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Conflicting Voices: An analysis of Intralingual translation from British English to American English



Cet article propose une étude de plusieurs éditions américaines et britanniques de romans du vingtième siècle sous l'angle de la traduction intralinguale. On analysera comment les éditions américaines rendent le texte plus compréhensible pour leurs lecteurs, choisissant soit d'enlever toute référence culturelle jugée trop difficile, soit d'ajouter des explications. Cette pratique modifie sensiblement la voix du narrateur et celles des personnages. On montrera que la traduction intralinguale de ces textes britanniques, où s'entremêlent divers registres, voix et dialectes, introduit d'autres voix qui sont souvent en conflit avec les voix d'origine.

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1In his seminal essay, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation”, Roman Jakobson outlines three kinds of translation:

Intralingual translation or rewording is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language.

Interlingual translation or translation proper is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of some other language.

Intersemiotic translation or transmutation is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems. ([1959] 2002: 139)

2The advantage of Jakobson’s approach is that he not only presents translation as a transformation, but that he also situates translation within a broad framework in which interlingual translation, commonly considered to be “translation proper”, is but one kind of translation. Recent studies in translation (Bassnett and Lefevere 1990; Cronin 1996) still tend to focus on interlingual translation even if, in more recent years, there has been an emphasis on the way translating also “involves translating or transplanting into the receiving culture the cultural framework within which (a text) is embedded” (Hardwick 2000: 22). The present article therefore seeks to study intralingual translation, a text’s “rewording”, and the effect that this can have upon textual voice. Although Jakobson does not mention specifically the translation from one dialect or variety to another, the term’s somewhat loose definition enables us to interpret it as covering a wide range of possibilities from transforming one sociolect into another to rewriting one dialect in the terms of a different one. In other words, it refers to the rephrasing of lexical items and grammatical structures to explain or clarify what was meant in the other dialect. The intralingual translation that will be studied is a specific example: the rewriting of British novels for the North American market. While the average reader is aware that the two varieties of English exist, s/he is usually less aware of the fact that an edition of a British novel purchased on the other side of the Atlantic will have often been modified considerably for the North American reader, in a word “ translated”. As George Steiner points out in After Babel: “Onthe inter-lingual level, translation will pose concentrated, visibly intractable problems; but these same problems abound, at a more covert or conventionally neglected level, intra-lingually” (1998: 49).

3What then happens to the various voices that are present in a text subjected to intralingual translation? Before answering this question, it is necessary to reflect upon the different voices that may be “heard” within a literary text. Firstly, there are the characters’ voices, clearly indicated through the presence of inverted commas in direct speech or less easily identifiable but no less important in free indirect discourse. Then there is the first-person narrator, who establishes an interlocutory relationship with the reader, or the omniscient third-person narrator who comments and guides, or the less overt authorial presence. These are but a few of the possibilities, all of them constructs of the reader. As this is not the place to discuss the merits and shortcomings of the various theories and models which are especially prolific on the subject of the narrator’s voice (Genette 1980; Chatman 1990; Lanser 1981; Booth 1961), I have decided to focus in this article on voice and its relationship to style. What are the features of style that enable the reader to identify a subjective centre and how does the transfer from British English (BrE) to American English (AmE) affect the way the reader interprets the voice? How far do such changes result in a conflict between the various voices?

Transforming the character’s voice

4If we turn first to the characters’ speech and dialect, then obviously the adaptation of the novels for the American reader lead to an Americanization of their speech. It can be argued that a different voice immediately becomes audible in so far as it is visibly different through the changes in spelling. If a character is supposed to be British, there is a clear contradiction, or conflict in voices, when their words appear on the printed page with American spelling. It is as if they have suddenly been given a Texan drawl. In Colin Dexter’s Death is now my Neighbor, the murderess Angela Storrs, British born and bred dates the confession that she makes on March 11th 1996 as 3-11-96. In other words she follows the AmE practice of putting the month first. In The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, the AmE edition has an afterword supposedly written by Adrian’s American friend Hamish, asking for explanations of various Briticisms to be found in the text. However, if the British terms are retained, the spelling throughout is AmE : center instead of centre, check instead of cheque, tire instead of tyre. As a result, the text which is supposed to represent the diary of a teenage British boy, is spelt as if it has been written by a North American teenager. A different voice emerges therefore, in conflict with the text, and there is a discrepancy between the choice of lexical items on the one hand which remain obstinately British and the spelling on the other which has been Americanized.

5A character is frequently given a distinctive voice through a specific variety or social register. When it comes to a character’s specific dialect, most writers tend to focus on a few easily-identifiable elements rather than try and reproduce the dialect in exact detail, and certain dialects seem to feature more easily in fiction than others. The Yorkshire dialect is one such dialect. In the children’s novel, Pony on a Porch, the main character’s grandfather and other older members of the village use dialectal turns of phrase which are mostly limited to the lexicon: words such as grand, lass and aye.

Aye’ Dan,’ Grandad called to the man at the leading-rein. ‘Duke’s a grand sight.’ (PPa: 38)

  • 1  PPa refers to the BrE edition. PPb refers to the AmE edition. This system of reference is used thr (...)

Walter said, ‘Is that the lass that’s coming round to try our jumps?’ (PPa: 58)1

6There are few syntactical differences between the older villagers’ speech and Mandy’s, the one notable exception to this is the use of the deictic that, which Algeo labels as a dialectal use not usually found in American (2006: 292).

‘He’s a good jumper, isn’t he?’ she said.

Walter smiled. ‘He is that,’ he said.

‘He’s a grand little jumper,’ said Granddad. (PPa: 94)

7These dialectal terms have not been retained in the AmE edition. Either culturally neutral terms are substituted such as wonderful and girl:

Yes, Dan,” Grandpa called to the man at the leading-rein. “Duke’s a wonderful sight.” (PPb: 36)

Walter asked, “Is that the girl who’s coming to try our jumps?” (PPb: 55)

8or the dialectal terms are omitted altogether:

 “He’s a good jumper, isn’t he?” she said.

Walter smiled. “He is,” he said.

 “He’s a great jumper,’ said Granpa. (PPb: 90)

9Difference in accent is not just used to characterize the older protagonists, it also plays a role in the story. It serves to differentiate the newcomer Susan, the character around whom the tale is centred. She stands out because “her accent sounded different. Not like somebody from Yorkshire” (PPb: 6). This remark, which features in both editions, becomes rather incongruous in the AmE edition as not a single character in this edition sounds as if they do come from Yorkshire. Indeed, the elderly grandfather is even given the occasional Americanism. In the BrE text, he describes a horse as a great big fellow (PPa: 37). In the AmE edition this turn of phrase becomes a great big guy (PPb: 36). The result is that the grandfather is given a completely different idiolect and one that is totally out of keeping with his character. There is thus a conflict between the character and the “voice” he is assigned at this point in the story.

10Philip Nel (2004: 269) points to similar inconsistencies that can be found in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone where Hagrid uses the AmE term mom, yet all the while speaking with a supposedly Scottish accent:

“Yeh look a lot like yer dad, but yeh’ve got yer mom’s eyes.” (SS: 47)

11In the same book, another character, Seamus Finnegan hails from Ireland and is given a few traits of an Irish accent: ‘Me dad’s a Muggle. Mam didn’t tell him she was a witch’ (PS: 93). However, in the AmE edition he too refers to his mother as Mom:

“Me dad’s a Muggle. Mom didn’t tell him she was a witch” (SS: 125)

12The AmE edition has therefore removed any cultural and dialectal elements that may exist to differentiate the idiolects of the various characters, as all the characters use the term Mom regardless of their linguistic origins. The modifications do not simply deform the text to use Antoine Berman’s terminology (1995), they also have important repercussions on the characterisation. Idiolects and dialects serve as a means of identifying a character’s voice, of rendering idiosyncratic turns of speech. By levelling all these distinctions, the AmE edition has made the characters less individual and vivid for the reader, but also introduced a note of conflict and inconsistency between what the characters say and what the storyline tells us about them.

13In many ways dialect and sociolect are closely intertwined, with the use of dialects in the novel often being indicative of low social status. However, there is also a certain tradition in writing of representing uneducated speech, notably through the use of eye-dialect, where misspelling does not necessarily indicate mispronunciation (wot). The children’s story, Flour Babies by Anne Fine, provides a clear example of this. The speech of the pupil Simon Martin in the BrE edition is presented through graphological deviation, which immediately exploits assumptions about language and social status, even if the weakly stressed forms such as din’t are heard in informal speech:

‘Got stuck, din’t I?’


Tole him I din’t blong. But would he listen? Not him. Not till that other ear’ole finally came along and rescued me’


‘Wossit for?’

14In the AmE edition, however, Simon Martin is to all intents and purposes speaking Standard American English. The antagonistic tag question, din’t I?, which according to Algeo is characteristically British (2006: 301), has been omitted, and the non-standard spelling removed:

“Got stuck.”


“I told him I didn’t belong. But would he listen? Not him. Not till that other earhole finally came along and rescued me.”


“What is it for?” (FBb: 14-15)

15Doubtless the copy-editor was faced with a problem here. If s/he felt this sociolect was too British, or that the non-standard spellings presented an obstacle to understanding the text, then the choice was either to substitute an equivalent in AmE or to normalise the character’s speech. James and Lesley Milroy ([1985] 1999) point out that the standard-language ideology prevalent in the United States is quite different from the one that reigns in Great Britain. They argue that British Standard English is built upon complex class distinctions, with Received Pronunciation indicating not only class but a sound educational background. In the United States any class differences are firmly connected to racial and ethnic divisions, so that “in Britain the strongest gut reactions are in response to social class or class-related stereotypes, while in the United States they are associated with race and ethnicity” (Milroy and Milroy[1985] 1999: 153). However, to have changed Simon Martin’s sociolect to African American English, for example, would certainly have been considered politically incorrect and would also have entailed changing other traits belonging to the character. The copy-editor has therefore opted for standard speech but in doing so the different linguistic superimpositions have been erased along with an important trait of the character.

16Similarly, the substitution of an AmE term marks a change in social register. In Flour Babies a number of BrE expressions belong to a colloquial register but the AmE terms that are substituted are more neutral. This is the case when steal (FBb: 42) is substituted for nick (FBa: 36) or I nearly got seriously rearranged (FBb: 99) for I nearly copped it (FBa: 100). The term din-dins! (FBa: 31) indicates that the speaker is addressing either a baby or a domestic animal. The substitution here comes dinner (FBb: 37) is not so socially marked. Not only do these changes influence the register they are also examples of semantic impoverishment. Thus the different voices and their sociolects, dialects and idiolects that exist within the BrE text and which play a vital role in creating the characters’ individual voices have often been erased to leave a language that at best is rather bland and uniform, but at worst is a recreation of a variety that bears no resemblance to reality, which can all too easily conflict with information provided about a character elsewhere in the text.

Introducing a different narratorial voice

17What then of the narratorial voice itself? Here again, lexical modifications introduce another voice into the text either explicitly through the visible means of footnotes and bracketed comments or implicitly through addition and substitution. The introduction of glossaries and footnotes, which can be found in Bill Bryson’s travelogues (Pillière 2007), can alter the role of the narrator, for he now guides the uninformed reader and is in a position of authority, whereas in the BrE edition the emphasis is on a shared cultural framework. The omission of cultural references may also result in the modification of the tone of voice. The fact that the next example

I can stand most kinds of pain, even watching Jeremy Beadle, but I do find blisters particularly disagreeable. (NSa: 130)

18does not appear in the AmE edition means that the joke at Jeremy Beadle’s expense disappears. The AmE reader may well not recognise the name of Jeremy Beadle, but the remark can easily be recognized by any reader as a sarcastic comment about that particular person.

19In novels where the narrator’s nationality is paramount, the introduction of Americanisms can appear incongruous. In Almost French, the narrator is an Australian living in Paris so, understandably we find Australian words such as bathers being used instead of BrE swimming costume, however in the AmE edition some of these terms are maintained while other American terms are also substituted, rollerblades thus become in-line skates. Thus two conflicting voices can be heard through the co-existence of two varieties of English.

20Joanne Harris’s Blackberry Wine presents an interesting example of how far-reaching the change in voice can become in an AmE edition. The BrE text has the unusual device of an inanimate narrator that is in fact a bottle of wine, a 1962 Fleurie:

But this story begins with a different vintage. I don’t really mind that. Better to be his last than his first. I’m not even the star of this story, but I was there before the Specials came, and I’ll be there when they’ve all been drunk. I can afford to wait. Besides, aged Fleurie is an acquired taste, not to be rushed, and I’m not sure his palate would have been ready. (BWa: 13-4)

21As a first-person narrator, the bottle addresses the reader directly:

Wine talks. Everyone knows that. Look around you. (BWa: 9)

22Wine plays an important role in the text, so the fact that a bottle of wine narrates part of the story is not as strange as may at first appear, and the bottle of Fleurie is not the only bottle to have animate qualities. Jay inherits six bottles of home-made wine from his old friend Joe, and these bottles are “Specials”. For Jay, they possess a mysterious and magical power that brings the past alive and opens up the future. As such they seem to come alive at various points in the novel, and the bottle of Fleurie is quick to underline that they are different from the more traditional bottles that are also to be found in Jay’s cellar:

Behind us and around us the bottles were in gleeful ferment. We could hear them whispering, singing, calling, capering. Their laughter was infectious, reckless, a call to arms. Château-Chalon muttered stolid disapproval, but in that raucous, carnival atmosphere his voice sounded like envy. (BWa: 20)

23In the AmE edition the bottle of Fleurie has been removed as a narrator. While in the BrE text it is the bottles down in the cellar who notice the “gleeful ferment” of the Specials as Jay is about to take his first sip, in the AmE edition it is Jay himself who is aware of something happening:

There was something going on in the cellar, after all. He could almost hear it, like the sounds of a distant party. Beneath his feet the bottles were in gleeful ferment. He could hear them whispering to him, singing, calling, capering. Their laughter was infectious, reckless, a call to arms. He felt a sudden burst of raucous anticipation, a knowledge that something was on the way … (BWb: 14)

24The removal of the first-person narrator from the AmE edition has a variety of effects. Firstly, the significance of the Fleurie 1962, produced the year Jay was born and drunk at the end of the novel to mark the end of an old life and the beginning of a new one, is lost.

This is where my story ends. Here, in the kitchen of the little farmhouse in Lansquenet. Here he pours me, releasing the scents of summers forgotten. (BWa: 332)

25In the AmE edition, Jay opens one of the Specials at the end, not a 1962 Fleurie. There is a certain logic in this as it is a bottle of Blackberry and thus in keeping with the title of the novel. However the words pronounced by Marise, owner of a vineyard, when he offers her the bottle can only strike the reader as sounding ironic and therefore out of keeping with the situation: “Blackberry ’75? […] My favorite” (BWb: 355). While a Fleurie 1962 may well be her favourite, she will never have tasted Joe’s Blackberry ‘75 before and it is hardly likely that a winegrower will go into raptures over a bottle of home-made blackberry wine. Secondly, as an omniscient narrator in the BrE edition, the bottle makes its own comments on the other characters. Jay’s girlfriend, Kerry, is obviously not approved of:

Rows of bottles – most negligible, chosen by Kerry – in the racks (BWa: 16)

26The removal of such comments affects the presentation of the characters with Kerry coming across as a far less likeable character in the BrE edition. Although the magical element is still present in the AmE text, the removal of the bottle as narrator attenuates the mystical element that runs through the storyline. At the end of the BrE novel, Jay has turned from writer to successful potato farmer. The newspaper article that appears in the Courrier d’Agen finishes in the BrE edition with the following paragraph:

When asked to what he attributes this spectacular success he replies, ‘just luck.’ He gives our reporter his mischievous smile. ‘And, of course, a little magic.’ (BWb: 334)

27In the AmE edition this paragraph is missing, so there is no question of Jay attributing his success to magic of any description. Thus the removal of a voice from the novel has far-reaching repercussions on the text itself, the presentation of the characters and the general tone of the novel.

28So far I have been considering the work of the copy-editor/editor to be similar to that of a translator, the only difference between intralingual translation and interlingual translation being the variety of language used.

29There are, however, significant differences that should not be neglected. The reader who buys a translation is well aware that he is purchasing a work that is not in the language of the original text. The reader who buys an AmE edition is, on the other hand, usually oblivious to the fact that a BrE edition also exists. If the translator’s presence becomes visible in the paratext, through a preface or footnotes and his name can even appear on the cover, the editor remains a far more shadowy figure. The French translator of Bridget Jones, The Edge of Reason, Claudine Richetin, clearly signals her presence on the first page by a footnote explaining the reference to Jemima Goldsmith and Imra Khan that appears in the BrE text. The AmE version simply substitutes Posh Spice and David Beckham and the reader is none the wiser. There is no annotation “translated from British English”, although French translators who have worked from an AmE edition may signal that their work is “traduit de l’américain” as in the case of Le Professeur et le Fou, the French translation of Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman. The editor’s presence, on the other hand, will only be revealed through the spelling, lexical items or certain grammatical forms that are recognized as belonging to the AmE dialect. Moreover, these differences are only visible or audible when there is a shift in the text or a divergence between the editor’s voice and BrE text. This occurs when American spelling is introduced into a novel where the action clearly takes place in Britain, or where the AmE dialect is put in the mouth of someone who is Yorkshire born and bred, or where inconsistencies appear in the text and the fluency aimed at paradoxically ends up by creating a text that jars. For there is inevitably always a passage where the superposition of cultural layers becomes visible, where the foreign element breaks through and a tension is created. How far the editor’s voice becomes audible at such moments will depend on how finely the reader’s ears are attuned to listening.

30Of course there is a danger in comparing BrE and AmE editions in this way – the danger of falling into the trap of considering the relationship between the two editions merely in hierarchical terms. In other words the danger of placing the BrE edition as the original, with the AmE edition appearing as some kind of travesty, disrespectful of the author’s intentions. The appearance of conflicting voices within the AmE text, the audible presence of the copy-editor or proof-reader should perhaps invite us to reconsider just how “original” the BrE text really is. The average reader does not possess the drafts and proof-read copies of the BrE edition before it reached the printing press, but if s/he did, they might become aware that that edition too contains various voices, voices which remain inaudible. If we adopt this line of reasoning, then the AmE edition and the BrE edition should not be considered in terms of opposition or in terms of hierarchy, but perhaps more in terms of a rhizome (to use a Deleuzian concept) – rewritings that are capable of proliferating in all directions.

31But the question that begs to be answered is how far the BrE text needs to be transformed. In an interlingual translation, the translator obviously has to decide how to translate a local dialect, how to render references to a school system that is totally different to that of the target culture, or how to transform an idiomatic expression. In so far as intralingual translation is concerned with dialectal differences, as it has been used in the present article, then the problem is slightly different. The fact that modern AmE fiction is published with very few changes in Britain (the picture is rather different if we go further back in time) or that novels, such as Trainspotting, can be written in a local dialect and still achieve popular success, demonstrate that readers do not necessarily need a work to be domesticated into a standard variety.

32Perhaps a distinction needs to be drawn between changes and transformations that are creative, and those which are made simply to achieve “fluency or easy readability” (Venuti 2004: 18). Among the first I would include the redesign of jacket covers, or the use of typefaces (the AmE edition of the Harry Potter series is particularly inventive) or the addition of a glossary written in the style of the main text, as in the fictional diary written for adolescent readers: Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging or The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. The second category would refer more to the changes introduced by the proof reader or copy editor who reads the text style guide in hand and modifies the spelling and punctuation.

33The AmE editions of BrE novels provide us then with just one example of the many voices that are always present in any book, but which are rarely so clearly heard. By recognizing the presence of these other voices, not only do we resituate the text in its social context, but we are also made aware of the fact that any representation we may have of an author is just that: a representation. While the literary critic may find it convenient to talk of the authorial voice as a single entity, in actual fact it is a fused identity of many voices. While the linguist may find it convenient to talk of a single utterer’s meaning the utterer, like the author, is merely a construct which is far from possessing a single uniform voice.

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1  PPa refers to the BrE edition. PPb refers to the AmE edition. This system of reference is used throughout when the two editions have the same title.

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Linda PILLIÈRE, « Conflicting Voices: An analysis of Intralingual translation from British English to American English », E-rea [En ligne], 8.1 | 2010, mis en ligne le 21 septembre 2010, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.1404

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Aix-Marseille Université, LERMA (EA 853)
Linda Pillière est Professeur des Universités à l'Université de Provence où elle enseigne la linguistique et la sociolinguistique. Ses recherches en stylistique portent sur la traduction intralinguale et notamment sur les effets de standardisation du texte britannique au cours de sa traduction pour le lecteur américain. Elle s'intéresse également à la mise en place des différentes voix d'un texte en tant que procédé stylistique.

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