As most of you are probably aware, I am a translator by trade. In this line of work, I was required from the beginning to be able to write in two languages: British English and American English. This never struck me as odd; in fact it always seemed quite logical. Some customers are specifically targeting one market or the other, or may simply prefer one variant for reasons of style or global acceptance. Formally, the differences are relatively minor, and it shouldn’t cause huge problems for any translator worth their salt.
This being the case, I was little surprised when one of my clients e-mailed me a few days ago to say they’d been discussing the issue at their agency, and some of the staff had voiced concerns at letting British translators write in American English (and vice-versa). The argument seemed to be that, technically, we weren’t native speakers, and so we wouldn’t be able to produce a US English text to the required standard.
“Poppycock,” was my very British response to this. Well, not in so many words, but I diplomatically explained that to segregate translators of one language based on the regional variant they used would be impractical and unnecessary on many levels, not to mention that it would leave many excellent translators in Canada, Australia and many other countries out of a job simply because they happen to hail from a region whose version of English isn’t required on a global scale.
Basically, this was a non-native speaker making a mountain out of a molehill. Nevertheless, it got me thinking. It’s true that I am always very conscious of the little differences between British and American English when in “work mode”. But what happens when I switch off? As someone who leads quite an internationally influenced life, what kind of English comes out of my mouth in a more relaxed, natural environment?
At first glance, I certainly retain a lot of Britishness in my speech and writing. Indeed, even outside of work I probably have a more heightened awareness of the differences than most people – partly because of what I do for a living, but also because I’m a massive language geek with a hint of OCD when it comes to linguistic nuances. This stems partly from a belief instilled in me growing up that it was important to retain a sense of “proper” (i.e. British) English and ideals in the face of the onslaught of American culture. I distinctly remember, for instance, that my parents disapproved of me watching too many American cartoons. The Simpsons – possibly the most successful all-American television export at the time – was a definite no-no, perhaps more due to the general way of life it represents (albeit as a parody) than the language used therein.
However, peer a little more closely at the language I use, and you will see the cracks begin to show in my polished British veneer. My brother spotted one in one of my first blog articles a while back, where I translated John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” quote as “I am a donut.” Having had the same upbringing as me, my brother was of the belief I should have used the British spelling “doughnut” instead. This was an idea that hadn’t even crossed my mind at the time of writing, but it was no oversight. Working backwards through my thought process, I realised that I had subconsciously chosen the American spelling because I was translating the words of an American president; a man with a very distinctive American accent. What is more, I was referring to a commodity widely regarded in the English-speaking world as quintessentially American. To shoehorn a British spelling into this transcription for the sake of “propriety” would, to me, have seemed incongruous.
Clearly, part of this comes from me now being used to writing for an American audience on demand. But it also represents a deeper change in my linguistic psyche: I no longer see US English as “inferior” or “polluting” to “real” British English. Just like any other dialect, I accept its differences and see it as an opportunity to enrich our language.
American English is often more direct than the British version, and offers a great breeding ground for snappy phrases: no-brainers and double whammies add a sense of immediacy and dynamism that is often lacking in more traditional English speech. It is also our American cousins we have to thank for many of our more colourful idioms: flying off the handle, going to hell in a handbasket and being up [that well-known creek] without a paddle, to name but a few. Personally, I like a lot of these, and will often – either consciously or subconsciously – integrate them into my own idiolect. These days, I am less concerned with retaining Britishness for Britshness’ sake, and tend to pick and choose elements of my language from all over the world, taking an “artistic licence” approach as befits a linguist of my (imagined) standing. Linguistic licence, if you will.
Don’t get me wrong – I still love the accepted British mode of speech. I love the attitudes it represents: the quaint, English Village mentality, where everyone is excessively polite to one another and the worst tragedy that ever happens is that somebody’s bicycle is stolen. This is a far cry from what we associate with US English and, though the reality of my homeland is somewhat different, I enjoy the notion that it is somehow built on these ideals. As I have touched upon before, many of my favourite writers, from P. G. Wodehouse to Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, maintain a very British world view that pervades their work.
However, from a linguistic point of view, I find the versions of English spoken in other parts of the world fascinating. I am always on the lookout for new phrases and ways of expressing things, and can spend hours analysing what they say about a person’s perspective on life. Despite the concerns they may have once had about the effects of American culture on their children, my parents are generally very open-minded folk, and brought me up to be the same.
It is always important to maintain a sense of one’s identity and origin, especially in these increasingly globalised times. In many ways, living abroad makes me feel less connected to England than I imagine many of my friends from back home do, and expressing myself in a very British way is often comforting to me. But language is always evolving, on both a global and a personal level. Any attempt to resist this would not only be futile, but also a missed opportunity to broaden one’s horizons and look at the world a little differently.