English to English: ‘translating’ a cultural divide

English to English: ‘translating’ a cultural divide
Our Tumblr project has explored over 400 US-UK cross-cultural topics. As the Guardian continues to reach a global audience, the nature of ‘translations’ is changing

Since its launch last May, the Guardian’s English to English Tumblr project has explored hundreds of topics that cause great confusion (or, at the very least, a bit of head-scratching) to people reading from different locations around the globe.

The project was launched by journalists in our US office after we found ourselves constantly defending ‘Americanisms’ in story threads.

We’d come to learn that an ‘Americanism’ was a vague descriptor that, yes, included how we phrased and spelled things, but also would come to gauge how we devoted coverage to celebrities, holidays, music and foods. This particular open thread about Thanksgiving, for example, will go down in infamy as the Americanism heard round the world, but exchanges like these were far more common:

15 October 2012 10:25pm
Among several users who wrote the Guardian with such allegations

I know I’m not the first to notice the increasing use of Americanisms in this paper, but it’s beginning to grate.

Guardian staff
15 October 2012 10:40pm
How would you phrase? Honest question.
American author of this piece

15 October 2012 10:53pm
I’d phrase it “Among several users who wrote to the Guardian”.

I should add, I’ve nothing against Americanisms (particularly from an American author!) but it really does appear out of place on these pages. To me at least.

Tumblr, a blogging platform famed for its ability to draw niche crowds, was a natural fit for English to English, which we billed as our attempt at bridging the cultural divide between readers in the UK and US. Martin Pengelly, Emma Keller and Adam Gabbatt are the office Brits willing to address everything from simple word definitions — here’s a video of Gabbatt explaining the Britishism “cheers” – to frustrations with Americans not being able to tell Cockney and Australian accents apart (a claim this writer disputes). For the Americans, Amanda Holpuch, Erin McCann and I attempted to explain America’s oftentimes unhealthy obsessions with open offices, the Super Bowl and chicken-fried steak.

We assign a cultural advantage to each cultural ‘translation’ – Prince Harry’s existence and popularity among Americans is clearly a UK advantage, for example – and competition at times gets a bit heated. UK readers handily won our Christmas foods popularity poll, spilling a lukewarm glass of mulled wine all over the hopes of eggnog-swilling Americans. The Americans have so far only managed to take home decisive victories in the fields of natural disasters and reality television, though we hope to rebound in 2014. Our Canadian and Australian readers also jump into the blog on occasion, hinting to us that US to UK may not be the only relationship we explore for much longer.

The most popular translations have always arrived directly from our readers, sent directly to our Tumblr inbox or tweeted using #Eng2Eng on Twitter. After a year of assisting our readers with such translations, we’ve learned two things. The first is that any serious cultural or linguistic differences we may have are best solved by poking a healthy bit of fun at each other. The second is that a lot can change in a year. The formerly endless comment streams debating whether or not two forms of spellings can appear on one website have certainly abated, which allows readers to get away from our differences to better discuss the story at hand.

As the Guardian’s readership continues to grow and evolve, we look forward to watching the discussion about our two cultures grow from straight ‘vest equals sweater’ translations into a true exploration of what it means to maintain our so-called ‘special relationship’ in all things entertainment, news and pop culture.

We leave you with a few of our all-time favorite/favourite translations:

‘US sweater = UK jumper’: This simple reader guide to cross-cultural fashion
Martin Pengelly on America’s growing love of round ball football
Sharona Cutts on a key difference in the meaning of ‘coffee’ in the US and Australia
Stuart Heritage talks reality TV
Erin McCann answers a reader: ‘May we have some clarification about scones?’
Ask-a-Brit: royal baby day
Katie Rogers on the global hell that is open offices
Erin McCann on the Americanization of crossword puzzles
Canada’s bacon superiority
America’s disgusting, gluttonous love of the Super Bowl
Martin Pengelly on Earl Grey vs herbal tea
Leave your own ‘translations’ in the comments below.

We’re always looking for more material. Submit your own translation in the comments below and we’ll feature the best submissions on english2english.tumblr.com.

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