Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Errors in Translation

I seem to have read a lot of books set in England, or other parts of Britain, and written by American authors, which have a simple error or two which rankles with British readers. Well, me.

To cite a few examples:
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith is a really fun bookAll the elegance and romance of the original classic, with added violent zombie mayhem. During one scene, the Bennett sisters are making their way to Meryton when they are startled by a sound they suspect might be "unmentionables" (zombies). But Lydia is able to reassure them when it turns out to be nothing more than a chipmunk. And so they continue on their way. A chipmunk? In England? Zombies crowding round Netherfield I'm prepared to accept, but chipmunks are just a step too far.
  • In English Trifle by Josi Kilpack, the irrepressible Sadie, chef and sleuth, hides in a pantry in an English manor house where she finds rutabagas and acorn squash. I think some major detective work is needed to discover where such unknown and alien vegetables came from.
  • In Pursued by Lynn Gardner two of the (good) characters own handguns, without any mention of how they managed to be in possession of something which has been illegal since 1996. Characters also use the verb "to visit" in the American sense (in Britain it only means "to go somewhere" and never means "to chat or spend time with someone"). And a British character says something disparaging about the NHS. He even refers to it as "socialized healthcare". I have never met anyone British (and I've lived here all my life so I've met a few Brits) who doesn't love the NHS.
  • Michelle Warren's Wander Dust is only partly set in London, but several times refers to the "Thames River". Her British character, Bishop, even calls it that. In fact, othe very last page Bishop says "I wish you wouldn't have given the sundial bracelet to Terease". I've heard this strange unknown tense (which I'm going to call the 'wistful past conditional') on American TV shows, where people say bizarre things like "I wish I would have left earlier" rather than the far clearer "I wish I had left earlier." I think I have uncovered Bishop's little secret: he's not British at all, he's just faking the accent to get the girl.
Any American writing a book set in Britain is now trembling in terror at the possibility of making a mistake which might alienate their British readers, or at the very least interrupt the flow of the narrative. But fear not, help is at hand! I offer my services, free of charge, to read through any manuscript with any British elements in at all (from a minor character to a setting in the Cotwolds) and proof it for UK authenticity. You're welcome. (Phew. I think I managed to make that look as though I wasn't just after free books.)

I think it's very brave of any writer to set a novel in a country they haven't lived in, or perhaps even visited (and I don't mean "conversed with"). I haven't yet had the courage to set any of my books in the US. So I salute those writers who are more adventurous and cosmopolitan than I am.


  1. The one that rankled with me (can't remember the book now) was when someone called the London Underground the 'subway' - grrr!

  2. There are some glorious ones, too, like the route from London to Oxford going via Aberdeen.

    What's a rutabaga?

    I know what a Chipmunk is, and there are some of them in England. It's a very nice 1950s British military training aircraft. I think most true British folk would be very offended at them being referred to as "only", though.

  3. I love this! Thank you for sharing!

    I'm curious what you think of "The Kane Chronicles," where Rick Riordan tries to pull off an American brother and a British sister. I thought it was fun, but I have no idea if it was authentic at all.

  4. I read a book a few years ago in which the author had the main character kidnapped, and the abductor crossed the American/Canadian border into Jasper National Park. I had to laugh, because Jasper is an 8 hour drive north of the border. Guess it just goes to prove how advantageous it can be to have a beta reader familiar with the culture/geography of a story, etc.

  5. And this is why an author should never trust fiction when doing research on an area. :)

    (Yes, indeed, I am shaking in my boots at the thought of writing anything set in England. Thankfully, my current WIP is a complete fantasy world. *whew*)

  6. Amy, that's the great thing about writing fantasy - you can't get it wrong!

  7. I don't agree that your 'wistful past conditional' tense is peculiar to the US. I've heard that type of construction in the UK and Ireland. And, no, I don't think it's the influence of American TV shows. ;-) Having said that, I wish I would've watched Dexter when it was broadcast. Catching up on Netflix now. :-)



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