states (my fifth grade teacher gave me this copy to read before the mania started in earnest.).
    – hszmv
    Nov 9 '20 at 17:09
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I'm British and had to give up reading books on the Internet Archive because of this. Changing the spelling is one thing, but some publishers are so aggressive in their "translations" that the story no longer makes sense. They'll grudgingly leave in the fact that the story is set in London but that's it. One publisher claimed to love a certain author's "authentic English voice". How can they say that when they've gone out their way to remove anything British sounding from the dialogue???

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  • Hi Jan, welcome to writing.se! Take the tour and visit the help center for more information. Unfortunately this isn't actually an answer to the question. OP is asking for the reasons why they translate not for other to agree that the translation is unnecessary. If you can, edit you post to address the question that was asked, otherwise it may be removed. Good luck and happy writing!
    – linksassin
    Nov 9 '20 at 23:13
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Rather than translating from UK to US English, I think a glossary would be a better idea. It would clarify things for non-UK readers, and also give them insight into our culture, just like we get insight into US culture.

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  • It seems lik you've accidentally created multiple unregistered accounts. If you sign up for a full account, you can post this as an addition to your previous answer, rather than a separate answer in its own right.
    – F1Krazy
    Nov 9 '20 at 14:37

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