Why I Stopped Reading on Page 15

This is refers to a specific novel and I am not going to name it.  Truth be told, by page 15 the actual prose element clocked in at about two thirds of those 15 pages.  I won’t name the novel as I don’t want to put people off trying out the author concerned, and the book.  But I do wish to bring my issue to the attention of British publishers delivering translated works into the UK market and, perhaps, encourage a debate amongst readers.

The book in question has a Nordic setting and is written by a Nordic author.  Though the English translation was not produced by an American, it is Americanised.  Words end in ‘–ize’, we have ‘ass’ not ‘arse’ and ‘pissed at’ over ‘pissed off with’.  As such, I felt I was reading a novel set in the US and not in a Nordic country.  Put simply, the book had lost its original setting.  I could have been in the Bronx.

I have form on this, noting a remarkable change when Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s third novel Ashes to Dust was published in the UK, with a new, third and American translator. I may have risked offending some American cousins at the time, but I felt the translator had lost important aspects of the author’s voice brought so clearly to the fore in Bernard Scudder’s translation of her first, Last Rituals.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?


33 thoughts on “Why I Stopped Reading on Page 15

  1. John Barlow (@John_Barlow_LS9)

    I think US English is gradually creeping into UK English. How many people under (say) forty now say movie instead of film? I also notice ‘gotten’ creeping in, and more subtle changes, like the expression ‘I just (did something)’ rather than ‘I’ve just…’

    But my question is: why do you feel that the UK English is somehow preferable for a translation? Presumably an American reader, on reading a translation using UK conventions, might feel just as uncomfortable.

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      John, I am very happy if this novel is pubished in the US in this way; it would be perfect. But for me the US-embedded style prose evoked a US setting and not a Nordic setting. Yes, Americanisms had been creeping in for years here in the UK, and I have no gripe with that per se. This reads as a novel written by an American though. Hence, I feel the nuances of the Nordic are lost.

      1. Gillian

        I would completely agree with that: the words and the syntax in a translation should fit the market. ‘English’ comes in many national forms and trying to read a text in two levels of translation (original-‘somewhereEnglish’-‘somewhereelseEnglish) is not good. Given the difficulty that our US cousins reportedly have in understanding some of our actors and the chaos that can be caused in (unrelated!) business meetings by non-local wording on either side of the Atlantic, then it is only reasonable that high-quality translations should be for the local national market not some Worglish.

  2. David Jackson

    You make a very good point, Rhian, and I think the choice can make a huge difference to the reader. In the case of my own first novel, Pariah, the setting is clearly New York, with New York characters; and so the choice I faced was either to use American words and spelling in the dialogue and British everywhere else, which I think would look silly, or to use Americanisms throughout. I decided on the latter as much the more sensible approach, but still get accused (even by the occasional reviewer) of trying to pretend to be American. Some people even seem to take great delight in proving that I’m not! In the case of a translation, it’s a more difficult problem. Does it even make any sense to ask whether the voice of, say, a Scandinavian is closer to American or British? Perhaps the ideal solution is to produce a different version for each territory, but then I suppose there are cost implications.

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      Dave, you wrote something that was authentic to its setting. (Hence, one of the reasons why it was so good.) R J Ellory does the same. To wrap it up in BBC English from the 1980s would be ridiculous.

      The Scandinavian voice is relevant if heard. I have heard this particular author in a video and they do not sound in any way American. But that should not matter anyway as the books are not sold on heard author interviews. In the case of my other example, I had heard Yrsa speak – before I read her first novel. I had subsequently spoken to her too. Her author’s voice is very similar to her own and I think the translator missed certain aspects of it. Having worked for some European companies in my time, I can say that some do speak English in a very American way. I once asked about this in a German company only to be told it depends on the teachers. That should come as no surprises to us, as we are an insular lot and don’t embrace the learning of other languages well.

      Cost obviously does come into it. For years I have noted and been irritated by the books produced to make the transatlantic flight with ease. They sometimes seem to have retained a foot on each piece of land where almost everything is UK English apart from the ‘–ize’ words. But for me, this book is another matter. It’s purely packaged for the US market and in doing so it’s lost its setting.

  3. Maxine

    I assume some UK pubilshers just buy the rights to, and therefore do a straight republish of, the US edition for our market, with a different cover. I don’t know to which book you are referring but as a reader this was obvious in The Hand That Trembles by Kjell Eriksson. I had read the previous three translated novels in US editions, as these were the only ones available, so was expecting them to be in US English, as they were. However, when THTT was published by a UK publisher in the UK last year, I was surprised to read the same US English.

    Reading a lot of Soho crime one gets US English, again this is fine as the books are not published in the UK so one is buying books translated for the US market and at least we can get them as this is a lot better than nothing (eg Helene Tursten never got a UK publisher, nor Stan Jones’s Nathan Active series).

    However, when books are published in both markets one does expect the UK version to be in English English.

    “Gotten”, by the way, is English English but had fallen out of use. The Amercians reinvented it. See Fowler, etc.

    1. Maxine

      PS Sorry, Stan Jones is American, so of course his books are not translated. Helene Tursten is Swedish though, and hers are translated.

  4. bernadetteinoz

    This is a complex issue I think. I’ve noted the same problem on occasion with translations (Shuichi Yoshida’s Villain is one that sticks in my mind as having a very American sensibility due its American translator). But should we – can we – expect publishers to provide multiple translations into English? It seems to me it’s hard enough to get them to do one. While I agree that it would be lovely I just don’t know that it is realistic to expect two English-language versions of a translated book to be published and I don’t think it’s possible for all localised usage to be removed from a book (though some translators do seem to go to more effort than others).

    I guess I am fairly philosophical about the whole issue in general as here in Oz we get a mixture of English and American editions of all books, not just translated ones. it’s not unusual for example for us to get the US editions of Ruth Rendell books, (I nearly choked the first time Reg Wexford drove on a highway) and when I was browsing a book store recently i noticed that we have the US edition of Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending on sale. We just learn to occasionally put up with English coppers driving on highways instead of motorways (I don’t recall an example of it ever going the other way I must admit – i.e. have never noticed an English version of a book first published in American English).

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      I see what you say Bernadette and the Australian market obviously engages more flexibility with its readers, covering a wide range of imports. I believe cost is an issue for English editions, but felt this novel had not Nordic feel at all.

  5. Steph

    This is happening in a lot of fantasy books that are coming to the UK from America lately, the publishers don’t seem to customise the books, with for example not having Curtains instead of Drapes, which really annoys me a lot.

    We seem to be loosing UK / US Editions of books these days and getting one version. If the author isn’t from England then it’s going to be the US Version.

  6. James McCreet

    A pedantic aside – American words end in -ize because that was the convention in British English during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The copy editor at Macmillan changed all my endings to -ize in my books set in London during the 1840s, and I see that endings are -ize in my (English) 1840’s original source material. Many of what we now see as Americanisms are early imports there that we’ve forgotton. My Chambers dictionary gives equal right to both. Swings and roundabouts?

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      True. But in this case is used the ‘–ize’ words as one of the symptoms that led to the end product: the novel felt like an American setting over its Nordic one. I feel it’s tumbled over in its excitement of running from the swings to the roundabout.

  7. Barbara

    I really don’t understand why a publisher can change the cover art and sometimes even the title because of market sensibilities, but can’t be arsed to make those small linguistic edits that would translate a book from American to British usage or the other way around. How hard would it be? Many translators aim for a fairly mid-Atlantic style anyway, as slang tends to come loaded with GPS coordinates. I found it very distracting when Sterling let a few British expressions stand in Roslund and Hellstrom’s Cell 8 – primarily because it was dialogue being spoken by American characters and birds located in the US (where we have lots of crows, but not ravens or rooks). I felt silly being irritated but it wasn’t that I was being parochial, I was simply thrown right out of the story. Stories deserve better.

    That said, I really do not want British books Americanized for the US market. Absolutely hate that!!

    And to add to Bernadette’s comment – Canadians also have a mix of UK/US as well as local Canadian publishing, but at least they seem to get whatever’s new right away. And don’t have to pay those extraordinary Australian prices (though they are irritatingly asked to pay a big surcharge for US books when the Canadian dollar is strong and there’s no rationale for it other than laziness and greed).

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      Thanks Barbara. I seem to remember from my time in Canada – and writing masses of reports when there – that ‘Canadian’ English is another slight variation which could be described as a mix of US & UK. It’s where I lived when I started devouring US thrillers – all imported – and some Canadian (but quite few).

      I think your comment on your thoughts on Cell 8 are so similar to my experience here. Even a little, in the wrong place/way, can be jarring. I’d have read on if the book had been set in north America, but there was no Nordic feel to it. And that was what it promised on the label.

  8. Mack Lundy

    I’m an US reader and I hate when books set in non-US locations use Americanized English whether through translation or because an American publisher decided it would sound better. I couldn’t believe that the publisher decided that US readers couldn’t handle the title Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and made it Sorcerer’s Stone. Gaah!

    A feeling of place is important to me when I read a book set in another country and I want it as authentic as possible. Some publishers seem to think that adding a “u” to some words, using “ise” instead of “ize”, spelling theater as theatre, will throw US readers out of the story. Maybe in some cases but overall I think it is insulting.

    I don’t know if I would stop reading if the book was otherwise engaging but it would annoy me greatly if the spelling was corrected to US standard.

  9. Ben Kane

    I have another take on this, which is slightly off topic. As someone who now reads a lot of novels before they are published (lucky me!), in other words, unfinished drafts, I notice an awful lot of books are written using American spelling.

    Given that most computers come with a default setting to U.S. English rather than U.K. English, my theory is that some authors can’t be bothered to change their computer’s spelling, or perhaps don’t even know how to!

    The resultant American spelling in the book doesn’t seem to be changed by many copy editors etc., which results in books being published with Americanisation even when they haven’t been published in the USA.

    Weird, eh?

      1. Ben Kane

        Proofs and mss, and mostly before the copy editors have got to them i.e. it is how the UK writer has spelled the words. As a pedant, it irks me!

  10. Keishon

    Hi and new here. I just want to pipe in and say that I agree with Mack Lundy. I’m an American reader who prefers the original voice, nuances, inflections of language of the country the book is set in. I dislike anything being altered just for US audiences. I wrote a piece discussing my dislike of Scandinavian writers having to change their “voice” to better fit in a U.S. market. Perceived or real, that’s how I feel. Great discussion.

        1. crimeficreader Post author

          Thanks Keishon. Yes, I did read your article via friendfeed. I am not familiar with those novels but I wholeheartedly agree where you are coming from there. The magic is lost when ‘cloning’ to fit the market is enforced.

  11. farmlanebooks

    I’ve noticed this too and it does annoy me. It ruins the atmosphere and I find myself unable to immerse myself in the country of the book’s origin as I keep thinking I’m in America. Nothing wrong with that for an American book, but it feels wrong for a book set anywhere else. Such a shame.

  12. Maxine

    Just thought I’d add to the mix that I don’t mind reading a book in US English or English English, so long as it is well edited. I am an editor and work for a big company with many British and American employees (the two biggest nationalities) and good representatives from other countries. However, our journals are published in the US and the UK, each one has a US or UK English house style, depending on where the main editorial office is. They are all well edited and readable, because we employ good editors and respect the value of the process.
    I’ll also add that of course we process manuscripts (scientific papers and comment) written from authors all over the world, one of our roles is to edit those papers into readable, accessible and clear scientific accounts. We find on average that Japanese authors are the best at following our style guidelines, and Italians the worst 😉 This is a generalisation of course and there are plenty of counter-examples!

  13. Yvonne Johnston (@Whyjay99)

    I’ve just seen this one. I sympathise (note spelling) with your frustrations but I have to say it does not really bother me too much. However, I do read a fair number of novels written by Americans. I also watch a lot of US TV drama and wonder if this has affected my perception of Americanised translations.

  14. DJ´s krimiblog

    I always encourage my students to make up their minds if they want to write & speak American or British English though I have noticed how difficult it is to keep one´s British English ´clean´ as we get so many American films and series. I am not sure I see a Scandinavian setting as more one than the other, however, but of course the translation should be consistent.

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