Most anglophone readers aren't keen on books in translation, a fact borne out by the statistics: Of all books translated into another language, 50 per cent are translated from English, and only 3 per cent into English.
It's interesting, then, that many of the novels in English that we read are actually "translated" for different English-speaking audiences. The practice has been common for decades, ranging from the simple changing of a few spellings - colour/color being an obvious one - to significant sections of rewriting, or even cutting a section that won't work in a particular country. What does it say about us as a reading culture that we need our books adapted like this, that we can't - or publishers fear we can't - process too much undiluted foreignness?
Harry Potter is a high-profile example that has divided opinion. Famously, the U.S. edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone became Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Did the publisher believe Americans were frightened of philosophy, or was it simply a ploy to stir up potential book-banning controversy?
Inside the covers, the Scholastic-published U.S. editions had words changed where they had different meanings in the two countries, for example replacing "jumper" with "sweater" or "note" with "bill" (for money). Many American readers still prefer the British editions, feeling that something is lost when the characters' own language is not retained.
Jamie Broadhurst at Raincoast Books, Harry Potter's Canadian publisher, notes that the history of the series is telling: "Whenever we announced a new book, Canadian fans would always ask whether we intended to keep the U.K. spellings. The answer was always yes. No one ever requested U.S. spellings." In Canada, the books were the same as the British editions.
Although most readers tend to think that changes should be kept to a minimum, novels by authors from other predominantly white anglophone countries - places we tend to assume have the same language and values as ourselves - are frequently changed. Jonathan Bennett is an Australian writer whose books have been published first in Canada. He remembers tussling over the word "ute" in one of his books. In Australia, it's just the word people use. In the end, though, he agreed to go along with "truck," which doesn't have the same resonance.
What is so bad about being exposed to the English of different regions?
Because Bennett lives in Canada, his editing is built into his writing: He knows the dangers of fetishizing local language and slang, but also the risk of something seeming phony to Australian readers. Bennett's most recent novel, Entitlement, is his first set in Canada. He went to great lengths to make sure that it sounded authentic and takes great pride that the book was not called un-Canadian by reviewers.
Sarah Bilston, a British expatriate living in New York, has written two novels whose main character is also a British expat living in New York. She essentially produces two different versions, one for the North American market and one for the British market, so language is a question that she considers with almost every sentence. Her U.S. editor initially changed all her English words and phrases (cot to crib, nappy to diaper etc.), but the publisher was willing to overrule the Americanization where a particular word was crucial to maintaining the authenticity of a voice.
Bilston also lets some American words creep in, believing that a moment of linguistic confusion can interrupt the pleasurable flow of reading. Going in the other direction, references to therapy were removed from the British edition because of fears they might be off-putting to the allegedly analysis-averse British reader. In a similar vein, the U.S. edition of Bridget Jones's Diary changed a number of cultural references and terms, including Bridget's weight, from stones to pounds.
Poet and novelist Joe Dunthorne believes that the extent of editing should depend on the writing. The words of a poem are far more carefully weighed and chosen than words in a novel. Poems are about sound and rhythm, but he is relaxed about changes to his novels. And sometimes those changes can be quite revealing: A line drawing of a topless woman on the cover of the U.S. version of his novel Submarine was given a bra for modesty. (In the Canadian edition, she appears unclad.)
When a book is set somewhere readers do not expect to be knowledgeable about, it seems to have a bit more freedom to be unfamiliar. The Toss of a Lemon, Padma Viswanathan's 2008 debut novel set in southern India, contains Tamil words, place names and detailed references to religious ceremonies and family rituals. Viswanathan was not asked to change her words for any of the English-language editions, although she did try to give a sense of the meaning on the first appearance of each word. But in the end, "brevity was important, not to interrupt the story's flow, and so if non-Tamil readers didn't get the full idea, they would have to live with that or look it up."
What, after all, is so bad about being exposed to the English of different regions? Isn't learning about the differences in our languages, and by extension our cultures, part of the fascination with reading? Perhaps, says Lewis MacLeod, a professor of English at Trent University, but "knowledge of British terminology and topography is problematically regarded as 'world' knowledge," whereas the same isn't true in reverse.
On the other hand, making things comprehensible on a word-by-word level does not necessarily make the content any less perplexing. A character going to the pub after work for a few pints several days a week might be an average childless office worker in a novel set in London, but in Canada such a character would likely be headed for AA on the remaining evenings.
Ultimately, idiom is a fundamental part of literature. Novels that are domesticated or made safe can lose much of their life. "A novel like Trainspotting," MacLeod says, "is unthinkable outside its linguistic register." Making it accessible to a non-Scottish audience necessarily means altering it quite substantially. "I don't regard this as a matter of the author's sacred vision. It's more that I don't really think it's all that bad for people to be puzzled and perplexed by what they read and to do a bit of work to sort things out."
Jonathan Bennett agrees: "Changing spelling, slang or common nouns with the hopes to improve comprehension can kill the original music. I like to think readers are bright and curious."
J.C. Sutcliffe is a writer and translator who lives in Canada and England.