Does your book need to be Americanized?

Does your book need to be Americanized?

As you prepare your English-language book for its first publication in the US market, you may be wondering if you need to Americanize the text. Is it worth your time to take out all those pesky U’s from words like “colour” and “favourite?” Does it matter if your readers confuse a place they hang their clothes and a place they store dishes? Will readers naturally do the mental math to convert metric to imperial measurements? Should they have to?

Neither the choice of whether to Americanize at all nor the method you go about doing so are as simple as just a quick Find + Replace function. Americanizing a text is a complex recipe with many choices to make along the way, some of which are akin to translation, others about literary and editorial choices, and still others a question of cultural identity and power. Decisions must be made taking into account the genre, audience age group, and format of the work. No matter the project, Americanization is a full editorial project all its own, not a last-minute task to check off a list before going to the printer.

Let’s break down those three components of Americanization. Asking yourself questions in those three areas can help you make the determination as to whether you should pursue Americanization for a particular project.

First, Americanization as translation: English, like all other languages spoken around the world, is a living language that varies from region to region. Misunderstandings and jokes abound when native English speakers from different parts of the world learn that a word they know has a vastly different meaning in someone else’s English. You can accidentally convey a very different set of circumstances with a simple sentence like “I am not wearing pants” depending on the location and identity of the speaker. In the US, not wearing pants means someone might see your Superman undies. In the UK, you better not go out in public, because your bottom half is in the nude! If you’re an American visiting a friend at a building in India, be advised–if they say they’re on the first floor, that means you have to go up one flight of stairs, because you enter from the street on the ground floor. An American eating chips might have to watch out that they don’t spill crumbs while eating a packaged, shelf-stable snack, while an Australian eating chips has to be careful they don’t burn the roof of their mouth if the treat is fresh out of the deep fryer.

Some authors may want to avoid confusion from sentences that are meant to be simple or inconsequential by adjusting those types of terms and expressions to the Americanized equivalents so they don’t call attention to themselves. That may be particularly salient for projects such as concept books for babies and toddlers or texts meant for the educational market.

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Second, there are literary, editorial concerns to take into account as well. In fiction, readers can be taken out of a story and lose that wonderful flow state that comes with immersive reading if characters, settings, or descriptions seem inaccurate or out of keeping with the logic and worldbuilding of the story.

An attentive reader can “hear” when a character is speaking with an American accent, South African accent, Australian accent, and so on, based on factors like slang, sentence construction, and word choice. So don’t be deluded into thinking that all it takes to Americanize a text is to change the location of the story from Auckland to Pittsburgh. Your characters and narration will give the game away! If you handed me, an American, an object I don’t recognize, I’d likely exclaim, “What am I supposed to do with this?” A Brit, on the other hand, would be more apt to ask, “What am I meant to do with this?” You won’t get me to believe a school story takes place in the United States if the protagonist talks about entering Standard 4. That will make me think of the time I student-taught in Kenya. Here in the US, students enter fourth grade.

Finally, ask yourself whom you are serving when you are Americanizing and whether it’s respectful to your text. While it’s true that Americans have a reputation for considering ourselves the center of the universe, that certainly doesn’t make it true, nor does that mean your book won’t be read or loved by US readers if it doesn’t bow to that pressure. The extent to which you need to Americanize varies based on additional factors like the genre, audience age, and subject matter.

For example, it’s well worth your while to Americanize a cookbook. Your readers will simply be too confused to bother making a recipe if temperatures and measurements don’t align with utensils and appliances available in the typical US kitchen. Texts for emerging readers and learners can also stand some Americanization if your primary focus is comprehension or acquisition of a new skill or subject–no need to add confusion in areas that are supposed to be straightforward by naming a price in pounds sterling or a weight in stone.

Americanization in those cases makes a lot of sense.

However, you do yourself and American readers a disservice if you assume that your book will be unreadable or unlikeable if it is obvious that it isn’t set in the US or centering a US perspective. For one thing, as I hope my previous examples made clear, quick, cosmetic changes like a replaced word here and there won’t erase other signs of non-Americanness, like the ways sentences are formed, foods that are eaten, or actions that are taken. Slapdash, phoned-in Americanization can make for an unmooring read. And more importantly, is your impulse to Americanize based on an appeal to cultural hegemony or an appeal for increased understanding? While it’s unfortunately true that some readers are simply uninterested in learning about experiences that differ from their own, and many of our most popular cultural exports seem to follow that line of thinking, far more readers than you might think will be welcoming to diverse books and may require nothing more than a brief glossary (or maybe nothing at all) instead!

Need some guidance as you consider whether your book needs Americanization or not? You need our Cultural Accuracy and Sensitivity Editorial Services. Contact us today to start the discussion!

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