Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Tea, Crumpets, Stet

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In case this small fact passed you by, the Americans love a royal wedding. I spent a week in London in mid-April and the level of home-team excitement was borderline batty, but the outpouring of American gush ran a pretty close second. As I watched various media outlets fawn over my people and our quaint monarchy-having, tea-swilling, crumpet-buttering ways, however, I was reminded of a long-standing bugbear I have with the American treatment of Britishness in books.

I’ve been working with literary translators and the books over which they toil since I was a publishing cub, but until I moved to Canada I had no idea that British books were being routinely translated into “American” by their editors. It’s odd. It’s wrong. It doesn’t happen the other way around. And frankly it irks me to the point of spitting through my crooked British teeth.

George Bernard Shaw said that England and America were two countries separated by a common language, a fact that has always been a source of both amusement and frustration. Amusement: British person asking an American if you can bum a fag; frustration: British person being asked by medical professional to strip to your pants, and not knowing quite how naked to get. My Canadian’s getting pretty good now (and as a result I have to translate myself far less frequently when south of the border), and though I’ve had some bizarre lost-in-translation conversations, the point is always arrived at in the end. That’s what dictionaries, Google and charades are for.

When I read a book written by a Canadian about Canadian characters in Canada I expect the things they say and do to be Canadian, even if it means that sometimes I don’t quite get it. When I pick up the American or Canadian edition of a book by a British author, featuring British people doing British things in Britain, I steel myself for the blow — for the Americanisms spewing forth from every page.

This is not Canada’s fault. A large landmass yet a small market, this country, muddled as it already is with its American words and (mostly) British spellings, lacks the economic might to make certain decisions in this area. Taking files from a US rather than a UK publisher is sometimes the most cost-effective option for publishing a book separately here (better visibility for both book and author to have an in-house editor as a champion) rather than having it only on distribution. Sometimes the US publisher owns the Canadian rights and the book is only on distribution, in which case economics doesn’t even come into it, we just get what we are given.

Whatever the reason for there being so many Americanized British books on our shelves, we are being robbed of something by their prevalence. We read works translated from other languages in part to understand more about a country’s cultural landscape and traditions (literary and otherwise). It seems completely dotty to me that a publisher would invest in the best translators to make non-Anglo literature available to those who cannot read the original language, and then expunge from books written in a language they understand, but using some words they do not, large swaths of authentic character. Where does the boundary lie? Are we to edit out polysyllables in case potential readers are deterred by the prospect of having to look things up?!

British author Catherine O’Flynn’s second novel, The News Where You Are, is about an English man in England. And yet when he talks to his mother it is on his cell phone…and he calls her “Mom.” I hurled this book at a tree (I read it in a park) more than once, which is too bad, because the novel, though not quite a dazzler, certainly didn’t deserve it.

Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans was published in North America as Strawberry Fields. The title change didn’t bother me so much, but an activity so evocative of an English country summer (fruit picking and living in a rickety old caravan) was mangled into a series of “trailer” references and other such howlers (a trailer may be the closest equivalent, but a caravan it ain’t) and the essence of the book was destroyed. I borrowed a UK edition to make it to the end.

There will always be cases when an argument can be made to make the change — a man in an English novel dressed in pumps is wearing something like Keds, for instance, whereas a North American reader might interpret him to be in drag. On balance though I find the Americanization of British texts to be a shortsighted exercise in homogenization. I’ve asked a number of British authors about their experience with it and for the most part they just sigh resignedly — they seem to be given little option.

Now, when I want to buy a novel with a distinctly British setting I invariably order the UK edition just to be safe. This is naughty of me, because I should be buying Canadian, but since English — albeit not in all its accents and dialects — is a language in which I am fluent, I’d rather just read the original, please. I’d also like not to have to throw my books at trees.

Last Friday, cocooned in a giant cloud of white duvet that could have doubled as Princess Di’s dress, I lay on my couch and watched “The Wedding” on Canadian TV. And…it wasn’t the same somehow, this American telling of so British a scene, though there was enthusiasm for it in abundance. If the cultural differences can be so appreciated in pictures, why be so wary of them in words? Change the spellings in our books if you like, America, but think about keeping all the other stuff in, eh? You’re hiding something you might find quite appealing if you give it a chance — and the problem is you’re knocking it off our bookshelves too.


Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She has worked as an in-house editor at Random House UK and Random House of Canada, and as Communications Coordinator for the International Festival of Authors. She has reviewed books for the Globe and Mail and the CBC, is a member of the communications committee for the Writers' Trust of Canada, and writes a monthly column about Toronto's literary scene for Open Book: Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

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