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  • Writer's pictureCarlie Sitzman MA, CT

This English Translation Looks Funny

You’ve ordered a translation in English, your mother tongue. The language you’ve spent countless workdays reading in your e-mail, spent every social hour of your life conversing in, and have faithfully consulted while deciphering the sticky notes posted in the breakroom at work. After opening your English translation, however, the language doesn’t seem as familiar as before. It’s obviously written in very good English, but is riddled with bizarre little mistakes. There are phrases seemingly on the verge of being idiomatic, only to be yanked into the realm of the awkward with a single wrong word or misspelling. Other words you thought you knew are being used in unexpected ways and there now appear to be 30 months in the year. Before you write your text off as a complete loss, however, take a moment to consider if it might be written in British English.


British spelling differs from American spelling in some perhaps obvious and less obvious ways. As long as your translator wrote consistently in British English throughout the entire document, which is optimal, you should be able to recognize this right away. Mixed British and American spelling is most common when a non-native English speaker has translated the document and is unaware of the differences between British English and American English. Spelling inconsistencies may also crop up, however, when a British author is trying to write for an American audience and vice versa. Let’s take a look at both the surprising and not-so-surprising spelling differences.

One thing that usually jumps out at American audiences while reading a British document is the use of “our” instead of “or” in words such as color (colour) and “splendor” (splendour). Replacing the “z” with “s” in a lot of words, such as recognize (recognise) and “specialized” (specialised) is also very notable. Another difference to watch out for is the replacement of “se” at the end of certain words with “ce” in British English. This happens in words such as “license”, which changes to “licence” and “defense”, which changes to “defence”. Use of the letter “y” as a vowel in the middle of a word also seems to be more prolific in British writing, with American words such as “tire” and “pajamas” changing to “tyre” and “pyjamas”. If your document appears flawless aside from a few very odd spellings, try sleuthing around an Oxford English dictionary to see if you find the spellings there.

Questionable Idiomatic Phrases

One thing that can make it challenging to differentiate British English from translation mistakes is that British and American English share similar idiomatic phrases and expressions in many cases that are expressed only slightly differently between the two. As a result, you might see the British phrase and think someone was trying unsuccessfully to use an English idiomatic expression, when they were actually correctly using the British version of the same expression. One example of this is the American expression “sweep it under the rug”, which changes to “sweep under the carpet” in British English. In Britain, there is also a “a storm in a teacup” instead of a “tempest in a teapot” or “flogging a dead horse” rather than “beating a dead horse”. If your idiomatic phrases are close, but not quite there, consider if they might be British.

Familiar Words, Unfamiliar Meanings

If you’re seeing a lot of English words used in unlikely, but certainly not outlandish ways, the author may be using words in British ways. Especially when it comes to words referring to everyday objects, which I have noticed seem to differ much more between British and American English than other subject matter. This means it is essential to exercise extra caution when having translations done about everyday things such as clothing or kitchen implements. If the wrong language variety is used, there could be some serious misunderstandings. This can be seen in the use of “anticlockwise” in British English instead of the American “counterclockwise” as well as “torch” in British English instead of “flashlight”. In the kitchen, you might see a “hob” instead of the American “stovetop”. There is also “pants”, which refers to “underwear” in Britain and “pants or trousers” in America.

Your Date – Reversed

Did the numbers for the month and day get switched around in your translation? This may not have been an accident. Like German, British English usually writes the day first, followed by the month and year. This applies both to pure numerical forms of writing dates and the written-out versions. An American text, for example, would list March 27, 2016 while a British text would write the same thing as 27 March 2016. Sometimes this can be harder to detect when they are written out numerically, but the same principle applies. A date written as 3/27/2016 in American English would transform into 27/3/2016 in British English.

What should I do?

If all signs are pointing toward a British text and you also wanted your text to be written in British English, congratulations! The document has been translated properly. If you didn’t want British English, you may have to get your document set straight. Before you jump to any conclusions, however, it pays to ask the translator about the aspects that concern you. There may be a perfectly good reason why they wrote it that way and a good translator should be able to intelligently explain why they wrote what they did. If it turns out your document simply isn’t written uniformly, you may want to give the translator a chance to fix the problem themselves. When you make this request, also check which variety of English is the translator’s native language. You will want them to standardize the document in their native language for sure. Once your document is uniformly written in one language variety, you can either keep it as-is or hire a translator familiar with both British and American English to convert it. Having to modify a translation after the fact can be frustrating, but treat it as a learning experience. Keep note of the strengths displayed by the professionals who help you along the way so you can hire them first the next time you have a translation of this nature.


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