Look, I can't help being British

Posted on June 2, 2010 (Subscribe to Blog)

The most time-consuming part of the editing process is done and Mountain of Whispers is well into the final proofreading stage. I've already had the first half returned by one proofer, complete with dozens of little marks and comments. Nothing major, just missing words and commas, an unnecessary exclamation mark or two, a few word repetitions... the sort of thing that takes seconds to fix IF spotted in the first place, hence the need for a second and third pair of eyes.

Don't forget you can check on progress here (it's underneath the book summary).

The aforementioned proofreader is Brian Clopper, a fifth grade teacher at Jones Dairy Elementary School in North Carolina, who you may remember from a previous post. Brian recently finished his own novel, Irving Wishbutton: The Questing Academy, and I had the privilege of proofreading it in a similar fashion. Brian is currently looking for an agent, but in the meantime he sent part of his novel to Piers Anthony, who commented in his June newsletter that "it's fabulous" and the author "deserves to be known." Go, Brian!

Another proofreader for Mountain of Whispers is one of my brothers, Darren, who lives in England and is trained in this type of thing. I'm currently (very slowly) building him a website for a part-time proofreading business, which I think is ideal for him.

But there's a slight snag. When I write, Britishisms tend to sneak in. I may have mentioned before that being a Brit in America means relearning some of the rules. British English is not exactly the same as U.S. English. I'm getting there, and now use toward instead of towards, traveler instead of traveller, realize instead of realise, and so on. But sometimes I'll slip up when it comes to phrasing. In one of my new chapters, Fenton says:

"Get a move on, you big girl's blouse."

Brian scrawled a message next to this on the manuscript, saying, "What? I'm not sure what this means." Oops! Well, I guess I'll change it to make it more American, but basically a big girl's blouse is a "wimpy, emasculated and weak man" who whines and moans a lot – or, as Americans like to say, a wuss.

There's another side to this British vs. U.S. English thing. When Darren proofreads my text, he picks up things that are glaringly wrong to him but actually correct in America. So I have to deal with two sides – Brian saying my Britishisms don't make sense, and Darren saying my Americanisms are wrong! But it's all good fun, and in the end my books are probably about 95% American with a smattering of good ol' Blighty thrown in (whether intentional or not).

The funny thing is, the main characters in the books generally speak "all proper like" and in a vaguely American accent (it's all a little mixed up in my head, to be honest). But when I have goblins like Blacknail speaking, then I switch to rough-and-ready English such as, "I don't know nuffin'," and "I'm gonna show 'em what's what." When I write this and read it back, in my head it's definitely a strong London Cockney accent... and it amuses me that American readers most likely read goblin dialog with American accents, which just seems wrong somehow.

There's a guy painting our deck at the moment; he's been coming and going for weeks, doing a bit here and there depending on weather and other jobs. He's reading Harry Potter and keeps asking me what certain phrases mean. As you all know, J. K. Rowling wrote her books in pure British English, complete with Britishisms, and they're enjoyed by readers from all countries... and I like to think that American readers find her Britishisms interesting and funny even if their meanings are not clear. But it's important to remember that Rowling, being British, set out to find a British publisher; her books just happened to end up selling in America and the rest of the world. Likewise, since I live here in the U.S., I set out to find an American publisher and am trying not to confuse potential publisher with phrases like "a big girl's blouse."

One final thought. I recently posted on Facebook congratulating the winner of a recent raffle. I then said, "A big thank you to all 65 entrants!" But originally I had written something different, which my wife told me sounded really bad. I had written, "Bad luck to the other 64 entrants!" Now, in England this is a perfectly ordinary phrase meaning, "Sorry you didn't win." But here in America, apparently it means something like, "May the other 64 entrants suffer terrible luck."

Writing in a non-native version of a language is like walking through a minefield.

Comment by NIGEL ROWE on Thursday, June 3, 2010...

A couple of interesting quotes:

England and America are two countries separated by a common language.
George Bernard Shaw (1856 - 1950)

We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.
Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)

Comment by IAN REGAN on Thursday, June 3, 2010...

Hey Keith,

A few years ago, I did a comparison between the British and American editions of the ninth Three Investigators story: The Mystery of the Screaming Clock, and was astonished at the effort that Collins made to replace any overtly American phrases or spellings with the British equivalents:

US edition / UK edition
slide / chute
trash man / refuse collector
electrical outlet / electricity point
neighbors / neighbours
trash / rubbish
drag racing / driving recklessly
barelling / racing
closed panel truck / delivery van
automobiles / cars
throttle / accelerator
wrecking crew / demolition squad

The difference between British English and US English was obviously a very major concern for publishers in the UK back then!

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Thursday, June 3, 2010...

Very apt quotes, Nigel! :-)

Great to hear from you, Ian! Those changes Collins made are just plain daft. Why on earth would readers have trouble understand these things? The only "odd" one is the closed panel truck, which might make an English reader scratch his head.

By the way, Ian, your website is looking great! Love the improvements since the last time I looked. For those who like old book illustrations, check out Series Book Art.

Comment by IAN REGAN on Thursday, June 3, 2010...

I know, it's strange isn't it? Yet this over-zealous Anglicization was a very common practice back in the day. Not so much now, I would guess, since British kids are exposed to American culture in the form of films and TV.

Anyway, thanks very much for plugging the website Keith! The last 12 months has seen me finish a few other web projects too:

— A guide to the British Hardy Boys editions; you get a deserved name check on the "About This Site" page! Co-authored with my Kiwi buddy Jon Preddle (who happens to know Gary Russell quite well).

— A guide to the English translations of various German Three Investigators novels.

— An illustrated bibliography of the Brains Benton series.

You may notice the acknowledgment to "White Oak" at the bottom of the latter two sites... ;-)


Comment by IAN REGAN on Thursday, June 3, 2010...

Here's an even more bizarre example of an alteration made by a British publisher (Armada) to an American text - the book in question here is "The Mystery of the Kidnapped Whale":


Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Thursday, June 3, 2010...

Excellent stuff, Ian! Now you've inspired me to go and update my Enid Blyton website... I have a new layout already done but haven't made it live yet for various reasons. Your sites are sweeeet. And your mentions of me are way too kind. :-)

Comment by KAY on Saturday, June 12, 2010...

Keith, I laughed so much at your final paragraph. Do we really speak the same language!!

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