Posted by: Sarah | August 6, 2006

The Americanization of British Novels

Here’s a recent letter to The Times from Nancy Gay of Biggin Hill, Kent:

Sir, Like Kate Phaneuf (letter, July 25), I have raged at the Americanisation of English novels. As a young American bookworm I delighted in the British otherness of Sherlock Holmes and Peter Wimsey and countless others. I hate it that my nieces and nephews in America are being denied the same pleasure.

I regret to tell Aline Templeton (letter, July 31) that the Scots fare no better. This summer I found Ian Rankin’s Fleshmarket Alley. I could not bear to read morethan a couple of pages. I announced to my daughters: “Don’t buy any British books from American bookshops. I’ll send you the real thing.” A sister, overhearing, was distressed. “What have I been missing?” she wailed.

What she has missed, and what all victims of this cultural vandalism miss, is the delight of discovery, the joy of allowing language to work its magic on intelligence, the delicious savour of new flavours and textures. Americans are not too stupid to enjoy national differences in English usage, but I fear they will become stupid if never given the chance to be otherwise.

My husband is currently reading another of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels, Let It Bleed, and as I have a curious turn of mind, I decided to do a bit of sleuthing. I brought up an excerpt from the US edition of Let It Bleed on In the first 5 pages or so I discovered the following:

In “Co-op funeral parlour”, “Co-op” was dropped, “wing mirror” was changed to “rearview mirror”, “roundabout” to “traffic circle”, “L-plates” (referring to learner drivers rather than the plates themselves) to “rookies”, “transit van” to “moving van” and, silliest of all because Scots, unlike the English, really do pronounce the “r”, “arse” becomes “ass”.

Oh, and Rebus fans will notice that even the title of Fleshmarket Close has been changed for US consumption to Fleshmarket Alley, even though Fleshmarket Close is a real street in Edinburgh.

Do American readers really need this sort of linguistic mollycoddling or it it just that US publishers think they do?

I haven’t noticed the same kind of thing being done to British editions of American-set novels by US authors. It would jar terribly and ruin both flavour and authenticity. Usually we get the original US editions intact or occasionally with just the spelling and punctuation changed to British forms.



  1. I’ve heard that’s pretty common unless you get to be a big name author — I don’t think Terry Pratchett or J. K. Rowling have the same issues these days, from my understanding. I know Pratchett did at one point, though; my ex-gf&bf used to order the books from the UK rather than read the “castrated” version.

    In some cases, I think words might be changed for understanding’s sake, because there are situations where one thing in British English means something completely different in American. In cases like that, it might be best to change so people understand — but WTF is up with changing “roundabout” to “traffic circle”? I know I’ve heard roundabout used in the States.

    I think in moderation, it’s okay, but it’s taken to an extreme that’s just bloody ridiculous.

  2. Like Nonny says, some of it is for clarification purposes (fair enough if they really wouldn’t know what the author is on about). But some of it is obviously over-doing it.

    btw, don’t know about you, but I’m English and I definitely say the ‘r’ in arse. Mind you, I find that very few people say arse at all up (English) north, especially allied with -hole, the use of which seems to pick me out as being a total southerner 😉

  3. I first learned about spanners and Burberrys and glove boxes reading English mysteries. I feel cheated when somebody underestimates the intelligence of the reader and “translates” what doesn’t need changing at all. Grrrr. md

  4. Lindsey Davis had a terrific rant about the Americanisation of British novels somewhere on her website, making just the same point as you – that British publishers don’t bother to translate from the American, and that different ‘voices’, regional or national, are part of the fun.

  5. Wasn’t Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone retitled HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the US because the publisher thought US kids wouldn’t know what a philosopher is, and then got tons of angry emails by kids who told them they aren’t that ignorant?

    Fortunately, I most of the time get the UK versions when I order via

  6. I certainly resent the molly-coddling. But I think they’re doing that to make sure it sells the maximum copies to people who don’t want their brains taxed by difficult foreign terminology!

    Patricia Duncker’s wonderful novel, JAMES MIRANDA BARRY, was published in the US as THE DOCTOR, because they thought the UK title was too obscure.

  7. Alex: I’m American and I say “arse.” LOL.

  8. I get very bugged the other way around. I reviewed the UK version of Freakonomics and they hadn’t bothered to change the spellings at all. Why bother to have a new version at all?

  9. Please, please, please, someone translate The Godfather into British English. It could be the greatest comedy ever.

  10. All of the Harry Potter books have words changed and the title of the first in the series was changed. J.K. admits she was pressed into changing the title of the first book and now regrets it. I did read a book written by an Englishman purchased from that was not changed – The Elements of Murder, a History of Poison by John Emsley. I also started purchasing books from British booksellers to avoid changes in any new books I read.

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