I had a disconcerting reading experience last week. Sorry; that phrase – reading experience – sounds like marketing-ese, which is a language I’ve always gone to some trouble to avoid speaking, but I don’t know how else to describe it.
Let me begin by saying that I read a lot of American fiction. Which is to say, fiction written by American authors. Some of it is in the original American edition, either because the author doesn’t have a separate British publisher, or more enjoyably, because I bought it during a visit to America. I even have two copies of the same Jack Reacher, with different titles, because I didn’t realize they were the same till I arrived home.
And I like to think I speak pretty good American when the occasion arises. On our recent visit a couple of months ago husband was moved to comment with a smile, ‘You just said that in American,’ when I asked the hotel housekeeper for some fresh washcloths. In the UK I’d have asked the chambermaid for some fresh flannels, but that would have taken a bit of explaining to her US equivalent.
Which is really what lies at the heart of my disconcerting experience. I was reading one of the small library of books I picked up at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver back in May: an early title by an author whose work I discovered a few months ago. She’s a British author, and her books, at least the ones I’ve read, are set in Britain and have British characters, though it turns out they’ve become popular in the US – possibly more so than at home, since blazed across the front cover was the tag NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the copy I’d found was the American edition. And it had been translated.
Many years ago I had a conversation with an author friend whose debut novel had just sold to an American publisher; he talked about his American editor as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I was pretty green in those days, and couldn’t quite understand why a book written in plain English needed an American editor; my friend patiently explained that words like ‘tanner’ and ‘bob’ would be a mystery to readers across the water (the book was set in the 1950s, before decimal coinage came in over here), so some minor changes would be needed to make it user-friendly.
And yes, OK, I could see the potential difficulty. These days even ‘sixpence’ and ‘shilling’ are a foreign language to anyone under forty, and even then (it was a long time ago) their corresponding slang terms would have been confusing.
But to return to the present issue: the American edition I was reading had been adjusted for rather more than a few outdated slang terms. It had been well and truly translated. Taps had become faucets; handbags were now purses; car parks were parking lots, and in one bizarre case a ring road had become a beltway. These are just a few examples; by the end of the first chapter I had begun to wonder if the entire narrative had been relocated.
As I said several paragraphs ago, I read a lot of American fiction, and I do buy books in the US, but since I live in the UK, most of what I read is in the British edition. And now I’m wondering if it’s me or the books: do I simply not notice that an American book has been British-ized? Or do American authors’ British editors feel it’s unnecessary to go to such great lengths to ensure a book is comprehensible to a (slightly) different audience?
And if the latter is the case – isn’t it just a little patronizing to American readers to assume that a British author’s work would need to be translated so thoroughly?
Dead Guy has a lot of American followers, not to mention six contributors. Someone out there must have a view on this. Me, I’m just confused. And disconcerted.