The other side of the pond

I recently had an interesting exchange with American writer Belinda Frisch about catering for readers outside of your own country.

I’d just finished reading her book and she’d done the same with mine; she asked whether any of the words or references used caused a problem for the UK English reader. Of course, the first thing I did was to throw the same question back at her and we batted things around for a while.

My response was that while writing I was, of course, aware that my book would circulate outside the UK. I wasn’t really thinking of non-English countries but I certainly did think a fair bit about the USA. Well, it’s a sizable market.

I would say that I thought about it but didn’t fret about it.

There are some clear and obvious differences in some of the words used in the UK and the USA. Some examples (some of which occur in The Well) would include:

Torch Flashlight
Pavement Sidewalk
Mobile Cell phone
Boot Trunk
Petrol Gas

You get the picture. When Belinda and I discussed this, we reached the conclusion that for the UK and USA, we’re each exposed to each other’s cultures enough to at least understand the reference, even if it requires a little thinking about.

There’s another factor too. The Well is set in small-town Lancashire. To be direct and authentic, it needs to use the vocabulary of that location, regardless of the readership. Using an American expression would grate on both sides of the pond. So, yes, when I used the word ‘torch’ I did wonder if Americans would readily understand it, but creating a USA-centric substitute would have raised eyebrows.

Of course, there are definitely words or phrases to avoid. An example might be ‘fanny’ which is quite an acceptable thing to sit on in the USA but isn’t in the UK. Or phrases such as ‘blowing someone off’ which in the USA innocently means to let someone down, or not turn up – in the UK… well, it’s a clear reference to oral sex.

There are bigger differences – an example might be how police forces are organised and named. The USA and UK police do the same job, but with a different structure and with different titles. In the UK, we don’t have sheriffs in law enforcement, for example – it’s a term that’s fallen by the wayside in policing and now refers to an officer of a court, such as a bailiff.

The same arguments apply: it needs to use the terminology from where the book is set, not where it will be read. A couple of examples spring to mind. The first is Shakespeare – Shakespeare’s English can be radically different from ours, yet even when we don’t grasp the specifics the meaning is seldom obscure. Another is Somme Mud, an excellent book about fighting in the First World War, written by an Australian. Here we have the issues of both dated English and colloquialisms – neither really presents a problem to the reader and removing them damages the authenticity of the words.

Then there are cultural references. I think when it came to these, I didn’t have to try too hard to make them transatlantic. Most consumer culture is global – so an iPod is the same thing wherever you are.

Some differences are interesting and worth researching. When choosing whether to use ‘knickers’ or ‘panties’ I wanted the least sexual term and the most local. Of course, the writer’s own knowledge helps and also that of friends. But Google has a useful tool, Google Trends, which can help you too – by showing you which words are most searched for.

In this case, we can see that in the UK, usage of both isn’t that far off equal, but in the USA, ‘panties’ is by far and away the most used term.

Google Trends chart showing geographical usage for 'panties' and 'knickers'

Google Trends chart: red: ‘panties’, blue: ‘knickers’

Yet the word is clearly understood in the USA, even if it appears that it’s not the most dominant used variation by a long margin. Local vocabulary and context (non-sexual reference) trump worldwide usage in this case.

Of course, when a UK reader picks up Stephen King (as an example) it’s littered with pop-culture references, which are everyday to Americans but obscure to us Brits. We don’t even eat Twinkies over here – but we do know what they are. When someone lights up a Lucky Strike we know what’s happening, though we may have to think twice to get what’s happening if the cigarette is a Merit.

I’ve had a lot of feedback from American readers but none (to date) had been around something that baffled them. Let’s hope that’s because they managed to understand (or at least guess) everything and not because they’re still scouring the Internet for translations.

About Peter Labrow

Peter Labrow has worked as a copywriter, writing non-fiction, for around twenty years. His output includes copy for websites and brochures; for around a decade he wrote a regular column for IT Training magazine. He has published one non-fiction book about learning within the corporate environment. The Well, Peter’s first novel, is available on Kindle and in print from Amazon. View all posts by Peter Labrow

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