Horses for courses... UK vs US English?
June 13, 2012 11:55 AM   Subscribe

I'm a writer - with a British English education. I've just finished a young adult novel that I'm polishing to go on submission. Should I be making sure everything is in US English?

I presume the market for YA is the biggest in the States - certainly it seems like most of the agents are there. Do I cater to that or go with what I know?

I'm not just talking colour/color, but colloquialisms too. For example; I received a critique today from an American based author who wasn't familiar with the word 'twee' - and in fact called it slang. Would I modify that to quaint?

Any advice would be much appreciated!
posted by teststrip to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Ten years ago, I would have said "No, the publisher will localize it" but that doesn't seem to happen so much anymore (hence weirdnesses like the mystery where English detectives come to Utah and everyone gives them directions in kilometers).

I would swap a localization edit with a US writer who has written a book set in the UK.

"Twee" is slang--it's baby talk for "sweet". The more standard US equivalent is "cutesy", not "quaint" (nobody in the US under 60 ever uses the word "quaint").
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:00 PM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

And if you join, there's a subforum where people swap edits.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:00 PM on June 13, 2012

I'm British too, and write for a living (I'm a translator). I don't offer translation into US English, for the simple reason that it's not my native dialect and I won't necessarily know which aspects of speech are typically British. Neither will I be able to pull off a convincing American "voice".

I think if you want to aim at a US market, either leave it as it is and let them learn a bit of UK English, or go the whole hog and hire a professional American writer to localise it for you.
posted by altolinguistic at 12:01 PM on June 13, 2012

(I guess I should probably point out that I'm not a UK native either! NZ English is a whole 'nother thing, but I'm in London for now.)
posted by teststrip at 12:04 PM on June 13, 2012

Well, you might swap edits with a US writer who has written a book set in NZ, then. (You would be surprised how many people in the US are fascinated with NZ!) Or you might swap a localization edit for a beta read or a critique or whatever.

One thing that has been done in the US for YA novels that are big hits in the UK (Louise Rennison's come to mind) is that the book will be issued as-is, without localization, and a glossary will be added. On the other hand, the Harry Potter books were localized--not to make the characters seem like they were from the US, but to translate specific non-synonyms, like replacing references to Harry's "jumper" (US=pinafore) with ones to his "sweater".

Is your book set in the UK, or in NZ, or in some imaginary place?
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:12 PM on June 13, 2012

Please don't, Brit Lit is great!
posted by jennstra at 12:13 PM on June 13, 2012

With jennstra here. Part of the charm of reading books set in another country is getting the flavor of the language. Colloquialisms help set the scene. If you're concerned, put in an index of words and such that you might be problematic.

Alternatively, don't dummy it down for the reader. If you think some things are difficult, provide more context. Let kids learn!
posted by BlueHorse at 12:20 PM on June 13, 2012

A lot of US writers use this as an affectation. I would think it might be dependent on where your book is set.

This said, I would think I would tend to keep them in either way.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:24 PM on June 13, 2012

I wouldn't change anything unless the novel is supposed to be set in the US or have American characters. Any agent or editor won't be thrown at all by British English. It won't interfere at all with your ability to sell the book if it's good enough. If you get a contract you and your editor will discuss how/if to Americanize.
posted by MsMolly at 12:30 PM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm an American YA author and the person who doesn't know what twee means is an idiot (with all due respect!). That's perfectly passable American English! It's even slangy, current, teen acceptable American English. I mean, yeah, it's slang, but teens use slang.

(I'm reminded about some YA author's blog post I saw a few years back where she gushed about a new slang word she'd learned for cute boys--"twink." I tried to gingerly suggest that it had connotations of which she wasn't aware, to no avail.)

I'd say don't worry about it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:31 PM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you're asking for opinions, as an American young adult, please leave it as it is! If it was intended for an audience still in their teens, I might question it. As it's for young adults, however, give us an education!
posted by horizonseeker at 12:31 PM on June 13, 2012

If it was intended for an audience still in their teens, I might question it. As it's for young adults

"Young Adult" is publishing-speak for books written primarily for readers aged 12 to 18. Yes, it's misleading, because those are teenagers, not young adults.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:33 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you've written a YA novel and the main character or narrative voice is supposed to be American, but it doesn't sound American, then it may be a problem just because voice is so important right now in YA. But if you're writing fantasy or science fiction where the characters aren't American, or if you're writing books set in New Zealand, it really shouldn't be a problem although editors may want to edit your word choices a little, like they changed "jumper" to "sweater" in the Harry Potter books. The Georgia Nicholson books are really British, to the point where they need to include a glossary, and they've done very well in the US, and there are plenty of YA writers who write with a recognizably non-US voice who've been successful in the US.

I think "twee" is rapidly moving into the American lexicon, btw.
posted by Jeanne at 12:34 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are your stories set in the US? Are your characters American? If so, I'd advise avoiding BrE colloquialisms as much as possible. A side note: I've been reading a lot of Walking Dead fan fiction recently, since new episodes won't be airing until October. A lot of otherwise good stories hit major speed bumps because the British author uses BrE. Redneck Daryl Dixon would never say "you lot", he'd say "you guys" or "y'all" (since the show is set in Georgia). Likewise, know your local geography and customers. Again, several British authors have written about blizzards dumping two feet of snow in Macon. They refer to gasoline as "petrol", freeways/expressways/road as "motorways", the stove a "cooker", any dessert as "pudding." If your story is set in England, or your character has emigrated from Blighty, then these phrases are not only acceptable but they add colo(u)r to your story. But a gang of American Southerners wandering Georgia during the Zombie Apocalypse using such lingo just destroys the overall tone.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:40 PM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

So you have three choices:

A) Localize nothing. Have your characters put their jumpers in the boot of their car before getting on the motorway so they can head down the disco. There have definitely been very successful YA books that took this approach.

B) Localize or finesse specific non-synonyms. Have your characters put their pullovers in the car before getting on the road to the club, if you don't want to have them put their sweaters in the trunk before getting on the highway to the...well, club. The Harry Potter approach, in other words.

C) Localize everything. I wouldn't do this unless your story is set either in the US or on a future orbiting spaceship society that is dominated by the US. (However, if any part of your story is set in the US, you have to get a localization edit from a US writer for that part!)
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:47 PM on June 13, 2012

When Lee Child's first Reacher book came out, a lot of Americans were annoyed that he'd "Americanised" it but not convincingly or accurately. I remember a lot of complaints about phrases and words that slipped through the gaps. It still sold a bunch of copies though. Are you planning to "translate" it yourself?
posted by jamesonandwater at 1:00 PM on June 13, 2012

You're probably going to need to get an agent first, and I would say submit as-is to agents, and then whoever you work with will decide, based on their relationship with the publishers they are submitting you to, whether a correction is needed. Let the publisher make the choice.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:32 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can tell when a British author has written a book set in the US and vice versa and it absolutely sets my teeth on edge. While I tend to agree that you should let the publisher decide, if you want someone to de-Britify it for you, shoot me a MeMail.
posted by elsietheeel at 1:46 PM on June 13, 2012

As a UK editor working in the U.S., I've Americanized a couple of YA books that were published in Britain and were successful enough to merit U.S. publication. I've also been able to point out errors when American writers have mangled what they thought were British colloquialisms, so you may end up having to explain NZ phrasings if they're super-localized.

I think your MS will be fine right now -- let your editor worry about changing stuff later. He or she may want you to keep it good and local, or make it a more general story.

Good luck!
posted by vickyverky at 1:47 PM on June 13, 2012

(Oops, I meant I'm querying agents! Duh.)

It's UK setting, with a not-from-around-here POV - I haven't defined it as American specifically, but it needs to be rooted. I think getting a US someone else to take a look at it is probably a wise idea, to make sure there's not anything completely lost in translation.

You guys are so helpful, thank you!
posted by teststrip at 2:15 PM on June 13, 2012

I've copyedited lots of YA and worked on several books that were originally published in the UK. I'm always asked to Americanize spellings, but otherwise I Americanize on a case-by-case basis. Don't worry about Americanizing your manuscript right now. You need to sell it first, then you and your editor will figure it out.
posted by namemeansgazelle at 2:50 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm British and used to devour American YA when I was a teen in the '90s, and loved it despite the linguistic/cultural differences (people learn to drive at school? They eat something called 'Twinkies'? I found the US intriguing and so books from there appealed - I absolutely LOVED the Anastasia series, for example, and Paula Danziger which were both quite American. As Jeanne said, US teens might be similarly enamoured with the UK.

Also, yes, the misplaced reference can be really irritating. It winds me up no end when I read an American book that thinks all British people are called Nigel, into queuing and eating spotted dick and saying 'blimey' a lot, or living in Yorkshire and speaking cockney rhyming slang, and I'm sure there's equivalents for American readers. ( And there might be culturally specific things like kids here texting more, underage drinking being more of a thing in mid-late teens, or being 16 and not driving, that might not translate well if that's part of your character's world. ) There's a Lionel Shriver book where the American author has tried to write a working-class British character and it was so awfully done that I couldn't read the book at all.

(The other thing that gets on my wick is dated or poorly employed references - a character sitting O-levels in the 1990s, for example, or Martin Amis' new book which has the National Lottery being played by post. So there's the risk in this with translation as well. And as teens here are using more and more American slang, kids would never say they were going to the 'disco' now but to the club, just like their American counterparts, so there's that too.)
posted by mippy at 2:51 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think there's a huge difference between things that are wrong for your setting (for instance distances in Utah being given in kilometers), and language differences that are part of the voice of the work.

I think I'd have put down Harry Potter if all the trifles had been find-and-replaced with pie.
posted by Sara C. at 3:50 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to work for a U.S. publishing house as a copy editor for children and tween books about five years ago. I frequently "translated" British books into U.S. English.

Lyn Never is correct--get an agent first, and listen to their recommendations before you go through all that effort.

The only thing I would be careful about is using a lot of intricate wordplay--puns, jokes--using specifically non-American words, because that is going to be a barrier (I remember a part of a book getting derailed by a pun on "runner beans" which is an unknown term in the U.S.--we call them "string beans"). Otherwise, I wouldn't worry about it at this stage.
posted by elizeh at 7:36 PM on June 13, 2012

Oh, and the books I "translated" were set in Britain and that was not changed. We really just adjusted the spelling and little things like that.
posted by elizeh at 7:38 PM on June 13, 2012

There are a number of recent mainstream-fiction books enormously popular in the US that were originally in another language and then translated into English--British English, by British translators, and IIRC not really further "translated" into American English. The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson is the biggest one off the top of my head, but IIRC Haruki Murakami's books (1Q84?) are like this too.

It may be different for YA, but at this point I'd urge you NOT to go fiddling about with your "voice" while you're still trying to sell that voice to a publisher. First find an agent experienced with YA who can offer you advice on that front.

And on a personal YA note, y'all can remove the exotically romantic (*cough*) New Zealandisms from my Margaret Mahy books when you rip them from my cold dead hands.
posted by nicebookrack at 9:16 PM on June 13, 2012

Leave it in UK English. It will be charming to North Americans. We're used to UK English via Harry Potter now anyway!
posted by fullerenedream at 12:22 AM on June 14, 2012

elizeh - I'm Canadian but my parents are American expats, and we grew scarlet runner beans in our garden when I was a kid. OTOH, we do talk about string beans too.
posted by fullerenedream at 12:25 AM on June 14, 2012

There are a number of recent mainstream-fiction books enormously popular in the US that were originally in another language and then translated into English--British English, by British translators, and IIRC not really further "translated" into American English.

Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin as well. I didn't really think the Millennium series was particular British in the translation - have you examples?
posted by mippy at 7:34 AM on June 14, 2012

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