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Lost in translation across the pond

Aug, 2015
Written by Emily Orlowski

We Brits may be speaking the same language as our American cousins, but we are far from on the same page. Confusion can be caused by the simplest of words, which, when misplaced, may ensue in hilarity, awkward situations or, worse, mistakes. And Bob’s your uncle (or “ta-da” to our American counterparts), we have miscommunication lift-off.

The birds and the spelling bees

Let’s take a word as simple as “bird”, for example. We’re all familiar with the winged creatures that fill our skies, but if you hear the word from a British man’s mouth, he’s more likely to be talking about a young woman. What’s more, something as simple as asking for directions to the restaurant toilets can result in looks of wide-eyed astonishment. In Britain, going to the toilet (or the loo) is common practice, while Americans consider this expression to be rude and prefer to ask waiters for the bathroom, which, in turn, would be met with a concerned look from the British, who would hastily add that the restaurant toilets are not equipped with a bath. And if, while in the USA, you fancy some chips with your fish, don’t be surprised when a side of crisps is placed down in front of you. Things quickly become even more confusing when being ill in Britain means you’re sick in America, being knackered on the island is the equivalent of being beat in the states, and autumn in the UK is fall across the pond. And the list goes on: from football to soccer, lift to elevator, pants to trousers, flat to apartment, rubbish to trash, rubber to eraser, motorway to highway, and mobile to cell.

Words are just where the story begins, however. As if English words weren’t spelled inconsistently enough already, spelling often differs slightly between the UK and the USA, and one wrong letter may spell the difference between correct spelling and a spelling disaster. The Americans tend to spell British words ending in “se” with “ze”, such as organize/organise, and analyze/analyse, and omit the “u”s from words like honour, behaviour and colour. Other spelling differences can even lead to changes in pronunciation: aluminium, for example, is spelt “aluminum” in the USA, eliminating an entire syllable from the word. Punctuation also takes different paths, from full stops after titles to capital letters after colons.

Fatal translation

Words and spelling aren’t the only culprits of miscommunication, however. The education system is also a cause for concern. The British won’t know their seniors from their juniors, while the Americans will be left scratching their heads at the different Key Stages. Dates also create a language barrier. Brits that organise a business meeting with an American company on 02/04/16 only have themselves to blame if the Americans turn up two months early. This is because days and months are written inversely in the two countries. 02/04/16, or 2nd April 2016 in the UK, therefore means February 2, 2016 in the USA. Oh, and make sure you signpost the way to the meeting room – in the UK, meetings on the first floor actually take place on the second floor in the states…

If you’ll pardon the expression…

Brits and Americans also differ in the way they express themselves. Americans tend to exaggerate more and incorporate plenty of superlatives and vivid descriptions into their speech and writing, while the British are often more reserved and understated. As such, it isn’t sufficient for marketing texts, for example, to be written in English. An American advert won’t necessarily be well received by a British audience, and vice versa. Jokes in the USA could cause mass annoyance in Britain, while British humour may fail to evoke a response from our cousins across the pond. And, while we on the island are world-renowned for our almost exaggerated levels of politeness, a misplaced “please” in the states could actually be considered rude. Indirect communication is the way forward in the UK, with directness being almost synonymous to rudeness, and yet not getting to the point could be interpreted as weak across the Atlantic.

Breaking down the language barrier

So, all in all, there is a lot to consider when translating texts into English, and the differences between the “two” languages go far beyond the small selection of examples included here. By getting it wrong, you run the risk of not only losing credibility and professionalism in the eyes of the reader (or in the ears of the listener), but, in a worst-case scenario, of unintentionally alienating or even offending the recipient. That’s why, here at Peschel Communications, we always ask our customers who the text in question is destined for. In this way, we not only produce accurate, high-quality translations, but pieces of work that are adapted to the communication styles, linguistic subtleties and cultural contexts of the country, ensuring that your target audience receives the message you want to deliver. Between two countries separated by a common language, understanding is the door to success, and we hold the key.

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