Skip to content

Blog Dorine: British English or American English; which to choose?

In this blog, Dorine Stevens-Engels, in-house legal translator (English) at legal and financial translation agency Fiducia, tells us more about when to choose British or American English.

When translating into English, you often have to choose between British or American English. In all translation jobs, this naturally depends on the client’s preference, who often tells you what they want when giving the assignment. However, if the client doesn’t take a position on this matter, or leaves it to you, the translator, to decide, this choice can only be based on one thing: the source text in front of you.

For legal translations, this is fairly easy to determine. I often translate agreements, general terms and conditions, and from time to time a judgment or procedural document comes along. These types of documents always refer to several parties. If one of them is American, I translate into American English. In all other cases, I translate into British English. Even if the parties have nothing at all to do with English-speaking countries, for instance if they are simply two Dutch parties. Why? As soon as I started as a legal translator, I was taught this was standard practice.

The English language “originated” in the United Kingdom, as did the leading reference works on the English language.

Frequently used arguments are, for instance, that the UK is simply geographically closer to the Netherlands, that the English language basically “originated” there, and that the leading reference works on the English language , such as the Oxford English Dictionary, were created in British territory. Or you’re an anglophile like me.

I’m sure there are people who think differently and prefer US spelling. The decisive factor, however, is that we are part of the European Union, which always translates into British English. This is why we usually adhere to the EU standard when we translate. But we will switch to US spelling if the text or client require it, of course.

Differences between American and British English

So what are the actual differences between American and British English? There aren’t many, in truth; it’s just a matter of paying close attention and going through a number of standard steps. This is especially important when using machine translation given the fact that DeepL usually provides American English translations. Also, US spelling is quite easily missed.

Standard steps

Nothing annoys me quite like the use of both types of English in a single text. Luckily, we translators/editors love combing through the text to find those inconsistencies.

My standard actions when checking a translation include:

1) conducting a general search for “-iz-” to change it to “-is-” (such as “recognize” and “realize”), and

2) after completing the translation in Word, performing a spellcheck with “English (United Kingdom)” to change any instances of “-or” to “-our” (as in “behavior” and “color”) and “-er” to “-re” (such as “center” and “meter”).

And don’t expect anyone to have exact knowledge of what spelling goes with what language area, for there is no consistency to be found there. Take the verb “to fulfil”, which will always be “fulfill” in DeepL (because it generates mostly American English). After making this small adjustment, my brain concludes: “Got it; British English uses single consonants.” But then I suddenly come across a conjugation of “to focus” and my entire frame of reference collapses again (like translation, exaggeration is quite the skill). The fact is that when you conjugate “to focus”, in British English it will be “focusses” and “focussing”, while American English spells “focuses” and “focusing”.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to look this up. Writing about it does seem to help me remember, so this probably won’t be the last time I write about a translation issue.

Dave van den Akker Fiducia

How can we help?