The Chimera of International English

9 Dec 2015 | Language

When a client comes to us with a site internationalisation project, we often get the request to translate into international English- because clients think it will get them the wide audience they desire. Unfortunately, international English is a myth, and we’re going to explain why.

International English: where art thou?

First of all, let us say that we understand the very legitimate request to translate into one language instead of two or three variants: the cost of a translation project can be quite significant and it would certainly be easier to have one language that responds to all the Anglophone world’s needs.

After all, English speakers seem to understand each other very well and communicate as well as the French do with Belgians or the French-speaking Swiss. However, translation is sometimes always a matter of accuracy. In speaking English, it’s different: there is less rigour and you can be approximate when you’re a US English native talking to an Aussie native (and this can be identified in case there’s an abrupt silence in the conversation!). In writing there is no such flexibility. The content needs to be perfectly adapted to the culture of that English-speaking country, to inspire confidence in the reader. Therefore, international English is a bit of a chimera.

What are the different variants of English?

The difficulty in the case of English is that, while it comes from the UK, it has evolved in very different ways in the old English empire’s colonies. British English is the standard in Europe, but the United States variant of English has some important differences: its simplified spelling, for example, and let’s not forget they still use the imperial units of measurement. Old British colonies (Australia, Canada, and New Zealand notably) use British spelling, but they are under the heavy influence of American media at the same time, so this fact will also put its mark on language usage in these countries. To sum up, we have British English and US English which are very obviously different, and other variants according to country.

This probably explains the fact that the English language isn’t “supervised” by an authority like the Académie française for French; there is no official “correct” variant, merely different usage of English from one country to another.

What’s the problem if we use different variants of English in one text?

Mélanger plusieurs variantes d'anglaisFrom the point of view of spelling, this would result in a poorly-written text, where the same word may appear with two different spellings, e.g. colour (UK) / color (US), cheque (UK) / check (US), catalogue (UK), catalog (US), analyse (UK) / analyze (US), among others. US English tends to simplify.

From the point of view of grammar, what looks okay in one variant will look like a mistake in the other. The British English will say “the government are” (plural) whereas Americans will say “the government is” (singular). Use of prepositions varies wildly from British to American English; for example, the Brits say “at the weekend”, for Americans it can only be “on the weekend”.

There is also the important matter of vocabulary. The list of differences is longer than you might think: you’d use gas to make your car run in the US, and petrol in the UK; “thong” designates skimpy knickers/panties in UK English and US English (of course “knickers” are “panties” in US English), while in Australian English thongs are flip-flops, and let’s not forget flip-flops are “jandals” in New Zealand. There are many flavours of English around the world.

Without the option of international English, how do I pick the right variant?

We’ve seen how not sticking to one variant can lead to confusion. Whichever type of English you should choose in the end, the main thing is to keep consistency, and think of which market you are targeting. Other considerations to take into account are: which measurement system to use (metric/imperial), date and hour formats (12/08/2015 is December 8th in the US, and the 12th of August in Europe). The ground floor (bottom-most floor) is “ground floor” in the UK and “first floor” in the US.

Besides translation, it is localisation that allows you to adapt your content to your target: it is for this reason that we pick our translators for the quality of their work as well as for their ability to adapt the translation to the variant of English of your choice. As an example, for a translation into American English, we would call on our preferred American translators.

Now that we’ve banished the notion of international English, pop over to this page so we can advise you!