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Liza’s Journey. Part 3

Chinese Whispers

In my last post, the narrator was describing the setting for his tale, somewhere on the outskirts of Moscow. Next, we are introduced to Liza, the main character. She is seventeen years old and lives in a dilapidated hut with her poor mother, having lost her father two years before. Liza is humble and conscientious, and works hard weaving, knitting, gathering flowers and berries, then trekking into Moscow to sell the fruits of her humble labours in order to provide for herself and her frail mother. One day, a handsome young gentleman offers to buy all of her flowers every day henceforth. However, when she goes back the next day, armed with the prettiest flowers, he is nowhere to be seen.

At this point, the Russian text reads:

У Лизы навернулись на глазах слезы; она поцеловала мать свою.

На другой день нарвала Лиза самых лучших ландышей и опять пошла с ними в город. Глаза ее тихонько чего-то искали. Многие хотели у нее купить цветы, но она отвечала, что они непродажные, и смотрела то в ту, то в другую сторону. Наступил вечер, надлежало возвратиться домой, и цветы были брошены в Москву-реку. «Никто не владей вами!» — сказала Лиза, чувствуя какую-то грусть в сердце своем.

(74 words)

Meanwhile, the rough first draft of my translation looks like this:

Liza’s eyes welled up with tears, and she kissed her mother.

The next day, Liza picked the very best lilies-of-the-valley and took them, once again, into the city. Her eyes silently cast around in search of something. Many people wanted to buy her flowers, but she replied that they were not for sale, and looked this way and that. Evening came, when she must return home, so the flowers were tossed into the Moscow River.

“You belong to no-one!” said Liza, feeling such sadness in her heart.

(87 words)

When I compared my version to the 1804 translation by John Battersby Elrington, this passage, like the rest of the story, looked very different.

Liza’s eyes overflowed with tears. She knew not why, and hid them in her mother’s bosom, encircling her aged neck with arms of polished ivory.

The next day, the poor, unconscious Liza selected all the finest flowers and hastened to Moscow. Her inquisitive eyes wandered in search of something. Many approached her little basket and would have purchased her flowers: but “No, they were not for sale,” and she continued to look, first on one side, then on the other. The evening fell, however, and she must return. Once more darting an enquiring look around, she pettishly threw the flowers into the Moskva and then sighed, “Now no one can have you.”

(112 words)

This English version is, on the whole, eloquent and pleasant to read, and because the translator was a contemporary of Karamzin, the language and style are appropriate to the period. Nevertheless, it veers away from my copy of the Russian text quite significantly. Where the original uses plain language, such as ‘она поцеловала мать свою’ (she kissed her mother), Elrington elaborates, adding extra information (note the difference in word count) about her mother’s bosom and aged neck, as well as Liza’s ‘arms of polished ivory’, which is puzzling.

After a little online research, I came across an article[1] which goes some way towards explaining this discrepancy. Apparently, it is not known for certain who John Battersby Elrington was, but it is possible that he was really Andreas Andersen Feldborg, a Danish author and teacher of English, and he may well have produced this English translation from an existing German one, not directly from the Russian. As in the game ‘Chinese Whispers’, the more languages a translation passes through, the greater the potential for changing the meaning.  It is easy to see how ‘welled up’ might become ‘overflowed’, or the passive mood become active, but where did the ‘arms of polished ivory’, ‘pettishly’, ‘sighed’ or ‘once more darting an enquiring look around’ come from? Is this artistic licence on the part of Elrington or the German translator before him, or were they working from a different version of the original text? After all, Karamzin was still alive at the time of translation, so it is quite plausible that subsequent edits and revisions occurred.

Aside from the occasional grammatical oddity, Elrington’s translation is a good read, especially for an English-speaking reader whith no knowledge of Russian. The elaborations and alterations, although odd, are nicely and sensitively written, even if they do make the English version rather more florid than the original story. Meanwhile, I find myself wondering: did Karamzin, an educated, well-travelled writer and historian, ever see this translation himself? 

[1] Cardiff Corvey, ‘Reading the Romantic Text’, Issue 12, Summer 2004: Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, Cardiff University.

Liza’s Journey. Part 2

Opening Lines

The book is open at page 1, a blank document glares white and empty on the computer screen, and a pencil is tucked behind my ear ready to make notes. Translation is about to commence.

All good writing manuals stress that the opening sentence of a book should make an impact, grabbing the reader’s attention straight away. Bland will not do. Therefore the same applies to a translation. If the author has invested time and effort into producing the perfect beginning, then it is the translator’s job to reflect that by producing an equally well-crafted version in the target language. Some novels start a with short, punchy opener, especially modern ones, while many classic authors go for the lengthy, more convoluted kind.

Karamzin’s opening of ‘Poor Liza’ is of the longer type and contains a lot of information, describing the narrator’s wanderings in the area around Moscow:

Может быть, никто из живущих в Москве не знает так хорошо окрестностей города сего, как я, потому что никто чаще моего не бывает в поле, никто более моего не бродит пешком, без плана, без цели — куда глаза глядят — по лугам и рощам, по холмам и равнинам.

So, how can I translate it so that it sounds good, whilst ensuring that all the information is there? First of all, I sketch out a literal translation:

It is possible that no-one living in Moscow knows the city as well as I do, because no-one is out and about as much as I, no-one wanders around on foot more than I do, without a plan, aimlessly – wherever the fancy takes me – through meadows and groves, over hills and plains.

Then I set the original version aside and read what I have written, asking myself whether it sounds natural and stylish, or whether it is really stilted ‘translationese’ – neither one language nor the other but an awkward combination of English words with Russian forms and idioms. Could I change ‘it is possible’ for ‘perhaps’? Using one word instead of three might be less clunky. Does ‘out and about’ feel a bit too modern? What about ‘roam abroad’ to give it more of a 19th century flavour? Is ‘on foot’ really needed? Surely wandering is something generally done on foot, so qualification is not essential. I have used ‘no-one’ three times in the same sentence, so should I change some of them? Casting a glance back at the Russian, I notice that Karamzin has used ‘никто’ in each instance, so I decide that ‘no-one’ is ok. I’m not 100% certain though, and I may come back and change my mind later. What about ‘groves’? What is a grove, really, and have I ever walked through one? Would orchards, woods, forests, avenues, copses, thickets or even just trees be more appropriate? Well, Karamzin used ‘рощам’ which is generally translated as ‘groves’ so I’ll stick to that. For now. Hmm…

After some more reflection, the opening sentence now looks like this:

Perhaps no-one living in Moscow knows the city as well as I do, because no-one roams around it as much as I, no-one has wandered its length and breadth more than I have, without a plan, aimlessly – wherever the fancy takes me – through meadows and groves, over hills and plains.

Now I think it sounds a little less wooden, but maybe there are a few more things that could do with tweaking. I’m still not sure about ‘groves’… Time to move on, though, otherwise I’ll never get through it all. I’ll go back through it all again later anyway.

The second sentence looks like this in Russian:

Всякое лето нахожу новые приятные места или в старых новые красоты.

It’s much shorter and simpler, and my English version reads:

Every summer I find new pleasant places, or new beauty in old ones.

…or perhaps:

Each summer I find delightful new places, or discover new beauty in old ones.

…and so on ad infinitum… I have to start somewhere, though, so I pick (mostly) the second version. For now, anyway. This means the first draft of the first paragraph is complete:

Perhaps no-one living in Moscow knows the city as well as I do, because no-one roams around it as much as I, no-one has wandered its length and breadth more than I have, without a plan, aimlessly – wherever the fancy takes me – through meadows and groves, over hills and plains. Every summer I find delightful new places or discover new beauty in old ones.

57 words done. 9,977 to go…

Liza’s Journey. Part 1

Who is Liza?

As the one-year anniversary of all kinds of restrictions, home schooling, disturbing news reports and toilet roll shortages approaches, I find myself in need of some kind of self-indulgent project to distract me from the outside world and help me to ground myself in these uncertain times. Throughout the past 11 months, I have turned more than ever to stories to transport me to a different place, and have read all sorts of books. However, I know no more intimate, immersive way of reading a book than to translate it.

The adventure I eventually decided upon will take me to Russia at the end of the 18th century, and will involve a combination of translating and writing. This labour of love will be a homage to one of the first books I ever read in Russian, Nikolai Karamzin’s tale Бедная Лиза [Byednaya Liza], or Poor Liza. Being very short, it lends itself nicely to language learners, unlike some of the lengthier pillars of Russian literature, so it provides a sense of achievement upon completion, but it is also a classic love story – a melodrama, even – that set my teenage heart a-flutter. Recently, several decades later, I re-read it, to find out whether it still had the same appeal, and I was not disappointed.

So, over the next few weeks and months, I plan to translate Poor Liza into English, and along the way, I will write a ‘travel diary’ about my translation journey. I will document the dilemmas encountered, the discoveries made, and any other experiences from the voyage, so that anyone else who may be interested can follow Liza as she travels from Russian into English.

Since Karamzin is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of Russian literature as we know it today, it is no surprise that Poor Liza has been translated before. One such attempt is the 1803 translation by John Battersby Elrington, which turns out to have a rather interesting story of its own. I will share more about this mysterious translation later.

But who is Liza? The Liza in this story is a girl from a poor peasant family. Her father is dead, and she lives with her mother in their dilapidated cottage outside Moscow. When Liza goes into the city to sell flowers, she meets a young nobleman, Erast, and the two fall in love. Erast visits Liza regularly, until one day he tells her he must go to fight in the war. Liza is sad to see him go, but she does not realise how much heartache still awaits her…

Now that the trip has been booked and everything is packed and ready, all that remains is to translate. Liza will be back shortly with an update on her progress!

Elegant English: Polishing your skills

It is with good reason that the French call modern languages ‘les langues vivantes’, or ‘living languages’. Languages are kept alive through usage and they change, evolve, grow or decline, depending on how widely and frequently they are spoken. Each individual speaker needs to practise the language regularly in order to improve or remain fluent otherwise, like a body without exercise, the brain’s linguistic ‘fitness’ will fade over time. With that in mind, how can we, as writers, keep our written language skills in good condition?

First of all, reading is essential. Reading helps to familiarise us with the language, and the more we do it, the deeper its patterns and subtleties become imprinted on our subconscious memory. If we want our knowledge of the language to be of the highest possible quality, though, it is also important to read plenty of good quality writing. Traditionally published books, magazines and newspapers are best for this purpose, as they are more likely to have been thoroughly edited and checked for errors before publication, whereas the language used on social media and the internet in general, although useful to a certain extent, will vary greatly in quality. Reading too much unedited material with lots of mistakes may have a detrimental effect on our own command of the language, normalising errors so that we are less likely to spot them.

At the risk of stating the obvious, reading should go hand-in-hand with writing. Any writer who wants to improvise their writing skills should practise by…. writing. Regularly. Having picked up good examples of language usage through reading, the mental and physical process of writing consolidates everything you have learned, making it your own. That way, using the language becomes increasingly natural and hopefully easier, as the more you do it the less you will have to keep stopping to think and question yourself.

As I have already mentioned in ‘Another Pair of Eyes’, feedback from another person can be a valuable learning tool. If someone else is able to look at your work and highlight any errors, the number of mistakes made should gradually reduce over time. Additionally, any comments about things you have done well will encourage you to do more of the same, so that you build up your arsenal of really good things you can do. Formal feedback, from a language tutor or editor, for example, will give a more thorough and methodical guide to help steer you in the direction of sure and steady improvement. Informal input from friends, relatives and the reading community can also be helpful, so make the most of opportunities to let others read what you have written.

There is a vast range of resources that can help writers to polish their work, and the list is constantly growing. Perhaps, though, the most basic requirement is a good dictionary and a reliable guide to grammar and usage. For UK English, I would personally recommend the Oxford English Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the Oxford Style Manual, but there are many other worthwhile references available both in print and online. On the internet, writers’ groups can be a good place to turn for support, and there is an endless supply of advice and information out there for writers. However, always approach online sources with caution and beware of marketing traps, scams and unhelpful advice which are just as freely available.

Although this is the tenth and final instalment of ‘Elegant English’, it is most certainly not the end. Watch this space for more news, information and advice coming very soon, and in the meantime, enjoy your writing!Elegant English lettering copy


Elegant English: Another pair of eyes

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Another pair of eyes is an essential tool for writers of any language background. Regardless of whether an author is writing in his or her native language, the old saying that ‘you can’t see the wood for trees’ is often very apt. An overconfident writer may be adamant that he has checked the text thoroughly himself and he is convinced that it contains no errors, while a more timid author may be hesitant to ask another person to take the trouble to read her work. From personal experience, even though I check my work several times in different ways before submission, sometimes the occasional small mistake still seems to slip through the net. It is as if they hide when they see my eyes coming, no matter how carefully I read. A wayward comma, or a mistake the spellchecker missed because it is listed in its memory as an acceptable word, such as ‘of’ when I meant ‘off’ or ‘tat’ which was supposed to be ‘that’, occasionally manage to pass under the radar without being detected.

Because we get used to our own most common errors, our brains don’t always notice them. However, the things we spot most easily vary from one person to another, so this problem is easily solved by asking someone else to take a look at our work. There are various categories of people we could ask for help, depending on the desired outcome. These include:

  • A friend or relation
  • A stranger willing to help for non-monetary payment
  • A paid beta-reader
  • A professional editor or proofreader
  • A native speaker

Each of these groups have different services to offer, so who we decide to approach will depend on the type of text and its intended purpose. A letter or story for a personal blog, for example, will certainly benefit from some degree of checking, but it may not be necessary to spend a lot of money on this process. A novel that is intended for publication and sale to the public, either through a publisher or via self-publishing channels, will probably fare better if it has been thoroughly reviewed by several people from a variety of backgrounds first. So, let us take a look at what each of these groups can offer.

Friends and relatives may well be the first port of call for most of us. Usually, they will be willing to do the work for free, or perhaps for some kind of favour in return. For the most part, they will do it because they like us, they care about us, and they want to help us succeed. This group will probably be quite happy to point out the occasional spelling mistake or errors in continuity, but they may find it more difficult to tell us that they didn’t like something, or that large parts of the text need substantial revising. Because they are nice, they may be reluctant to tell us the harsh truth, or they may simply be biased and think it is great, just because it is a part of you.

At that point, we must turn to strangers for the next level of feedback. The very fact that they do not know us means that their response will be more subjective. There are plenty of people out there willing to read books for no monetary payment. On the internet, for example, try looking in online writers’ groups for advice. The people there may be happy to help you out in return for free copies of books or, if they are a writer as well, you could offer to reciprocate by reading their book and giving them some kind of review. However, the degree of feedback this group is able to offer varies immensely, according to each person’s education, experience, and personal and cultural background.

A paid beta-reader will fulfil a similar function to the previous category, but for financial payment instead of favours. There are numerous sites on the internet where people offer this kind of service, from Goodreads and work-for-hire sites e.g. Fiverr, to personal websites and social media pages. Being an unregulated market, the prices and services on offer will vary immensely, so do proceed with care and take all possible precautions before entering into a contract and handing over any money. Beta-readers are generally people who enjoy reading, and many will specify the particular genres they prefer to work with. They will probably give you an honest report on what they thought about the book, which may be a useful guide to how readers might react to the book, but beta readers are not usually qualified professionals and unlikely to provide thorough and methodical feedback about every aspect of the style and language.

At this point, professional editors and proofreaders step in. Although this service will cost more, it will help you to ensure that your manuscript is the very best it can be in readiness for submission to a publisher or for self-publishing. Editing and proofreading, it must be noted, are not the same thing, and, if possible, it is advisable to have your work checked by at least one of each. Editing is more in-depth and time-consuming, and as a result it will have a higher price tag. Even within this category, there are different levels of service, such as copy-editing and developmental editing. A developmental edit will examine your book as a whole, checking its overall structure, setting, characterisation, plot and pace, and providing a report outlining any recommended major revisions. A copy-editor, meanwhile, will look more closely at the text, systematically checking features such as style, points of view, dialogue, consistency, use of language, etc., usually inserting comments and recommendations directly into the text.

Proofreading, on the other hand, is a final check before submission. During the editing process, it is possible that smaller errors may have be overlooked, or even introduced whilst adding, deleting and amending. A proofreader’s task, therefore, is to give the text one last tidy-up to eliminate any of these and, if the editor has done a good job, the proofreading stage should be relatively straightforward and less time-consuming.

Like beta-readers, editors and proofreaders are very easy to find on the internet, but aim to find someone reliable and highly-skilled who will provide good value for money. Look out for membership of professional bodies (such as CIEP in the UK), academic qualifications, past experience, etc. Personal recommendations from other writers can be very helpful here, too. Many editors will offer to edit a short extract free of charge, or at a reduced rate, as a sample of their work, which can be a useful way of seeing who that editor works and whether they are a good fit for you.

For anyone writing in a language that is not their native or main language, it is always a good idea to have your writing checked by a native speaker, especially if it is intended for publication. Even if the spelling and grammar are accurate, a native speaker can highlight anything which might sound slightly awkward or ‘foreign’, helping you to give your writing a more natural flow, and making it more pleasant and compelling to read. Native speakers, though, are not necessarily a separate category, as they can also be friends, beta-readers, editors or proof-readers as well.

In short, the more people who look at your work before submission, the better. Every person will look at it with a different pair of eyes, from their own relative angle and point of view, each one adding an extra layer of polish to the final draft. The publishing market is huge and highly competitive, and an under-prepared manuscript will have the odds stacked against it from the outset. The more eyes that have looked at it and helped to revise it before it is released into the world, the more likely it is to be taken seriously by publishers and/or readers.

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Elegant English: Believable dialogue

In a novel or short story, the dialogue is intended to reflect the way people speak. The more natural and realistic it sounds, the more believable it is, and the better the reader understands the character who is speaking. However, if an author were to write down a conversation exactly the way it sounded, the result would probably be very dull indeed, not to mention tedious to read.
Imagine two old ladies on a bus:
“Ee, Gladys, ‘ow are ye?”
“Oh, yer know. Ugh. Well, all right, I suppose. Ey, ‘ave you ‘erd they’re closing that shop down? Er… um… whatsitsname… Oh, you know. Next to the post office. That one.”
“Erm. Oh, ‘ang on a minute. I know the one. Pricewise. Is that the one you mean?”
“Yes. Pricewise. That’s the one. Pricewise. Well, anyway, er, I read in yesterday’s paper it’s going to close next week. Or was it the week after? I think they said next week.”
“Oh. Hum. I don’t really go in there much.”
“Don’t you? Oh, I pop in a lot. Well, a couple of times a week, maybe. Yes, about that. Well, not every week, I suppose. I only went in once last week. To get some tea bags. And a packet of biscuits.”
Not very interesting to read, is it? In real life, we use a lot of noises like ‘erm’, ‘hum’, ‘oh’, ‘ah’, ‘ugh’, and all kinds of other sounds, as well as repetition and a selection of meaningless words and phrases, just to fill the gaps in a conversation. In spoken language, this is a good thing, because gaps are awkward and silence can be boring, and the sounds themselves express some kind of basic emotion or meaning as well. In written dialogue, though, these extra additions have the opposite effect, as they contribute nothing to the conversation itself, and simply make it drag on for longer, so that is uninteresting. Therefore, good written dialogue must aim to mimic only the most useful bits of a spoken conversation. The parts that drive the action forward, or add to a character’s portrayal. So, here is a more condensed version of the two ladies’ conversation:
“Hello, Gladys. How are you?”
“All right, I suppose. By the way, have you heard they’re closing that shop down? The one next to the post office.”
“Do you mean Pricewise?”
“Yes, that’s the one. I read in yesterday’s paper that it’s going to close next week.”
“I don’t really go in there much.”
“Don’t you? I pop in a couple of times a week.”
Did you find the second version easier to read and understand? With some added detail about their appearance, expressions, gestures and setting, the conversation might begin to come alive somewhat, so that the readers feel as if they are there on the bus with the ladies.
Another important point to bear in mind when writing dialogue is the style and register. Just because something works well for Charles Dickens or Agatha Christie, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work in a novel set in the twenty-first century. Language is constantly changing, and what was considered normal a few decades (or centuries) ago, may seem quaint, or even comical now. Tolkien’s beautifully eloquent prose, for example, would be completely out of place in a fast-paced Dan Brown adventure, while modern slang would be painfully wrong in one of Georgette Heyer’s period novels.
Similarly, language usage varies from one region to another, as already discussed in a previous section, so make sure that American characters do not use specifically British expressions, for example, and vice versa.
The way language is used even changes subtly from one character to another. While one person may speak rather formally, another may use slang or dialect, yet another may have a stutter or an accent, and some may be more verbose while others are timid and economical with words. The way people speak is often a good indicator of character, and in fiction it is a useful tool for portraying people by ‘showing’ instead of ‘telling’. When a character speaks, he or she is showing the reader what kind of person they are, without the author having to intervene by stating what the person is like. In a well-written piece of dialogue, it may be possible to tell the characters apart just from the way they speak, as we would when listening to a spoken conversation.
When used well, conversation can be an excellent tool to help the writer with characterisation, setting and plot development. However, to avoid dialogue which sounds incongruous or out of place, take care to use the right style, always bearing in mind the period, place and type of person who is speaking. Elegant English lettering copy

Elegant English: Punchy titles

The title of your book is the first part anyone will read. If it doesn’t immediately grab the readers’ attention, they might not even open the cover, no matter how interesting it may be on the inside. A bad title can destroy a book’s chance of success, whereas a good one will be an asset, the perfect accompaniment to an excellent story. Above all, make sure that the title is written correctly. A spelling or grammar error in the title will put readers off immediately.

A great title is generally short and catchy. While there are a few exceptions, brevity is usually best. Names can be an easy way around this, and you would be in good company, as many authors have chosen this option over the centuries, e.g. ‘Hamlet’, ‘Emma’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘Madame Bovary’, ‘Anna Karenina’, and so on. Enigmatic titles work well, as the reader is intrigued and wants to find out more. If the title reveals too much of the story, there is no point reading on, as it is obvious what is going to happen. For example, if Jane Austen had called her famous novel ‘Falling in Love with Mr Darcy’, it wouldn’t seem anywhere near as appealing as ‘Pride and Prejudice’. If the first book in the Harry Potter series was called ‘Harry Potter: Year One’, it would sound quite dull and ordinary, whereas dropping ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ (or ‘The Sorcerer’s Stone’ if you’re in America) into the title adds an air of mystery, teasing the reader.

Naturally, the title must be relevant to the story in some way, but the connection does not need to be obvious from the outset. Personally, I love that moment of revelation when, in the middle of reading a book, the title’s connection suddenly becomes clear.

Here are few titles I particularly like:

‘Dark Matter’, by Michelle Paver (mysterious, but also scientific, like the story)

‘Half of a Yellow Sun,’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (the Biafran flag, as this book is about the Biafran war)

‘It’, by Stephen King (titles don’t come much shorter than this one!)

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, by Harper Lee (what does killing a mockingbird have to do with a rape trial and race relations? You’ll need to read the book to find out)

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Elegant English: English English and other variants

English, as its name suggests, originated in England, from a melting-pot of languages brought here by all the different races who invaded our country throughout history. Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Romans and Normans all came across the sea with their own languages, and left a lasting imprint on the way the native Britons spoke. Later, as the country developed its navigational and seafaring abilities, English itself was exported around the world, for better or worse, by all kinds of explorers, missionaries, traders, conquerors and settlers. As a result, English is now widely spoken in many corners of the globe, but particularly in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many former colonies in Asia and Africa. Although these places all share a common language, though, variations have gradually developed in the way it is used, brought about by cultural and geographical factors, as well as usage over a long period of time.

Probably the two main variants of English in our modern world are UK and US English. Although British and American people generally have little difficulty understanding each other, there are some specific differences in usage, and it is often clear, even from accent-free written English, whether a person is Britain or American.

First of all, there are certain differences in spelling rules. Computer spellcheckers are usually equipped with both variants and will change colour to color, grey to gray, prioritise to prioritize, or vice versa, depending on the variant selected. There are also particular words which differ from one region to the other. For example, British people go on holiday, whereas Americans would take a vacation; here in Britain, we would eat biscuits, while Americans enjoy cookies, and in Britain, you might use a lift, but Americans go up in elevators. The list is very long. Then there are other words used in both variants, but which have different meanings. As a result asking for vests, pants and suspenders in a clothing shop/store, will get you quite different items, depending which side of the Atlantic you are on, so be careful what you ask for! The internet is awash with lists of equivalent US and UK vocabulary and spellings, so if you are interested, a simple search should bring up plenty of useful resources.

However, the difference between UK and US English goes much deeper than changing a few spellings and switching flats to apartments and rubbish to trash. American and British people also use subtly different patterns of speech with varying emphasis and syntax. For example, when speaking, Americans sometimes form questions by making a statement followed by ‘right’, whereas British speakers would be more likely to follow traditional grammatical patterns. Prepositions are often used differently, and the formation and meaning of idioms can vary, too. Here are a couple of examples:

US          ‘You’re joking, right?’

UK          ‘Are you joking?’ or ‘You’re joking, aren’t you?’


US          ‘I get up at seven Monday through Friday, but later on weekends.’

UK          ‘I get up at seven from Monday to Friday, but later at the weekends.’


Although US and UK English are perhaps the most widely discussed, there are plenty of other variants, too, with a range of similarities and differences, making the English language incredibly rich in nuance and cultural flavour. In some fields, though, there is an increasing trend towards an international version of English. Particularly popular in the world of business and the global internet community, this style of English favours plainer expressions with fewer idioms, so that it can be more easily understood by people in any part of the world. In certain situations, this is a good thing, as it aids and promotes communication between the parties concerned, making business and other cross-cultural relationships more effective. In literature, though, it is not necessarily such a great idea, as it robs the writing of an extra dimension which could make it more interesting. Expressions and idioms specific to a regional setting add character to a text, and creative use of language makes it more interesting and compelling, whereas plain, easy-to-understand language may leave it dull, lacklustre, and not particularly exciting to read.

Identifying variants can be difficult, especially for someone who has not lived for a long time in an English-speaking country. For a writer, experimenting with different versions can be problematic unless the writer is familiar with the regional nuances. As a British native, for example, I can recognise American patterns of speech, but am reluctant to write anything which claims to be American English, as an American person would probably spot plenty of flaws I wasn’t aware of!

In the twenty-first century, the increasing influence of TV, internet and global travel is gradually blurring the boundaries between regional variants. Nevertheless, they do still exist, and an author wishing to make use of them must be aware of the effects they produce. A Victorian Englishman would not use ‘gonna’, for example, while a streetwise youth in downtown New York would be unlikely to refer to his friends as ‘chap’ or ‘fellow’. As a general rule, the best results are produced when writers use the version they are most familiar with. If fantasy or science-fiction are your speciality, though, you could consider experimenting with a whole new variant – a new language for a new world!

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Avana. The Red Dragon Awakens.

The English version of the Avana trilogy is now complete! The Red Dragon Awakens is the third part of this story set in ancient Ireland. Avana and the elementalists must help the people of the land of Erin to overcome the forces of darkness before the army of the Underworld invades the country. Annie Lavigne’s tale of druids and demons explores the nature of friendship and love as two warring peoples, the Ulaid and the Connachta, struggle to reconcile their differences and work together to free the Emerald Isle from the clutches of evil. I’ve had so much fun working on this romantic fantasy series which is simply and sensitively told, and would recommend it to anyone 16+ who is a fan of the genre.

The Red Dragon Awakens (Avana, book 3) by [Annie Lavigne, Helen Hagon]

Elegant English: Should I write in English?

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This is a question I have been asked more than once, by authors whose primary language is not English, and there are many different answers, depending on why, what and how you are writing. In some ways, it is a wonderful predicament to be in, as most writers are only able to write in one language and do not have a choice.

So, first of all, why are you writing? If it is purely for personal enjoyment, then you should write in whichever language gives you the most pleasure. I know that my own written Russian, French or German are far from perfect, even though I read them very well, but I have occasionally penned a few lines in a journal, or written letters to friends, just for fun. On the other hand, if your writing is intended for publication and sales, the question requires more careful consideration. In this case, you need to adopt a realistic approach. How fluent is your written English, really? Speaking a language fluently and writing it are two very different skills, and a person who has mastered one of them is not necessarily equally skilled at the other. Would your written English require heavy editing to bring it to a publishable standard, which may cost a lot of time and money? If you are unsure, it may be worth showing a sample to an editor or other native speaker and asking their advice. Alternatively, would you feel more comfortable writing in another language and sharing your work with speakers of that language instead? Then you would have the option of having your writing translated into English later by a professional.

Secondly, what are you writing? The best solution for someone writing a business contract or scientific paper may not be the same as for the author of a novel. What matters most in a technical or business text is factual accuracy. This kind of document is intended to communicate information correctly and efficiently. As long as the details are conveyed effectively, and the reader is able to understand the content, then the writer has succeeded. A work of literature, though, requires much more. Readers will not want to buy a book if it is boring. A novel with style, flair, and natural, flowing language has a far better chance of selling well than something that feels awkward and artificial, no matter how accurate the grammar and spelling might be. That does not mean, of course, that you should not write in English, but do bear in mind that some extra input from native speakers may be a valuable ingredient to add to your mixture.

How you write could also indicate which language to write in. Do ideas come to you in a different language, and then you have to translate them into English in order to commit them to paper? If so, unless you have specifically been asked to write in English, or wish to set yourself an intellectual challenge, writing directly in your principle language may be easier, and therefore a much pleasanter experience with fewer potential headaches.

Many non-native speakers are tempted to write in English for financial reasons. English is the most widely-spoken language in the world, which means that the market for English-language writing is huge. However, it is also true that this market is already being supplied by a vast community of highly able writers and the competition is fierce. Fame and fortune are elusive treats reserved for the lucky few, and even the most talented writers can struggle to make money from writing. So, if money is your motivation, I would urge you to write in whichever language you are able to produce the most beautiful prose or poetry, thereby giving you the best chance of standing up to the competition. However, be aware that financial success is not guaranteed, regardless of the quality of your writing.

In short, unless you have specific instructions, the language you write in should be the same language that your soul sings in. Choose the language you feel most comfortable using to express yourself, and enjoy every moment of the process. If it still needs a little polish afterwards, don’t be afraid to ask for someone else’s input. But avoid being led astray by the elusive charms of money.Elegant English lettering copy