Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Matter of Language

Stan and I are currently 'translating' our third book from US English into UK English. We actually started writing the book in UK, but decided that since Harper in the US is our primary publisher (Headline has the rest of the world English rights meaning everywhere except North America) we should revert to US. Nevertheless, our UK editor came to light before the US one so now the book needs to be converted.
‘So what?’ you ask. ‘Isn’t that what Word does?’ Well, yes and no.

Of course the spelling differences are easy. A global search and replace will convert color to colour. (Hopefully none of the action takes place in Colorado.) But there are words which are acceptable in both versions but have different meanings. Hood and bonnet. Trunk and boot. Then there are the wretched verbs of the type leaned in US and leant in UK. We have a list of them. And phrases. In UK you struggle with a problem, in the US you battle with it. In the UK you can’t see the wood for the trees while in the US it’s the forest that becomes invisible. Now we come to the units of measure. Pints and gallons go to litres (and the numbers of them have to be changed). Miles to kilometres. (Don’t forget that 12,000 square miles becomes 30,000 square kilometres.) Don’t try a global replacement from foot to metre. UK readers won’t be impressed with following metreprints in the sand!

If you are still awake, you may be asking, ‘But does it matter?’ Well, yes and no.

Readers in either country will be able to deal with either book. Perhaps it’s our problem – just being too pedantic. On the other hand, a local South African radio reviewer fulminated about flashlight occurring on the first page of A Deadly Trade. (That’s what The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu was called in UK. Another translation issue.) 'Why can’t these two write for South African readers?' he complained. 'And what about this glossary! Everyone knows what a braai is after all.' He liked the book, but no one listening to the review would’ve noticed that. (That reminds me: I forgot to check for flashlight!)

Here’s another language issue with which we battle (or struggle for UK readers). Much of the time Kubu and his colleagues and family will be talking to each other in Setswana. Although English is the official language of Botswana, most people are first language Setswana speakers. Any foreigner applying for citizenship must be able to speak it. We think you need to be careful how you write dialogue. Kubu’s parents never use contractions. They say 'it is good to have you with us' while Kubu would say 'I’m glad to be here'. The idea is to reflect the formality of the older generation of Batswana. But no such construction exists in Setswana. On the whole we point out that our characters are speaking Setswana to each other once or twice but allow the reader not to worry about it thereafter. When Setswana speakers are talking in English – say to a foreigner – we are careful that they don’t use words like onomatopoeia. (Actually our characters never use onomatopoeia. When was the last time you used it in speech?) And they don’t make clever puns or plays on words in English...

Sorry this has been so dry. It’s what’s on my mind at the moment.  Must go and check for any flashlights.

More important, have a great Christmas (hopefully not so dry). Hard to believe my next blog will be in 2011. It’s been a wonderful year on murderiseverywhere. Writing once a fortnight is fun, but even if it were not, getting to read the great pieces from our six colleagues would make it more than worthwhile!

Happy New Year!

Michael - Thursday


  1. Michael, I didn't find this dry at all. The differences in language are fascinating. George Bernard Shaw may have said it and Winston Churchill borrowed it, but both are credited as saying that Britain and the United States are one nation separated by a common language.

    Thank you for the interesting posts that you and Stan offer each week. I always learn something.

    Merry Christmas.


  2. Hi Michael (and Stan),

    I know just what you're going through. From time to time someone in the Greek media asks me why my characters use non-Greek idioms in--mind you--the English-language versions of my books. The Greek-language versions make appropriate adjustments.

    The answer I give is that my intention is to accurately convey to non-Greeks what I see. That means at times employing a manner of speech or conduct that is not what one would observe in Greece, but is readily recognizable to those foreign readers. It is the emotion rather than the act that I am seeking to convey.

    That seems to make everybody happy.

    Merry Christmas.


  3. As a reader, I have to say I really, really hate this translation from and to British/American English. If a book takes place in England, then part of the flavor is imparted the language that English people actually speak. It's part of the fun of reading a Napoleon Bonaparte mystery set in Australia to figure out what a billy, damper, and station are. And it really grates to "hear" a character in a Harry Potter book talk about his "sweater" or someone being in "the" hospital. Obviously one has to translate from, say, German to English, but why take all the spice out of an English or South African book to dumb it down for an insular or xenophobic American market? I'd much rather see those resource devoted to good editing or, if the authors themselves are doing the work, to a new story!

  4. Thanks for the comments!

    Yes, Beth, you are right about Shaw. I'm not too sure of the context, although I could make a few guesses!

    Jeff, I agree with you. Sometimes one really has to change the idiom to get across the facits of character that one has in mind. On the other hand, we had a small uneducated boy in one of our stories and initially had him speaking pidgin English (although he was speaking in Setswana in reality). We decided that that wasn't good.

    Bonnie, I guess we don't see it as 'dumbing down" but rather as making sure that nothing about the language distracts the reader from the characters or the story. Thus use the units and spelling that make them most comfortable. But we do want the sort of colour to which you refer. We do that by inserting a few common Setswana and Afrikaans words to give flavour. (Ones that English speaking residents of Botswana would use for example.) As you say, it's fun to work them out from the context. And there is a mini-glossary at the back if you really want to check up.

    Happy Xmas!