The Editor’s Desk: Lost in translation

Is it really necessary to translate British words to American ones for a U.S. audience?

In 1997, a children’s book by a then-unknown writer named J.K. Rowling was published in the U.K., and a year later it was published in North America. The book’s U.K. title was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but that was changed by U.S. publisher Scholastic to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when it was published in the States, on the grounds that American children would not want to read a book with the word “philosopher” in the title.

Scholastic also had several other British words “translated” to American: “crumpets” became “muffins”, the British “mum” and Irish “mam” for mother were changed to “mom”, a packet of crisps became a bag of chips, motorways became highways, and so on. (To their credit the Canadian publisher, Vancouver’s Raincoast Books, left the British words and phrases intact, apparently trusting that Canadian kids would work out what they meant.)

I understand the thinking behind Scholastic’s choice, but can’t help feeling that American children were deprived of a wonderful insight into another culture. When I was nine or 10, I was gobbling up the output of Enid Blyton, that most British of British writers. Her tales for older children were full of plucky kids getting into all manner of adventures, largely without any grown-ups around to supervise them (indeed, several of the adults in the books would probably be charged with child neglect today).

Along with the thrilling adventures, the books were filled with words and phrases that were somewhat puzzling to me. When they went camping, the children would sleep under rugs, and girls used something called hair grips. Students would spend hours doing revision, people put garbage in dustbins, children would ride a roundabout, and a jumper was apparently an article of clothing.

And then there was the food. Children ate crisps and sweets and jellies and jacket potatoes, and drank something called ginger beer. An ice was a treat on a hot summer’s day, and tea seemed to be a meal, rather than just a beverage.

Rather than throw the book across the room in frustration, I took these (to me) strange terms in stride, and managed to work them out using their context. I soon figured out that rugs were blankets, hair grips were bobby pins, someone who was revising was studying, dustbins were garbage cans, roundabouts were carousels or merry-go-rounds, and a jumper was a sweater.

As for the food: crisps were potato chips, sweets were candies, jellies were Jell-o, and jacket potatoes were baked potatoes. Ginger beer was a pop similar to ginger ale, an ice was an ice cream cone, and tea was indeed a meal, complete with all manner of sweet and savoury treats.

Figuring out what these, and other, unfamiliar words meant gave me a small feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment; I would mentally give myself a pat on the back every time I translated another one of them. To me, they became part of the charm and pleasure of the books, giving me an insight into a world that was in some ways similar, yet in many ways very different, to the one I knew and saw all around me each day.

It therefore strikes me as unfortunate that Scholastic didn’t have more trust in their American audience, and leave the British words alone, so that readers could work things out for themselves (especially in these days of the Internet and Google, where almost anything can be looked up and explained in a flash). In their haste to smooth the road for American readers, Scholastic deprived them of a small but important opportunity to learn the differences between two cultures, and get the satisfaction of working something out for themselves.

Perhaps Scholastic got the message, however; by the time the final novels in the Harry Potter series were published in the States, most of the British lexicon was left intact. As they might say in England, huzzah! I’ll leave you to work out what that means.

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