The Lost in Translation Generation

by Meta Wagner

12 August 2007

Americans Need to Learn English…British English, that is!

Are Americans really too Americentric to care about other cultures (despite an anticipated record summer of US travel to Europe)?  Are they incapable of reading subtitles while watching the on-screen action in foreign language flicks (despite their skill at dialing their cell phones while driving at high speeds)?  Are they too narrow-minded to expose their children to Britishisms (despite many Americans’ preference for the British version of The Office)?

Book publishers and movie producers certainly seem to think so.

Apparently when Brits speak, Yanks are often easily befuddled by their accents.  And they’re even further befuddled by British expressions like sod off (i.e., piss off), she’s potty (i.e., she’s a little crazy) or bloody ’ell (i.e., bloody hell).

And, thus, American versions of the beloved Harry Potter books were born.  Let’s take a look at the original volume.  First off, the title was changed from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, presumably because Americans would not know what the philosopher’s stone referred to.  And then there are the many in-text language revisions, as shown here (thanks to

British “This lot were whispering excitedly, too….”

American “This bunch were whispering excitedly, too….”

British “Was this normal cat behaviour, Mr Dursley wondered.”

American “Was this normal cat behavior? Mr. Dursley wondered.”

British “Dudley had learnt a new word (‘Shan’t!’).”

American“Dudley had learned a new word (“Won’t!”).”

Was the goal to protect American children from “misspellings”?  Was the publisher afraid there’d be a wholesale refusal among first graders to put a period after Mr?  Was the notion of little brats shouting, “I shan’t put my toys away” believed to be too freakish for American parents? 

But, at least with the Harry Potter books and movies, the characters and settings remained decidedly British.  That’s not the case for other movie versions of books set in England, where British characters, locales, idioms, and interests were replaced with American ones—despite the shared language (more or less). 

Surely, Middle America would not want to see a movie about a Brit torn between his love for his girlfriend and his passion for soccer.  Soccer?!  Maybe only if David Beckham starred in it.  So, the 2005 movie version of popular British author Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch instead featured an American (played by Jimmy Fallon) torn between his love for his girlfriend (played by Drew Barrymore) and his passion for baseball—specifically, the Red Sox.  Needless to say, the film was set in Boston.  I’m not slagging off (i.e., griping about) the movie; in fact, I quite liked it, and since the Red Sox are my hometown team and they, against all odds, won the World Series the year the movie was filmed, Boston turned out to be a propitious choice. 

But, really, was the Americanization necessary?  Shouldn’t an American audience have been able to relate their own passion for baseball to a British character’s passion for soccer?  Passion is passion; the object of it is not so much the point as the universal feelings it evokes.

Along with the Americanization of the Brits, there’s the random use of the British accent to signify any nationality other than American, even if the character is supposed to be, say, French, as in Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Or, sometimes the British accent is meant as code for the villain.  Remember, how the bad guys in Star Wars had British accents?  And, why did Scar in The Lion King, who plotted to assassinate his brother and nephew in order to seize the throne, speak with one?  It seems even animated lions are not immune from this trend.

Then there are foreign language films that have successfully attracted a substantial “art house” audience in the states, but not a large enough mainstream audience to meet box office targets.  Inevitably, some smart producer must remake it according to a simple formula:  hire big-name Hollywood stars to play the leads, set it in an American locale, shoot it in (American) English of course, and in some cases, whitewash away the charm of the original, leaving Iowa cornfield blandness in its stead. 

Case in point:  the recent remake of the 2001 German film Bella Martha (renamed Mostly Martha for American audiences) into this summer’s No Reservations, starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart.  As Woody Allen famously said of his mother’s cooking, this one went through the “deflavorizer”, which is especially crikey (i.e., surprising) considering it’s a film about food).  The plot in both films involves a female chef, who’s passionate about food but is controlling in the kitchen and in life, and a male chef whose sole purpose is to reintroduce the woman to the sensual pleasures of food and to slowly but surely soften her hard edges. 

Corny, right?  But it worked in the original in no small part because Martha was German and Mario was Italian, and thus the clash in their personalities drew upon an intriguing culture clash.  In the remake, poor Aaron Eckhart had to goad the kitchen staff into singing along with a Pavarotti CD as a substitute for any real Italian-ness, and Zeta-Jones had to squelch her Welsh accent and “talk American”.  It was far from the worst film I’ve seen, but, in culinary terms, it was mere tapioca pudding while the original was a fabulous crème brûlée.

Maybe it’s true that a lot of Americans simply don’t appreciate foreign fare.  Or maybe, just maybe, producers and publishers are simply assuming that’s the case, and they’re turning the stereotype into a “truth” by limiting American audiences’ access to original works in other languages and dialects. 

Either way, before I get stroppy or accused of being a smug bugger, I’ll sign off with this befuddling regard:  Cheerio!

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