British-American English translation

I’m fascinated by the lengths to which U.S. publishers sometimes go to ‘localize’ British novels, and I gather it happens the other way round too.
There is a very interesting paper written in English by a German, Helge Nowak, on the changes demanded of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, not my favourite novel but one that was very successful. Nowak looks at every possible aspect of difference between U.S. and British versions, including dustjacket and typography.

Here is just one example of a change. British version:

he saw himself as a failure and felt vaguely responsible for this.
He was a small man, with very soft, startling black hair and small regular features. Val called him Mole, which he disliked. He had never told her so.

U.S. version:

he saw himself as a failure and felt vaguely responsible for this. He was a compact, clearcut man, with precise features, a lot of very soft black hair, and thoughtful dark brown eyes. He had a look of wariness, which could change when he felt relaxed or happy, which was not often in these difficult days, into a smile of amused friendliness and pleasure which aroused feelings of warmth, and something more, in many women. He was generally unaware of these feelings, since he paid little attention to what pe/ple thought about him, which was part of his attraction. Val called him Mole, which he disliked. He had never told her so.

I was reminded of this by a recent Guardian article about American publishers nearly retitling the British novel Brick Lane – they wanted it to be called Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers (however, this was the title originally used by the author, Monica Ali).

There are many Internet sites with B.E./Am.E. wordlists, but they have a tendency to be over-simplified and suggest A is always used in AmE and B always in BE and never the twain shall meet.

3 thoughts on “British-American English translation

  1. I don’t really understand what’s going on here. Surely the American publisher didn’t add in extra description for some bizarre reason. Could it be that the passage was truncated by the British editor and the US version represents Byatt’s original text? At any rate, by itself this wouldn’t seem to have much to do with US/UK differences in general.

    * * *

    OK, now that I’ve read the article I understand what’s going on, and I’m horrified. It just didn’t enter my head that a (formerly) respectable publisher like Random House would try to force a writer like Byatt to dumb down her text, and succeed in bullying her into making alterations like the one you quote. I’m trying not to get too embittered, but really, the world does seem to be getting worse. And I hate the attitude of the article’s author:

    “Applied to A.S. Byatt’s Possession, this view would consequently see both its British and its American editions as legitimate (and not merely as co-existing) versions. They were produced, i.e. created and prepared for book publication, by various teams, all of which included the author – willingly or unwillingly. As her intentions carried different weight at different times, other considerations, by other members of the team, could come in and leave their mark in the individual processes of production.”

    What crap. So if I put a completely rewritten version of the article online, it will be fine with Helge Nowak, just a different, equally valid version? I don’t think so. Theory. Bah, humbug.

  2. I absolutely agree with you on both points. The situation was that I read the Guardian article recently and it reminded me of the paper on Byatt, which I got angry about when I read it a year or two ago. Must have found it in connection with a discussion on CompuServe between British and Americans as to whether American publishers or British are more wicked! It contains a wealth of horrifying and seemingly reliable examples. But I only skimmed it before I gave the link today. I didn’t remember the conclusion of Nowak (Helge is a man’s name, not that it matters), but it sounds like a watered-down version of this tendency to treat a text as independent of the author, which was too late for my time at university.
    Of course, there must be quite a lot of changes between MS and book. I remember writing an article for the ATA Chronicle and practically every sentence was rewritten, usually with syntactical changes. I decided to regard this as typical American behaviour and not get too angry, but at several points I had to correct it because the meaning had been changed. But I know nothing about editing.

  3. Transblawg discusses the differences between the British and American editions of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, quoting a paragraph that shows very significant differences. The UK version:…he saw himself as a failure and felt vaguely responsible for this….

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