December 18, 2012

Translating between Englishes: Is it really necessary?


Tim Parks

Tim Parks is frustrated. Writing in an excellent post at the NYRBlog, he details the process of editing his new book about Italy and train travel, which will be published by an American house. Having taken care to use American spellings while writing, he was surprised to find an extremely heavily copy-edited manuscript returned to him, with significant vocabulary and other changes:

Almost at once there was a note saying that throughout the 300 pages my use of “carriage” for a passenger train car must be changed to “coach.” Since this is a book about trains and train travel there were ninety-eight such usages. There was also the problem that I had used the word “coach” to refer to a long distance bus. Apparently the twenty-four-hour clock was not acceptable, so the 17:25 Regionale from Milan to Verona had to become the 5:25 PM Regionale. Where I, in a discussion of prices, had written “a further 50 cents” the American edit required “a further 50 euro cents,” as if otherwise an American reader might imagine Italians were dealing in nickels and dimes … Despite my hailing from England—a country that still uses miles—I had expressed distances in meters and kilometers and it seemed odd now to find my Italian characters speaking to each other about yards and miles and, of course, Fahrenheit, which they never would. Or saying AM and PM, rather than using the twenty-four-hour clock as they mostly do, even in ordinary conversation.

The tug-of-war between the sometimes over-zealous copy-editor and the (rightly or excessively) protective author is old news, but Parks makes a broader point here. Is it really necessary to protect readers this much? Is it not in fact almost dangerous to pass even accounts of clearly foreign environments through an Americanising linguistic filter? (And the same could be said in reverse: many’s the American text I’ve read in an altered British edition.) Parks puts it best:

More than anything else, what makes a foreign country foreign, and difficult, is its language, and though we can’t be expected to learn a new language for every country we want to know about, it seems important to be reminded of the language, reminded that one’s own language is not the supreme system for understanding the world, but just one of thousands of possibilities.

Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.