Learning to Speak American

Coca Cola swing.jpg

Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos.

In 1993 I translated all 450 pages of Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony without ever using the past participle of the verb “get.” The book was to be published simultaneously by Knopf in New York and Jonathan Cape in London; to save money both editions were to be printed from the same galleys; so it would be important, I was told, to avoid any usages that might strike American readers as distractingly English or English readers as distractingly American. To my English ear “gotten” yells America and alters the whole feel of a sentence. I presumed it would be the same the other way round for Americans. Fortunately, given the high register of Calasso’s prose, “get” was not difficult to avoid.

Now in 2012 I am obliged to sign up to “gotten.” Commissioned by an American publisher to write a book that explores the Italian national character through an account of thirty years’ commuting and traveling on the country’s rail network, I am looking at an edit that transforms my English prose into American. I had already sorted out the spelling, in fact had written the book with an American spell check, and didn’t expect that there would be much else to do. Wrong. Almost at once there was a note saying that throughout the 300 pages my use of “carriage” for a passenger train car must be changed to “coach.” Since this is a book about trains and train travel there were ninety-eight such usages. There was also the problem that I had used the word “coach” to refer to a long distance bus. Apparently the twenty-four-hour clock was not acceptable, so the 17:25 Regionale from Milan to Verona had to become the 5:25 PM Regionale. Where I, in a discussion of prices, had written “a further 50 cents” the American edit required “a further 50 euro cents,” as if otherwise an American reader might imagine Italians were dealing in nickels and dimes.

I had started the editing process in a spirit of easygoing cooperation, determined to set aside any pride in Englishness and work to produce the best package possible for an American public. After all, the work was being paid for by an American publisher and my commissioning editor had proved extremely helpful when it came to discussing the shape of the book. But doubts soon arose. Prose is not something that remains the same when words are substituted—“jeans” for “dungarees,” for example—or when one synonym is preferred to another. Rhythm is important, and assonance likewise. Ninety-eight uses of a two-syllable “carriage” are not the same as ninety-eight occurrences of a single-syllable closed-o “coach.” This is why, statistically, assonance, alliteration, and rhythm tend to be weaker in translations than in original texts; consciously or otherwise a writer, even of the least ambitious prose, is guided by sound, while the language itself is constantly forming standard collocations of words around pleasantly assonant combinations—fast asleep, wide awake. Any intervention in these patterns, whether simply substituting words to suit a local use of the same language, or more radically translating into another language, disturbs the relationship between sound and semantics.

But my train book isn’t just a text written by an Englishman to be published in America. It’s about Italy, the Italians, how they see things, their mental world. One of the ways one can get across the difference is to focus on words or usages that don’t quite translate—the appearance of coincidenza, for example, in station announcements, which can mean a planned and timetabled train connection, or a quite unplanned, unexpected development to which an urgent response is required, such as a last minute platform change. Over these matters the American editor dutifully followed. But where I had written mamma and papà, the edit had transformed to “mamma” and “pappa.” This rather threw me, in part because I had assumed that Americans said mama and papa, but mostly because papà is accented on the second syllable, whereas in Italian “pappa”, with the accent on the first syllable and that double p that Italians, unlike Anglo-Saxons, actually pronounce, is a word for mush, or babyfood.

Despite my hailing from England—a country that still uses miles—I had expressed distances in meters and kilometers and it seemed odd now to find my Italian characters speaking to each other about yards and miles and, of course, Fahrenheit, which they never would. Or saying AM and PM, rather than using the twenty-four-hour clock as they mostly do, even in ordinary conversation. Slowly, as well as being concerned that some sentences were now feeling clunky and odd, I began to wonder if American readers really needed or demanded this level of protection. Wouldn’t they soon figure out, if I said “the temperature was up in the sizzling thirties,” that I was talking Celsius? Or at least that in another part of the world people had another system for measuring temperature where thirty was considered warm? Mightn’t it be fascinating for them to be reminded that the twenty-four-hour clock, which Americans usually associate with military operations, has long been in standard civilian usage in Europe? Italy introduced it as early as 1893.


Or again, does a “newsagent” really need to become a “news dealer,” a “flyover” an “overpass,” a “parcel” a “package,” or in certain circumstances “between” “among” and “like” “such as”? Does the position of “also” really need to be moved in front of the verb “to be” in sentences like “Trains also were useful during the 1908 earthquake in Catania,” when to me it looked much better after it? And does making these relatively small changes really make the text 100 percent American anyway? One thinks of how thoroughly the Harry Potter novels were Americanized for their US editions: would they really have sold fewer copies had the Anglicisms been kept? Wasn’t half the charm of the series its rather fey Englishness (occasionally Scottish Englishness)? Would we Americanize the Irish Joyce? Or again, if we want to have language conform to local usage, what about considering chronology as well as geography? Shouldn’t we bring Dickens, Austen, Fielding, and Shakespeare up to date? Make it easier? Forget that language is constantly changing and different everywhere?

Turning page after page of the copy editor’s notes, I began to make connections between this editing process and many of the things I have written about on this blog. America is very much a net exporter of literature. Its novels are read and translated worldwide, where readers generally accept miles and Fahrenheit, pounds and ounces, AM and PM and indeed have grown accustomed to these old-fashioned, American oddities (when it comes to doing science, of course, Americans use the more practical European systems). In Germany, for example, where around fifty percent of novels are foreign works in translation, Roth’s and Franzen’s characters are not obliged to discuss distances in kilometers.

Conversely, America imports very little—only three to four percent of novels published in the States are translations—and what it does import it tends to transform as far as possible into its own formulas and notations, in much the same way that Disney has turned every fable and myth worldwide into a version of Mickey Mouse. This situation is a measure of American power, but brings with it the danger of mental closure and inflexibility. Speaking recently at a conference in Milan, the Italian literary agent Marco Vigevani lamented that fewer and fewer American editors are able to read novels in Italian, French, and especially German, and this inevitably has reduced their enthusiasm for publishing foreign literature, since they are obliged to rely on external readers for advice.

Travel books are popular, likewise novels set in distant exotic countries, suggesting an appetite for awareness of other societies and their different lifestyles, but how far can literature really expose us to another world if everything is always returned to the reassuring medium of our own language exactly as we use it, with all our own formulas, dimensions, accents, and habits. More than anything else, what makes a foreign country foreign, and difficult, is its language, and though we can’t be expected to learn a new language for every country we want to know about, it seems important to be reminded of the language, reminded that one’s own language is not the supreme system for understanding the world, but just one of thousands of possibilities.

But perhaps I exaggerate American inflexibility. On sending in my observations on the proofs, my commissioning editor turns out to be more than ready to negotiate. “Gotten” will have to stay “gotten,” but “coach” can return to “carriage,” “also” can beetle back to where it was behind the verb “to be,” and “jeans” if they can’t return to “dungarees” can now become “jumpsuits.” Looking at this re-edit one realizes that the notion of Americanizing a text actually opens the way for a copy editor to impose personal preferences, perhaps imagining that something that sounds odd to his ear is un-American rather than simply my way of writing or his way of reading. Does anybody in the end really know with absolute certainty, all the differences between American and English usages? Aren’t there a wide range of usages in both these countries? How can I know, when I see a particular edit, if it is an Americanism I have to accept, or a matter of individual taste I can take issue with?

And all this without mentioning house style, that frighteningly powerful dye which, in a magazine like The New Yorker, turns every contributor’s prose the same color. In my train book, for example, after a few pages discussing the fate of Italian railways under Nazi occupation, I begin a new paragraph “2,104 railwaymen died in the war” and find this changed to “A total of 2,104 railwaymen died in the Second World War.” What is the sense of “A total of”? Surely it’s not a requirement of Americanization. What does it add? The idea of my counting up the dead? To my ear the bare number has exactly the brutal eloquence that such statements demand. And how could the reader get his war wrong when we’d just been talking Mussolini and Hitler? When I cut “A total of” I find the sentence reappearing in the proofs thus: “In the Second World War, 2,104 railwaymen died…” One hardly needs to go to a creative writing class to appreciate that this formulation has less rhetorical force than “2,104 railwaymen died in the Second World War.”


Seeing this second rejection of my version, and since I can’t imagine the poor copy editor (who is actually a very fine editor, I think) deliberately making his job longer than it need be, I have to presume that some house style forbids me from opening a paragraph with a number. Why? This whole question may seem a quite different matter from the contrast between Americans Americanizing and Europeans accepting Americanisms, but the truth is that house style is a much more common occurrence in the US and more aggressively enforced, to the point that when one rereads work one has written for The New Yorker it no longer seems like your voice at all. I can think of no similar experience with English or European magazines, as I can remember no experience quite like my tussle over tense changes for the American edition of my book Medici Money. Not that good editing is not precious. One has been saved a thousand stupid mistakes and much ugly phrasing by good editors; it is the desire to fix style in an unchanging standard that is noxious. As if people didn’t have different ways of speaking. And a cultural trait like this must mean something, come out of some deep assumption. Is it simply the publisher’s anxiety that his readers are weak, ready to put their books down at the slightest obstacle, and hence must be reassured by a homogeneity of usage that more or less makes language invisible? Or could it be that the long American hegemony has bred an assumption that American formulations are inevitably global currency and should be universally imposed?

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in