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Separated by a common language July 6, 2012

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Random musings.

This morning I was asked by a client if I translated into UK English. This is a new client, so I don’t fault them for asking. However, I have lost track of the times I have been asked to translate something into UK English. I don’t know if it is a German thing, but German clients seem to think one can run the Word spellchecker over a document and it’s UK English. As anyone who follows the blog Separated by a Common Language knows, UK English and US English are most definitely not the same. It goes beyond throwing a “u” in color or favorite or spelling tire with a “y” instead of an “i.” Just as with the word potato in German (Kartoffel in Germany, Erdapfel in Austria), there are lots of different words for the same concept (truck vs. lorry, eraser vs. rubber, paper towel vs. kitchen towel). They also regularly use words like “whilst” and “amongst.” Someone who has grown up in another culture may not know the different word even exists despite growing up watching all kinds of British TV. It just isn’t the same as growing up in the culture and just knowing it.

The grammar is also quite different. UK readers can read my posts and understand them – and I can understand theirs. However, as I learned when I was an intern at a translation agency in Bonn, the Brits have very different rules when it comes to comma placement, which tends to mirror German much more closely than US English. Heck, they even put their periods/full stops outside the quotation marks and apostrophe signs instead of inside them like we do in the States. I tore up several translations by excellent translators and after discussing the changes with them quickly learned that it was the perfectly correct way to state it in UK English. It was a valuable lesson for someone just starting out. I learned to be much more judicious with my editing.

So when my client wrote me this morning I shook my head for a second, but sent off a cheerful reply explaining, “No, I am an American and live in the U.S. I don’t translate into UK English. Sorry.” They won’t know I don’t if they don’t ask, right? No need to be snarky about it. I just wish that German clients would learn that asking me to translate UK English is like asking someone in Hamburg to translate into Austrian or even Swiss German.




So true!

2. Craig Morris - July 7, 2012

“I just wish that German clients would learn that asking me to translate UK English is like asking someone in Hamburg to translate into Austrian or even Swiss German.”

But it’s not. There is no “standard” version of Swiss or Austrian German, whereas there are standards versions of UK and US English, both of which are much less set in stone than German, which has Duden for all three countries — und damit basta! There is no question about most matters in German.

In contrast, there is little consensus about most things in English even within US English and within UK English, respectively.

My take is that the differences between the standard versions of US & UK English are (for the work that I do = energy) practically irrelevant. The Germans who ask for UK English from me don’t even know why they want that, and if you tell them that Oxford spelling prefers -ize in words like organize, they are surprised.


For marketing, US & UK makes a difference; for law, definitely. For most things, you can tell after a page or so whether the writer is from here or there. But real uncertainties — such “the bill was tabled” — in US vs. UK are extremely few and far between.

I tell my clients I cannot produce UK English, but I can switch the spellchecker — and that we should not do so lest we mislead readers as above with “tabled.” But it rarely does any good.

Asking a German to translate into Swiss German is more like asking an American or Englishman to translate into Scots or Southern (US), I’d say.

3. Wenjer Leuschel - July 7, 2012

We have a problem with Chinese languages which is in a quite opposite direction. We are being forced to be united by a common language.

In fact, a Westerner, living and travelling around in China for a period of 3 years, will find out that there are many Chinese languages, though almost all of Chinese believe that they speak and write Mandarin.

I used to ask my clients, “Is this manual to be used in Northern China, above Bejing in Manchuria? Or, is this to be used in Southern China, deep down in the South, but not in the part where people speak Cantonese?” The reason why I ask is that a manual written for people living in Shanghai can be easily rejected by people living in Beijing. They don’t name the same things with the same names. There are more differences than just the one between “Kartoffeln” and “Erdapfel.” The differences in Chinese languages are more or less like that of the differences among Latin American Spanish languages and Mainland Spanish.

However, Chinese people understand each other like English speaking and writing peoples in the GB, NZ, Australia and the USA. We can identify where one comes from and we understand what is written, but we write differently. It’s not simply a matter of writing in Simplified or Traditional Characters which can be converted automatical by Win Word.

As to translating into Mainland Chinese, I don’t think it would be a problem for me. A manual is a manual. I don’t worry about different names for the same different things in different parts of China. Once a manual is translated, a list of names is set up with explanations of the terms. Chinese poeple can check them up and say, “Aha, that I know. We call it xxxxx here in YYYY part of China.”

So, we do have less problem of accepting translation jobs for different parts of Chinese cultural sphere. Linguistical nativeness is almost not a problem for us, but political nativeness is a big problem for us. That is to say, we are not separated by a common language; we are separated by different Weltanschauungen, while the common language and the geography force up to unite.

U, Americans, I N-V U! You are so far away from the Great Britain, so that you can develop a totally different culture and language.

P.S. Craig, I agree with your “Asking a German to translate into Swiss German is more like asking an American or Englishman to translate into Scots or Southern (US), I’d say.”

4. saraipahla - July 8, 2012

Well, from a global perspective, American English dominates British English in subtle ways that make it (British English) more difficult to teach. For instance, all coding is written in American English. Unless you change the language settings on your computer and programs, you will probably end up using American English when you use software. Most of the television programs and movies that end up being globally popular are in American English. Does this affect you from an American English point of view?

5. Corinne McKay - July 9, 2012

Excellent points Jill! As Craig commented, I think that part of the issue is that clients don’t always know what *they* mean when they say “UK English.” Do they just want UK spellings and date formats, or do they want something that’s really tailored to a UK audience? In addition, I think that just like a British accent sounds automatically classy to an American, “UK English” seems more formal, or classier, or something like that, so some clients want “UK English” for that reason alone.

6. Pierre Fuentes - July 10, 2012

Great post Jill!

@Craig Morris: wake up, there is no such thing as a “standard UK English” or “standard US English”. These are just dialects with an army and a flag (and powerful educational systems).

Referring to “standard language” is yet another form of nationalism that has been beaten into us since childhood (check Max Weinreich’s theories for that matter).

The barriers we put between languages are purely imaginary and the reality is very different. Languages are continuums and they tend to overlap. You think there are more difference between UK English and Scots than between UK English and US English. But what you have in mind is the UK English spoken by a Londoner and the US English spoken by a New Yorker. And indeed you identify Southern US as being different than what? Your English?

Not to mention the fact that the English varieties are the only language family in the world that holds more non-native speakers such as myself than natives, so it is very much mistreated (and I’m sorry about that 😉 )

Jill (@bonnjill) - July 10, 2012

Now, now, there is no reason to attack Craig for voicing something that most German clients think exist. If clients think it exists we need to at least know why such a thing doesn’t exist. With regard to dialects and differences, in fact, Craig is from the “South” – New Orleans to be exact. He’s lived in Germany for years and years, so he has a firm insight on both sides of the pond.

7. Pierre Fuentes - July 12, 2012

Apologies, Craig, I did not put enough smileys in my post 🙂

I was not attacking Craig or anyone in particular, rather the general brain washing that affects us all from a very early age, and more specifically those of us who, like myself, were born in so-called “monolingual” countries (as if…).

I guess I just hate the word “standard” and the ideologies it implies. 😉

8. juan lepin - July 12, 2012

*like we do* that hurts, especially coming from a translator

Jill (@bonnjill) - July 12, 2012

Whatever. As we do, like we do. Same diff.

9. Gintautas Kaminskas - July 23, 2012

As the French would say, « Vous exagérez, Madame ». The differences between UK English and US English are not that huge. I alternate between them all the time. The differences are superficial, as is demonstrated by the fact that editing a page of American English to turn it into UK English only involves changing the spelling of a few words and substituting a few vocabulary items. There are no differences between the morphology and syntax of the two, which are at the heart of the identity of a language. (By the way, I’m an Australian of Lithuanian background who happens to have lived in Canada (Québec) and USA as well.)

10. Polish interpreter - August 1, 2012

You reacted in a professional manner!

11. Sally Massmann - August 11, 2012

Interesting comments. I’m a Brit, have been to the US often, work with Americans and have American relatives. On a day-to-day level, the differences are not that huge, but I totally agree with Jill that it’s nigh on impossible to translate adequately into US English. There have been plenty of times when our American relatives and I have realised we’ve been talking at cross purposes, simply because we haven’t UNDERSTOOD what the other is saying. There are many subtleties that you simply can’t know. Apparently Americans say “check luggage”, whereas we say “check in” luggage. And Americans say “round out” and not “round off”. This is something a spell-checker would never pick up. In conversation people will correct you, or look puzzled. In a translation you are only going to know once the horse has bolted…

12. Gintautas Kaminskas - August 11, 2012

Sally’s mention of the word “check” reminds me that Americans use it instead of “cheque”. I think this is unfortunate because it’s never helpful when one word (combination of letters) has diverse means. Same applies to another Americanism: “gas” – used in the meaning of petrol. In Australia almost all taxis and a lot of other commercial vehicles actually do run on “gas” – which comes in gas cylinders – so I don’t know how you would translate that into U.S. English to make it clear that you’re not talking about petrol.

13. Serena - August 18, 2012

I think localisation is important because readers always prefer reading a text in a language they are familiar with, since it costs them less effort. This is particularly important for marketing material, which aim is attracting potential customers

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