Tuesday, January 1, 2013

English books in American translation

From a book review in the NYT's Science Times section today: 
Despite his encompassing knowledge about noise, Dr. Goldsmith can seem oddly out of touch with it personally. It is not just that the American publisher put the British edition straight into type, resulting in mildly inept Britishisms. (A 1930 report found the major source of noise complaints in New York to be "lorries -- and so it is to this day.")
The only Britishism cited is that "lorries," and I can't think of any sense in which it could be called an inept Britishism, so I'm guessing the original (or intended) word was inapt. (Meaning that Manhattanites will find it jarring to hear that lorries are roaring down Second Avenue.) But so far it's still inept at the Times website, so maybe the writer and editor think that's what they meant. 

The author's implication -- that selling Americans a book in British English is a lazy shortcut -- is an interesting counterpoint to recent complaints about the opposite problem: publishers' insistence on Americanizing the language of British books (and not just Harry Potter). Both Ben Trawick-Smith ("'Americanized' Non-American Novels") and Tim Parks ("Learning to Speak American") think  American readers can easily handle, and would usually prefer, British writing in its original form, and their blog readers agree. The discussion continues, with another huge cast of commenters, at Language Log, where Mark Liberman  looks into the sources of Parks's editing woes. If you missed any of these in the pre-holiday scramble, now's the time to put up your feet and enjoy them.


John Cowan said...

The OED1 (1900) in fact gives "not suited to the occasion; not adapted to circumstances; out of place, inappropriate" as the second definition of inept. Over time, inapt, unapt, inept have all had overlapping meanings.

Bryan M. White said...

What is it they always say? "Separated by a common language"? Seems to me that "translations" of this sort would only widen that separation and making us both less familiar with the other's colloquialisms.

I read primarily for entertainment, but it's always nice to learn these little things in the background. I'd rather have to look something up here and there to get over the speed bump and actually, maybe, learn something in the process, than have the jarring experience of reading something that had been reworked into some kind of God awful "Americanese."

Marc Leavitt said...

I vote for "inapt" as the felicitous word, but I think we're giving The New York Times's writer and/or editor too much credit; I think they used it, not in the sense of the Oxford citation, after careful weighing of the word's primary and secondary meanings, but because the copy editor let it go through. In recent months I've picked up on a number of inapt locutions in The Times which I can only ascribe to sporadically inept, or at the very least, inattentive copy editing.
On the translation of English dialectal differences into their American dialectal counterparts, an occasional asterisk might be useful, but most American readers will understand very well without "translation," thank you very much!
Happy New Year to all.

Gregory Lee said...

I don't know that I completely understand the discussion (by Liberman) of this remark of Parks:

Does the position of “also” really need to be moved in front of the verb “to be” in sentences like “Trains also were useful during the 1908 earthquake in Catania,” when to me it looked much better after it?

but I agree that "also" would be best moved after "were" in this example. But my reason is that "also" can be used as a post-modifier (here, of "trains") as well as a pre-modifier (here, of "were useful during ..."), and the ambiguity between the two possible interpretations is uncomfortable. If it's a pre-modifier, there is no difference in interpretation between the positions before and after "were", and so the ambiguity is resolved, since if "also" comes after "were", it is not contiguous with "trains", and so it cannot be interpreted any longer as a modifier of "trains".

This is a bit finicky, I guess, but I thought I'd mention it because of a sort of interesting issue concerning the putative ambiguity of the "Trains also ..." example. Probably some of you don't find it ambiguous, and I myself don't think it is ambiguous in pronunciation, because only if I say it with greater stress on the "also" than on "trains" is it possible to interpret "trains" as being modified. Otherwise, it is the following verb phrase that is modified by "also". What interests me about the example is that there seems to be no way to punctuate so as to make it clear that "also" should modify what precedes. So it's orthographically ambiguous, but not ambiguous in pronunciation.

empty said...

Greg, I don't agree with this:

it is not contiguous with "trains", and so it cannot be interpreted any longer as a modifier of "trains".

If I write "Trains were also useful ... " I might mean that trains as well as boats were useful, or that trains were useful on that occasion as well as some other occasion, or that trains were useful as well as decorative.

In the given sentence I can be sure that the meaning is "useful on the occasion of the 1908 earthquake in Catania as well as on some earlier occasion(s)", if only because the writer would not specify the time and place in this sentence if he had already done so.

But to me in the absence of such a clue "Trains were also useful ..." is just as ambiguous as "Trains also were useful ...". Just as ambiguous, but sounds a little better.

Gregory Lee said...

When "also" is given more stress than "useful", I agree that there is an interpretation of "Trains are also useful ..." in which "also" modifies "trains". I hadn't noticed that.

Jan said...

John Cowan: Yes, the meanings overlap, but the most recent definition in the OED is 1895! Click through to Oxford Dictionaries Online and you get the sense that is, at least in my experience, the dominant one today:

having or showing no skill; clumsy: the referee’s inept handling of the match

Some of their examples:
Things are so much easier now I can converse, albeit in a choppy inept way, in Japanese.
Apparently she was enraged by the inept actions of the person ahead of her at the drive-in ATM.
He made her feel so silly, so inadequate, so inept at being his secretary.
His descriptions are often quite pedestrian and sometimes strangely inept.
Now inept council staff and councillors are to waste public money on proposals which do not address the situation.

Graham Strong said...

I don't mind reading American books with US spellings, and British books with UK spellings. But what drives me nuts is (so-called) Canadian publishers publishing Canadian authors using US spelling.

Not sure if it's laziness or something completely different, but it certainly takes your point to a whole new level.


Brian Knep said...

Language is an important factor to convey any message, thought and emotion. Means if we want to communicate with a particular person then we should communicate with that person in his language so the person can easily understand us and response correctly. So in my point of view there should be different versions of a particular book in different languages.
Brian Knep @ Fundamentals of English Grammar