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I've been creative writing all my life, though with various haitus(es) along the way. IFrom 2010 I started this blog and enjoyed sharing writing and other information with everyone. illness and bereavement supplied the more recent hiatus.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Lost In Translation

I wonder if anyone can explain something to me:

Over here in the UK the original title for Harry Potter Vol 1 is Philosopher's Stone, rather than Sorcerer's Stone and it seems that for some reason all our novels have to be translated for the US market by US publishers. Indeed, in my Collier's American International Dictionary (Funk and Wagnalls 1966) A Philosopher's Stone is described as exactly what J.K.Rowling understood it to mean:

An imaginary stone or substance having the property of transmuting the baser metals into gold: sought by the alchemists'. 

Indeed, 'Sorcerer' translates as magician or wizard in the UK and is not applicable to the meaning of Philosopher's Stone which relates to something else entirely (as above), so the change of title is actually a misnoma.

Changing words can therefore end up with some absurdities, like the frightly posh Upper Class English character who calls her fringe, bangs. She just wouldn't!
(sorry can't remember the book at the mo' I think I leant it out to a friend)

When we receive US novels over here they are not translated in the same way, nor do they contain a glossary, so I'm wondering why the US reading public isn't allowed to be educated in British English, while we over here in the UK must learn US vocabulary like bangs, sidewalk etc.? 
Any ideas why this should be?


  1. Honestly? Because the US is just lame like that.

    I would much rather read books from the UK in their original form. Sure I might not understand a word or two, but you can figure it out by context.

    I think the decision makers believe the general US population is dumb and wouldn't be able to understand various slang or phrasing. Thus, we lose out on the opportunity to be exposed to it and learn it.

    It bothers me too.

  2. Thanks Liz, I agree it does seem an odd and frankly rather patronising practice and wondered if I was missing something? :O)

  3. Very interesting topic. I hadn't thought about it before, but I haven't read too many English authors. I know they often spell things differently, like using an s in place of our z's, but I can understand that easily.

    I like learning lingo's of different english speaking countries. I have a feeling big publisher's may think we are incapable of picking things up. Who knows?

  4. It is odd, especially if the characters are British - they should be able to keep their British idioms. I wouldn't expect to read about and American character speaking on rhyming slang! ;-)

  5. In the Harry Potter example, Scholastic (US publishers) believed that the US audience would not understand the term "Philosopher" and so they changed it. J.K. Rowling has since discussed her disappointment that this happened.

    I find it condescending to US readers.

  6. It's like renaming The Madness of King George III to just The Madness of King George. It was the assumption that US audiences might think that the film was a third part in a 3 part sequel.

    Oh dear!
    Take care


  7. That's crazy - a sorcerer isn't the same thing as a philosopher, so it's not even a proper translation. It's really patronising to think that Americans won't have heard of philosophy.

  8. You know what's ironic is that over here in the US, most of us are enchanted by and enamored of British English-- so frankly I've no idea why the silly translations (fringe to bangs) are executed.

    As for 'philosopher' and 'sorcerer,' the two words have very different meanings in American English-- connoting an entirely different individual, hence the, I concede grudgingly, necessary semantic choice.

    Btw, I use 'posh' often in my manuscripts, and prefer to refer to 'University' rather than 'college.' During my brief stint in a critique group, I had a beta reader all over my case for my 'Britishisms.'


  9. I refer to Patsy's comment above for evidence of the denotation issues between philosopher and sorcerer. A philosopher is an American sorcerer. Two words, same person. Lots of confusion across the pond.

  10. I've never understood it, other than it might be a very conservative marketing decision.

    Myself, I've always enjoyed the Britishisms. One of my CPs is a Brit and he keeps me in stitches with some of his idioms. We have a good time comparing notes.

  11. I read all the comments here and tend to agree that it is condescending and insulting to US readers to "Americanize" the British writing. And it must be maddening to the British writers who have to see their words changed.

  12. I also really hate that word, 'bangs', for describing hair. :P Here in Aus, books don't get translated from UK English to Aus English, 'cause they're like, the same. ;) So we got "The Philosopher's Stone" too.

  13. Because U.S. publishers think we in the U.S. are stupid.

  14. Considering the controversy from religious groups about the Harry Potter series, it seems like "Philosopher" would be a better choice than "Sorcerer". Other than that I'm guessing certain words are Americanized just for the point of helping sales and eliminated the need for a glossary or some such thing. As the series grew in popularity I would have thought there'd be a lesser need for this. Having not read any of the books I don't know anything about it anyway.

    Tossing It Out

  15. Sometimes the British language is too strange. You'd need to add a glossary. British punctuation is different too ;)

  16. Hi Lynda, to the Brits the American language can seem strange, too, yet we are not provided with a glossary.

    Lee, yes I agree that it might have helped to keep the original name for that reason and yes I agree it's to encourage sales. I wonder why the Brits are more tolerant. I wonder if it's because we accept the richness of language more?

    Trisha, yes Bangs seems an ugly inapproriate term. A bang is a loud noise. Fringing really describes what a fringe looks like.

    Madeleine, LOL!

    KarenG yes I would find it exasperating.

    Old Kitty, actually they did poll US film goers who said they hadn't seen 'Madness of King George 1 and 2' so they changed the title.

    Maria, yes I have the same fun with an American email pal. I am amazed how different 2 English Speakers can be.

    Suze, Donna I guess we need definitions.

    Patsy, I don't know the differences, I shall have to look up my US dictionary and see.

    Miranda and Kate yes I agree with you. :O)

  17. I had no idea we got 'translations' of English literature. How lame, indeed. Maybe they fear you all messing with our heads. lol

  18. I'd never thought about this before but agree with KarenG, it's pretty insulting to the Americans for publishers to think they wouldn't understand something!

  19. I have no clue, but I like learning British words/phrases. They crack me up!

  20. It is weird, isn't it? We muddle through US idioms and spelling - it's not exactly rocket science to reciprocate. My US chums ask the odd thing regarding HP (treacle pudding, jumper) I also think it's a tad insulting to 'translate'.

  21. I have no clue why its done like that, I just love to read both British and American language and punctuation.

  22. I'm not sure why they do that, but I think Americans are perfectly capable of reading & understanding British differences in speech, so long as we realize the author is British. Otherwise things can get a little dicey when we come across a phrase like "smoking a fag" which has two WAY different meanings depending on who's reading.

  23. Fascinating post - I'd never actually realised this before - have been interested to read the post itself and all the follow ups. Thanks for the lively discussion andI agree with the main feeling that UK books shouldn't be 'doctored' when they go to US (and I'm aware there are 2 meanings of doctored!)

  24. Suze, to be honest I would disagree with you, because Philosopher's Stone is a concept in itself and separate from wizarding. Sorcerer's stone becomes a misnoma only serving to confuse and adulterate the original concept. :O)

  25. What else can you expect from a country that drives on the pavement?


  26. Hi Madeleine .. I did read some comments on this a while back - not sure who .. but certainly we need to be aware that words mean different things over there ...

    Interesting life! Cheers Hilary


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