Foreign names, words, and phrases are difficult for readers to remember and understand whether a book has been translated from a foreign language into English or whether a book simply takes place in another country. Retaining the cultural atmosphere of the story while making it accessible to readers in the United States and Canada requires a little simplification.
Making a book available to the English reading audience in North America, whether it’s Canada or the United States, requires more than simply having it translated into English from a foreign language. The quality of the translation is important but so is keeping in mind what the reader may expect or find confusing and which words may need to be translated while others may be accepted already as foreign words well known to English readers such as “deja vous,” “burrito,” or “sushi.”
Even if you are not translating a book, but simply writing a book set in a foreign country that is largely unfamiliar to readers, you need to assume your reader is predominantly not knowledgeable about your topic and then make the topic and setting accessible for him or her. In other words, you must allow the book to retain its foreign charm or atmosphere while making it less “foreign,” which may mean explaining customs, religion, or inside politics to readers so they can follow the book, or not dwelling on these items unless they are relevant to understanding the plot and characters. Remember while a non-fiction book has much more leeway because readers want information and detail, a novel is intended foremost as entertainment so you have to make the book accessible in a way that will entertain yet retain the key foreign elements of the text.
Here are a few simple tips to get you started in making your book accessible to the English-speaking North American audience:
- Do not let anyone whose first language is not English translate your book. Even if you hire a professor of English, and you live in France and the professor’s first language is French, chances are no matter how wonderful that person’s English is, he will not write English as well as a native speaker. (If you find you have no other option, then follow the advice in the next point).
- If you do hire a person whose first language is not English to translate your book into English, then hire an English speaker to edit the book. For example, if you are Slovenian and cannot find a native speaker of English who can translate Slovenian, you might find a Slovenian who can speak English to translate your book into English, but then you will want someone whose first language is English to edit the book to make sure the book reads smoothly and is grammatically correct.
- Hire a speaker of American English to translate and/or edit if you plan to sell the book in the United States. Many books translated into English have been translated into British rather than American English. While both are technically English, there are some significant differences in word meanings and spellings and American readers might find the British usage confusing. That said, Canadian readers probably will have no problem with the British English spelling (nor will Australian readers).
British and American English have standard spellings that are slightly different. Here are just three of the most common:
- U: Words such as “honour” and “colour” are spelled with “u” in British English while Americans drop the “u” and spell them as “honor” and “color.”
- S & Z: The British tend to use “s” in words where Americans would use “z” as in a word like “realise/realize.”
- RE or ER: The British will spell words with an “re” ending such as “theatre” and “centre” while in American English they would be “theater” and “center.”
Word Connotation Differences:
Some words in American English have different meanings than in British English. For example:
- Bonnet: In British English, a “bonnet” is the “hood” of a car. American English only uses “hood” for this part of a car, while in American English a “bonnet” is a type of hat.
- Lorry: “Lorry” is the British word for “truck.” American English does not use this word at all.
- Fag: In British English, “fag” means a cigarette. In American English, it’s a derogatory term for a homosexual and short for “faggot,” which is commonly misspelled as “fagot.” In both forms of English, “fagot” means a piece of wood.
Watch Out for Confusing Names
An American reader will soon find his head swimming even if you are using common American names that have similar spellings. For example, the American reader might have a hard time keeping Mark, Matt, Mike, and Mitch separate in his head, or for that matter, Peggy, Polly, Pam, and Patty could cause equal confusion. So if you are writing for an American audience and using foreign names, you especially need to be careful. If your novel is Arabic and your characters are Mohammed, Mustafa, and Mufid, you might easily confuse your reader as to who is who. Even more confusing would be hyphenated names that have the same beginning such as Abdul-Aziz, Abdul-Bari, and Abdul-Fattah. In this case, you might choose to drop the “Abdul” from the names and settle for Aziz, Bari, and Fattah, which are all fairly different in appearance.
Don’t be Tolstoy. Anyone who has ever tried to read one of Tolstoy’s novels such as “Anna Karenina” or “War and Peace” can find himself easily confused. Not only do Tolstoy’s Russian characters have first and last names, but they also have middle names and nicknames, and Tolstoy has certain characters use different names depending on who is speaking to the character. Alexis’ mother might call him Alexis while his friend calls him Nicholas, his middle name, and his professors call him Ilyanovich for his last name. The poor reader not only has to keep track of fifty characters, but three or so names per character to make up 150 names. One of the best solutions to this problem was a translation of “Anna Karenina” (see below) that settled on just one name for each character, changing all the individual characters’ many names to one name per character for the reader to remember.
Focus on Broad Brush Strokes over Details
If you are writing fiction about another culture, you want to provide the feeling of that culture to the reader without giving an exhaustive history, geography, or cultural lesson. While the reader of non-fiction will probably be more tolerant of details, readers of novels want to be entertained, not expected to work to learn something.
The novelist should never assume the reader knows anything about what is, to him or her, a foreign culture being presented in the book. Nor should the novelist expect that the reader is going to run to the dictionary, encyclopedia, or Internet to look up unfamiliar terms. Readers who find they have to consult other sources, even if they are footnotes provided in the book, are quickly going to find that reading the book is too much work, and they are going to go elsewhere for information.
A novel set in a foreign country should provide just enough cultural glamour to wet the reader’s interest—perhaps to make the reader understand the magic or the significance of the other culture. If the novelist has done a good job, he will first and foremost have told a story that is entertaining. If that is all he does, he will have succeeded. If the reader is intrigued enough to want to learn more about the culture or country beyond that, he can then do further reading in history books or encyclopedias or even visit the country that is the setting for the novel.
Finally, remember that several novels set in foreign countries have been successful among American reading audiences. Equally, several novels translated into English have been successful. To prepare your book for the American reading audience, you may do well to read some of these books and see how the culture is presented while being accessible to the reader and then follow that author or translator’s example.
Some Well-Known Accessible Foreign or Foreign-Setting Novels:
- “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Joel Carmichael from Russian, it includes a classic essay on translating, including the name changes made to make the novel accessible.
- “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, written in English but about Nigeria during the Colonial Period. Easy to read with a short glossary of the Ibo language for easy reference.
- “Midaq Alley” by Naguib Mafouz, Egyptian Novel translated from Arabic.
- “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombian novel translated from Spanish.
- “Mrs. Pollifax” novels by Dorothy Gilman. Just one of many American detective/adventure novel series set in foreign countries. Just enough detail or history is provided for each country Mrs. Pollifax visits to move along the plot or solve the crisis in which Mrs. Pollifax must intervene.
You might also consider foreign novels you’ve found impossible to read. Make sure you don’t make the same mistakes as those novelists did. And if you’re American and having your book translated into a foreign language, equally ask yourself what about your book might confuse your readers—you may then want to remove or reword what might be obscure references to Los Angeles or American life for someone who is reading the book in Bombay, Tokyo, or Madrid.
Books are universal. They contain truths about the human spirit that cross cultures and national boundaries. Your book can be such an ambassador if you make it accessible enough to create interest in the culture while not making it so “foreign” that reading it becomes a chore.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.