Learning to Speak American
In 1993 I translated all 450 pages of Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony without ever using the past participle of the verb “get.” The book was to be published simultaneously by Knopf in New York and Jonathan Cape in London; to save money both editions were to be printed from the same galleys; so it would be important, I was told, to avoid any usages that might strike American readers as distractingly English or English readers as distractingly American. To my English ear “gotten” yells America and alters the whole feel of a sentence. I presumed it would be the same the other way round for Americans. Fortunately, given the high register of Calasso’s prose, “get” was not difficult to avoid.
Now in 2012 I am obliged to sign up to “gotten.” Commissioned by an American publisher to write a book that explores the Italian national character through an account of thirty years’ commuting and traveling on the country’s rail network, I am looking at an edit that transforms my English prose into American. I had already sorted out the spelling, in fact had written the book with an American spell check, and didn’t expect that there would be much else to do. Wrong. Almost at once there was a note saying that throughout the 300 pages my use of “carriage” for a passenger train car must be changed to “coach.” Since this is a book about trains and train travel there were ninety-eight such usages. There was also the problem that I had used the word “coach” to refer to a long distance bus. Apparently the twenty-four-hour clock was not acceptable, so the 17:25 Regionale from Milan to Verona had to become the 5:25 PM Regionale. Where I, in a discussion of prices, had written “a further 50 cents” the American edit required “a further 50 euro cents,” as if otherwise an American reader might imagine Italians were dealing in nickels and dimes.