Translating Into a ‘Forked Tongue’:

Helping L2 Translators Strive for Consistency with British, American, and Other Varieties of English

By Daniel Sax (University of Social Sciences & Humanities, Poland)

Abstract & Keywords

In this paper we propose ways to help L2 translators mitigate the potential negative impact on their L2 English production caused by mixed exposure to English varieties. First we illustrate the problem by describing a set of real-life cases (involving Polish-English translation). We go on to examine a range of recently published sources that contain information potentially useful to L2 translators in similar situations – offering both descriptive (corpus-derived) information on English varieties, as well as prescriptive recommendations. Then we suggest three ways this useful information may be drawn together and presented for easier consumption, with L2 translators’ and translator trainees’ specific needs in mind. A set of tools designed in this manner should help L2 translators make better-informed choices and encourage conscious varietal specialization in their L2 output.

Keywords: American English, British English, L2 translation, Polish-English translation, translator training, varieties of English

©inTRAlinea & Daniel Sax (2014).
"Translating Into a ‘Forked Tongue’:"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Challenges in Translation Pedagogy
Edited by: Maria Piotrowska & Sergiy Tyupa
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
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1. Introduction

1.1 The L2 translator’s needs

While the longstanding traditional view has been that professional translators should normally translate solely into their mother tongue (L1, or ‘A’ language), it is now increasingly recognised that it is quite a common practice in many countries for translators to be called upon to translate into their second language (L2, or ‘B’ language) as part of their normal professional activity (Campbell 1998; Grossman et al. 2000; St. John 2003; Pokorn 2005). This is certainly true, for instance, in Poland (the particular case to be discussed herein), where L2 translation is a mainstay for numerous professional translators. Indeed, in many countries the realisation that ‘translation into English as a non-mother tongue has become a fact of modern life for which we need to train our future professional’ (Snell-Hornby 2000: 37) is encouraging translator trainers to devote greater attention to developing materials and tools to more effectively teach and support L2 translation.

One issue faced by L2 translators working into English, especially those who reside outside a native English-speaking country (for instance in Poland), is that they are likely to have been exposed to a mixture of different varieties of English. This may vary depending on their educational history and travel/work experience, their media consumption habits, their instructors’ backgrounds (if they have had formal training), and so on.

Such diverse exposure to English varieties can be a double-edged sword for translators: on the one hand, it is enriching for those working from English as an L2 source language, helping them successfully understand diverse source material. Yet on the other hand, translators working into English as an L2 target language may have unconsciously absorbed differing, sometimes conflicting standards into their L2 English production. If left unstructured, diverse exposure to English varieties can and often does detract from the ability of L2 translators to shape an English text consciously and consistently, with the needs and expectations of a particular target audience firmly in mind.

The importance of this is stressed, for instance, by functionalist approaches to translation, which bring recipients’ expectations to the fore (e.g. Nord 1997). It is also recognised by the EN15038 European Quality Standard for Translation Services, particularly when it speaks of the need for ‘adaptation of the translation to the agreed target group’ and attention paid to ‘language variants’ and ‘regional standards’ (European Committee for Standardization 2006: sections 5.3.3 and 5.4.1).

The objective of this paper, therefore, is to put forward suggestions for how to mitigate this potential negative impact of mixed exposure to English varieties – through the sensible design of fast-access, easy-to-use training materials and tools that promote a structured awareness of English varieties for L2 translators working into English.

1.2 English as a ‘Forked Tongue’

The main varieties at issue here are, of course, British English and American English, which have aptly been dubbed the ‘two streams of English’ (Mencken 1936; Algeo 1986). The importance of an ability to sensibly navigate the differences between these two varieties is pointed out, for instance, by one widely used textbook on Polish-English translation, which warns that consciously ‘using borrowings from American English in British English is one thing’ but producing ‘an Anglo-American mish-mash is another’ (Korzeniowska and Kuhiwczak 1994: 21). This warning echoes the demands of numerous style guides and sets of writing instructions from major international publishers – Elsevier, for instance, stipulates that any texts submitted to it must be written ‘in good English (American or British usage is accepted, but not a mixture of these)’.[1]

Unfortunately, however, in practice this issue is frequently under-stressed both in L2 translator training, and even in English teaching in general. For example, Piotrowska (2010: 10) notes that there is ‘no tendency among Polish translators [working from English] to specialise in one of the two varieties’, and a similar assertion may unfortunately be ventured for many Polish translators working into English as L2. Young and Walsh (2010: 123) even found that non-native teachers of English from various countries oftentimes ‘work without any clear idea of ‘which English’ was the target.’

To the extent that US/UK differences are taught at Polish universities, specifically to L2 translator trainees, or more generally to students of English, they are usually presented in oversimplified fashion. Considerable attention is typically devoted to differences in pronunciation (in dedicated ‘phonetics’ modules). Otherwise, US/UK differences are boiled down to a few dozen possibly problematic vocabulary items (with attention mostly paid to potentially humorous transatlantic misunderstandings based on pairs such as pants vs. underwear, bum belt vs. fanny pack), plus a few points of grammar and phraseology (got vs. gotten, in hospital vs. in the hospital) and some spelling differences (analyse vs analyze, fulfil vs fulfill). Trainees all too often have the impression that these non-pronunciation differences are relatively easy to ignore, or even that spell-checking and grammar-checking functions of word-processing software may be relied upon to clear up most issues.

The reality, however, is that there is a very complex array of oftentimes subtle, yet important, differences between the US and UK varieties, embracing not just lexis but also punctuation standards, grammar patterns, phraseology, and so on. This is evidenced by the fact that US/UK differences are the topic of numerous guidebooks, glossaries, linguistic studies and usage guides, many of them primarily addressed to native English speakers (a number of these will be cited below). Translators working into English as L2, particularly those residing in non-English-speaking countries and exposed to a mixture of varieties, might be seen as faced not with a single target to contend with, but with (at least) two. In this sense, the target tongue is one that is ‘forked’ (to borrow a metaphor from Dovring 1997) – a tongue with a single root, but two different ends.

One major reason why a structured awareness of US/UK differences is important for L2 translators is that recipients who are native speakers of one variety of English – again depending to some extent on their past exposure – are prone to recognise admixtures of the lexis, grammar patterns, phraseology, and so on, of another variety as mistakes made by a non-native translator, rather than as viable constructions taken from one variety and grafted into another. L2 translators aiming to produce a translation that consistently complies with the usage expectations of members of one of the native English communities, therefore, need to have a clear sense of what those usage expectations are. Indeed, in this sense the British/American divide often brings translators to face a ‘fork’ in the road (to further stretch the metaphor), forcing them to take either one route or the other, offering little or nothing in the way of acceptable middle ground or alternative routes. It is therefore quite natural and sensible for L2 translators to specialise in one English variety, much as L1 translators do.

On the other hand, as we will illustrate below, sometimes US/UK differences are not as black-and-white as they are often made out to be (i.e. it is certainly not always the case that one can say: ‘this is exclusively American, that is exclusively British’). Thus, depending on the source text and within reasonable limits, it may be possible to consciously strive to neutralise the US/UK dichotomy, particularly when seeking to address an ‘international’ audience (meaning a mixed-native and/or non-native audience) (Stewart 2013). Being able to pitch a text consistently for an American, English, or possibly international audience, in accordance with a client’s expressed expectations or implicit needs, as well as to consciously recognise one’s own potential limitations in this regard, requires structured awareness of US/UK differences – on the part of all translators into English, but especially L2 translators.

This paper will be concerned with ways of promoting that awareness, mainly with respect to the US/UK varieties. Of course, depending on their personal experience and geographical location, L2 translators may have had exposure to other native varieties (Irish, Scottish, Australian, Canadian, and so on), as well as to various forms of non-native English (English as a Lingua Franca, or ELF). In Poland and other continental European countries, in particular, translators are increasingly exposed to what is known as ‘Euro English’ or ‘EU English’ (Crystal 1997: 136), mainly characterised by certain specialised terminology and distinctive grammatical structures calqued from continental European languages. As an L2 target language, therefore, English may actually be a ‘forked tongue’ with more than two ends. In this paper, we will also consider in passing how the methods proposed herein for structuring L2 translators’ awareness of US/UK differences can be extended to other international varieties, especially with respect to Euro English.

These days there is, of course, an increasing awareness that not all L2 translators necessarily need to strive to translate with ‘native-like’ quality, or even that the notion of ‘native-like’ quality is not necessarily a well-defined or useful one (Pokorn 2005). The rising recognition of ELF’s real usage and its potential viability as an L2 translation target (Anderman and Rogers 2007; House 2013) – at least for some translators, for certain purposes, and for some kinds of clients – forces us to recognise that perhaps not every L2 translator working into English needs to strive for consistent American usage, British usage, or otherwise, as we are advocating here. For L2 translators whose conscious target is ELF, these various varieties may be ‘all English’ in some fundamental sense, and thus mixing native and even non-native varieties of English together may sometimes not pose such a grave stylistic problem. But even then, there remains the question of ultimate intelligibility to the intended audience, and so L2 translators whose conscious target is ELF will certainly also benefit from more structured awareness of English varieties, if only to steer clear of potential misunderstandings (Stewart 2013).

2. Cases

Let us illustrate these points by considering several real-life cases observed by the present author, involving English usage issues and conflicting feedback faced by native Polish translators working into English as L2 (all were the present author’s trainees, or former trainees). 


One university student submitted a final project for a translation workshop class, which involved translating the website of a Polish automotive-industry company, and this ultimately led to some paid freelance translation work for the same company. In one source text, the student-translator encountered the Polish auto-part term tłumik. The student was aware from previous classwork that automotive terminology is particularly rife with transatlantic differences, and so recognised that silencer was a British equivalent to the Polish term, whereas muffler was an American equivalent. However, the company specifically asked for the translator to maintain neutrality with respect to UK/US differences, if at all possible, explaining that it wanted its website to be addressed ‘to an international audience’. Some effort spent at dictionary searching and Googling had left the fledgling translator without any clear answer to the question: Which one of the two, silencer or muffler, might represent a ‘safer’ international bet and help the translator comply with the client’s request?


One training programme graduate, by then working for the large Polish branch of an international law office as a junior translator, had her L2 translations into English regularly edited by in-house copy-editors situated outside of Poland. In one particular case, she had translated the Polish phrase uznanie roszczeń as acknowledgment of claims, to which the native editor added an ‘e’ to yield acknowledgement of claims (herein we will underline the particular e in question purely for the sake of clarity). In a subsequent translation, the same translator tried to learn from and comply with this previous advice, writing acknowledgement of claims, only this time to find that the ‘e’ in question had been deleted by the copy-editor (presumably a different one). This translator faced the conundrum of interpreting the conflicting guidance: Was this simply a case of transatlantic variation, or was one option incorrect and the other correct?


A student midway through a five-year master’s programme with a specialisation in translation, while taking a written test for a class on Polish-English (L2) translation, had rendered the Polish phrase na tym samym poziomie jak using the English idiom on par with. This was marked as a grammar error by the course instructor, who clarified that an indefinite article was required: on a par with. One year later, on a similar test for a different instructor, the same student wrote on a par with in a similar context, only to find that this time the indefinite article was marked as unnecessary and incorrect. Observing that both versions of the phrase (with and without the article) turned up in Google and online dictionaries, the translator trainee had trouble reconciling the conflicting instructions and deciding whether to challenge the second instructor on the point.


A professional L2 translator produced an English translation of a research article in Polish, which the authors stated they intended to submit in English to ‘one of the renowned international journals on physical therapy’. In it, the translator had rendered the Polish phrase szukanie optymalnego treningu, który poprawi równowagę as seeking an optimal exercise program which will improve balance. This English version was then reviewed by peer researchers, one of whom provided some preliminary grammatical and stylistic corrections. One of these corrections was to replace the relative pronoun which with that, to yield seeking an optimal exercise program that will improve balance. The authors complied with this suggestion, understanding that a mistake had been made here by the translator. Ultimately, the paper was rejected by this first journal, and so the authors submitted it to another, where it was finally accepted for publication. The authors (and translator) were surprised when this time the journal’s in-house copy editor changed the previous peer reviewer’s that back to which. Which version was right? Had the translator made a mistake, or not?

3. Where to turn?

Given that translators working into their L2 are seen as particularly dependent on tools, training, guidebooks, and other information sources (St. John 2003: 1), let us now examine the existing kinds of tools and resources that L2 translators facing situations like those above may have recourse to, paying particular attention to their potential disadvantages in practice.

3.1 Bilingual and monolingual dictionaries

Each of the two leading general-purpose Polish-to-English dictionaries overtly tends to focus on one of the two main varieties: the ‘Oxford-PWN’ dictionary (Linde-Usiekniewicz 2004) concentrates on British English while tagging selected spelling variants/equivalents as ‘US’, whereas the ‘Kościuszko’ dictionary (Fisiak 2003) focuses on American English while tagging selected variants/equivalents as ‘Br’ (British). In practice, however, neither of these dictionaries is reliably consistent in providing and marking transatlantic equivalents. For instance, in its entry for Polish tłumik (the lexical item of particular interest to the translator in Case 1 above), the Oxford-PWN dictionary lists only ‘silencer’ and fails to make any mention of US ‘muffler’; it thus seems to indicate that ‘silencer’ is a viable international term for the automotive component.

The Kościuszko dictionary, on the other hand, fares a bit better in this particular case, offering ‘muffler’ (untagged as to variety) alongside the alternative ‘silencer’ (tagged as ‘Br’). However, even this is insufficient information for the fledging L2 translator described in Case 1. How should this ‘Br’ tag properly be interpreted: as a translation option that is predominantly British? One that is also British? One that is exclusively British? By the same token, by leaving the first equivalent, ‘muffler’, untagged, the Kościuszko dictionary leaves it unclear whether this term is used exclusively in the US (as is possibly to be deduced from the dictionary’s avowed American English slant?), or whether it might represent the sought-after international option, understood on both sides of the Atlantic.

The major web-based Polish-English dictionaries for general purposes (such as,, also offer the same translator no conclusive information in this respect. Monolingual dictionaries, in turn, such as Webster’s Third (1986) and especially the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (2010), and perhaps most admirably the learner’s dictionary Longman Słownik Współczesny (Fisiak et al. 2011) do provide more guidance, making it quite clear that one term is British and the other American, but still do not readily suggest to our translator from Case 1 whether one of them might have greater transatlantic or international viability.

The reason for this, of course, is that neither option is used in the desired meaning in the other version of English. As is frequently the case with automotive terms, here the British vs. American divide is an absolute, black-and-white one, leaving the translator in Case 1 with no option but to make an informed choice (opting for the British equivalent, the American equivalent, or perhaps some judicious combination of both for safekeeping), possibly also to inform his client in this respect and thus help reshape more realistic client expectations.

Such know-how is particularly important for L2 translators working into English in certain specific thematic fields (such as the automotive industry), but is of a kind that is not easily extracted from existing general-purpose dictionary tools. Moreover, this same problem of poor varietal tagging is even more acute in existing Polish-English dictionaries for special purposes (such as those covering technical or legal terminology).

3.2 Descriptive Resources

Where else might L2 translators turn for more comprehensive help in resolving issues involving varieties of English? In fact, there is a wealth of both descriptive and prescriptive resources dealing with transatlantic differences. US vs. UK differences have been the subject of numerous ‘dictionaries’ or glossaries published in recent years, intended to serve non-linguist native speakers of one variety of English as (largely humorous) guides to the other (e.g. Smith 2006; Davies 2007; Mazur 2012). Also available are numerous reference books on US/UK differences intended for linguists (e.g. Carvey 1952; Strevens 1972; Janicki 1995).

A potential shortcoming shared by both sorts of descriptive guides is that, by their very nature, they focus on highlighting clear-cut differences between the British and American varieties. As such, they sometimes have the opposite flaw as found in the aforementioned dictionaries, namely the flaw of overstating those differences, implying that many if not all US vs. UK tendencies are one-way-or-the-other choices. Although automotive terms, as we have seen, are frequently all-or-nothing choices, other technical terms may show some overlap. For instance, an L2 translator facing Polish klucz (maszynowy) may find it useful to know that the UK equivalent ‘spanner’ is unknown in the US, yet the US equivalent ‘wrench’ is not unknown in the UK (where the two even sometimes occur together as ‘spanner wrench’). Such facts are not always well represented in descriptive guides to US/UK differences (although Davies 2007, for instance, does make an admirable attempt).

3.3 Corpora

Much information on these and other subtleties is of course waiting to be gleaned from online corpora of English. Corpus-savvy L2 translators may be able to extract much useful information on varieties of English for themselves, through carefully designed comparative searches. For instance, the British National Corpus (BNC) can be checked against the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), or the Google Books corpus can be compared for British books vs. American volumes; in both cases this can be achieved via a convenient interface made available by Brigham Young University ( Translator trainees should certainly be made aware of these potential tools. However, sensibly formulating such queries and properly interpreting the results demands a certain finesse and takes a substantial investment of time and effort, which in practice unfortunately prohibits frequent searching by professional L2 translators whilst on the job and under time pressure.

Luckily, recent years have also seen the publication of extensive empirical studies of British and American differences, based on numerous well-thought-out corpus queries, capturing thousands of new, previously unnoted nuances (e.g. Algeo 2006) and even long-term historical trends (e.g. Rohdenburg and Schlüter 2009). Entries in Algeo (2006), for instance, such as the one below, have the following structure: each headword that the author found to be in some way preferred in British English (in the example below, ‘apart from’) is then followed by the corresponding phrase found to be preferred in American English (here ‘aside from’), followed by the corpus evidence in support of this finding (‘iptmw’ = ‘instances per ten million words’):

apart from aside from […]
[…] The BNC has 6411 instances of apart from, and only 298 of aside from […] CIC has 563.7 iptmw of apart from in British texts and 109.3 in American texts. It has 46.8 of aside from in British texts and 89.1 in American texts. […]
(Algeo 2006: 161)

Once we abstract away from the quantitative data counts (too precise for our purposes), this entry offers information potentially useful to L2 translators (and not only them): it turns out that both ‘apart from’ and ‘aside from’ are used in both American and British versions of English, although British English shows a strong affinity for ‘apart from’, and vice versa. Algeo (2006) offers thousands of such insights, thus potentially saving L2 translators the time and effort required to formulate (possibly fruitless or inconclusive) corpus searches for themselves. Yet useful as such raw corpus-query data might prove to be in particular situations, it is still hard to expect L2 translators to wade through such technical linguistic publications on a regular basis.

3.4 Prescriptive resources

The sort of British-American glossaries and corpus findings described above can offer descriptive or quantitative information on how various terms and constructions are used by various speakers, but do not offer L2 translators of English explicit recommendations as to how they might best tackle specific usage issues. Such explicit recommendations can be found, however, in prescriptive style guides and usage guides, which in recent years have been growing bolder at suggesting sensible conclusions to certain debates between varietal options, or compromises recommended for ‘International English’. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (Peters 2004), for instance, is superb in this regard, as is exemplified by the following entry fragment:

acknowledgement or acknowledgment
Acknowledgment is given priority in both Webster’s Third (1986) and Oxford Dictionary (1989), perhaps because of its use by publishers in the front matter of books. Yet acknowledgement gets plenty of use in both the US and the UK.
[…much discussion of corpus data and orthographic standards…]
International English selection: Since acknowledgement is well established in both American and British English, and the more regular spelling, it’s the one to prefer in international communication. (‘e’ is underlined here for added clarity)
(Peters 2004: 11)

This entry, explaining how the tension between the two forms is partly a transatlantic issue, but partly due to a number of other factors, would be very useful to an L2 translator such as the one described in Case 2 above. It provides a concrete, authoritative recommendation for how to proceed with translating Polish uznanie in this particular meaning (the safest bet would be ‘acknowledgement’ with the extra ‘e’). Moreover, it could serve as a model for constructively addressing and proactively clearing up the apparent loophole in her company’s house style preferences (or copy-editor practice). Or, by signalling a potentially contentious usage issue, it might also prompt the L2 translator to try, within reason, to find another translation option, steering clear of the problem.

Peters (2004) weighs the pros and cons of many options faced by writers working with various varieties of English (British, American, also Australian and ‘International’) and produces concrete advice in many such cases; other modern usage guides also offer similar prescriptive guidance. However, as in the case above, information potentially useful to an L2 translator is here unfortunately couched amidst much explanatory justification and corpus data that is not directly relevant to translation. Another shortcoming is that these are hefty, expensive reference works (Peters 2004, for instance, runs 600 pages), with many entries geared more towards native English speakers than non-native ones (e.g. entries teasing apart certain word-pairs only likely to be confused by native speakers). It is again hard to expect L2 translators to be able to easily find the information they need here, when they need it.

3.5 Contrastive dictionaries

One publication that appears at first glance to specifically address Polish-English L2 translators’ specific needs in this regard is Widawski’s (2009) Contrastive Dictionary of Americanisms and Briticisms. This dictionary is arranged by Polish headword, each of which is followed by one or more American equivalents, then one or more British equivalents; each American and British equivalent is illustrated with a sentence from the author’s own corpus. The author describes this as the ‘most sensible’ arrangement to enable Polish speakers to ‘quickly find the right American or British equivalent of the Polish headword’ (Widawski 2009: xii), which suggests that the dictionary is intended as a useful resource to L2 translators at work.

However, it, too, has several shortcomings. Firstly, given that the author has chosen to exclude numerous categories of UK-US differences (omitting in particular purely spelling-based differences, plus all derived words, idioms, colloquial phrases, and slang), what remains is essentially a haphazard collection of predominantly nominal Polish headwords. The entry for taśma klejąca ‘Scotch tape / sellotape’, for instance, is tucked away between entries for talon ‘certificate / voucher’, tapirować ‘tease back / backcomb one’s hair’, and telefonistka ‘switchboard operator / telephonist’ (Americanism / Briticism). It remains unclear, then, when a native Polish translator working into English as L2 would actually venture to tap into this dictionary in order to seek a particular headword; this is further exacerbated by the dictionary’s availability only in hardcopy.

Secondly, and more importantly, Widawski’s dictionary unfortunately only perpetuates the frequent misconception noted above, that US/UK differences are essentially all of the ‘binary’ type, involving black-and-white pairs of alternatives (even though, as for instance Algeo (2006) shows very well, in fact few transatlantic differences can be accurately presented as such black-and-white pairs of alternatives). For instance, the entry for talon suggests that Americans never use the term ‘voucher’ with this meaning, nor do the British ever use ‘certificate’, which is patently not the case. Similarly, the American and British equivalents for taśma klejąca, ‘Scotch tape / sellotape’, while distinct, are characterised by a certain degree of mutual intelligibility. Widawski’s use of corpus examples, which lend lexicographical gravitas to the dictionary, may therefore be misleading in this light: just because the author found a UK corpus example for a given term in a given meaning (e.g. UK ‘voucher’ for talon) does not necessarily mean that no comparable US corpus example exists (in this case, they certainly do).

The overall impression is that this dictionary is perhaps intended more as a work of lexicographical or linguistic documentation than as an often-used reference book on the desktop of the L2 translator. Thus while Widawski (2009) surely represents a step in the right direction, it falls considerably short of being the ideal L2 translator tool in this regard.

4. How to bring it all home for L2 translators?

We have seen, then, that information potentially useful for L2 translators about issues involving differing varieties of English is not always clearly and reliably presented in bilingual, monolingual, or contrastive dictionaries. On the other hand, we have also seen that a wealth of such potentially useful information has in recent years become available in other descriptive and prescriptive resources, yet that these are nevertheless not the most practical tools for L2 translators to consult on a regular basis. We therefore now arrive at the central question of this paper.

Research Question: How might useful information on British, American, and other international varieties of English be sensibly gathered and presented to be of best use for L2 translators of English, particularly for those working from a particular source language (in our case, Polish)? To put it another way: How can L2 translators be helped to avoid the kind of ‘mish-mash’ that Korzeniowska and Kuhiwczak (1994) warn against?

In the remainder of this paper, I will propose a threefold answer to this question. These represent, in part, the methodological tenets underlying a set of training materials for Polish-English translators that the present author is currently developing (Sax, in preparation). 

Answer 1: By introducing a more nuanced microstructure into bilingual dictionaries for use by L2 translators (finer-grained variety descriptor tags, additional usage notes)

Given that bilingual dictionaries frequently function as the quick-access resource of first choice for many L2 translators, especially at early stages of their career, such dictionaries might be designed more with the specific needs of L2 translators and trainees in mind[2]. As we saw above, simple descriptor tags such as ‘US’ or ‘UK’ (‘Am’ or ‘Br’), when used selectively and descriptively as they are in existing Polish-English dictionaries, are not as useful as they could be to L2 translators. Instead, a broader set of tags with more prescriptive force could enrich bilingual dictionaries intended for use by L2 translators, treating their entries as opportunities to foster more structured awareness of English varieties and related usage issues. One such proposal for a bilingual Polish-English dictionary might be to use:

  • the capitalised tag ‘UK’ to mark an equivalent as ‘most recommended for use in British English’;
  • the lowercase tag ‘uk’ to mark an equivalent as ‘less recommended, but also acceptable for use in British English’;
  • the analogous set of tags ‘US’ and ‘us’ with analogous meanings for American  English, plus possibly additional tag-sets for other native varieties of English, if relevant;
  • a capitalised tag ‘EU’ to mark an equivalent as ‘commonly found in Euro English, but not recommended for use outside of a European ELF context’;
  • In addition, concisely drafted usage notes may be added to provide extra, selected and ‘digested’ information for translators.

This tentative proposal is illustrated in the fragmentary Polish-English dictionary entries (1-3), which incorporate various types of information described above:

(1) tłumik -
1. [US] muffler;

    [UK] silencer

(2) klucz (maszynowy) -
1. [US+uk] wrench;

    [UK] spanner


(3) poza (czymś) -
[US+uk] aside from (something);
[UK+us] apart from (something)

Entry (1), for tłumik, would provide the kind of solid guidance needed by the translator described in Case 1 above. The two capitalised tags, ‘US’ and ‘UK’, in the absence of any lowercase tags, would in this system clearly indicate that there is a simple either-or choice of terminology to be made here, with no middle ground. Compare this to entry (2), for klucz (maszynowy). An L2 translator would here, due to the presence of the lowercase ‘uk’ tag, be able to conclude that ‘wrench’ is perhaps the safer bet if American English is called for or a more international option is sought, but that ‘spanner’ would, in fact, be the better option if British English is required. Entry (3), for poza (czymś), would clarify to an L2 translator that there is no major transatlantic pitfall to be avoided here, but that there are certain tendencies with respect to British or American English that it might be good to follow (this culled from the Algeo (2006) entry shown above). Two more possibilities are illustrated in (4-5): 

(4) przewidzieć -

   1. anticipate, predict, forecast,

   2. [contract, regulations] call (for), provide (for), make provision for, [EU] foresee; ustawa nie przewiduje sankcji the law does not call for / provide for / stipulate / [EU] foresee any penalties 

(5) poziom -


   być na tym samym / podobnym poziomie jak - [US+UK] be on a par with;

(usage note: increasingly being used without ‘a’ in less formal US English, as ‘be on par with’, although version with ‘a’ remains the educated standard in both US and UK)

The entry for przewidzieć sketched out in (4) marks the particular use of the English verb ‘foresee’ that is common at European institutions in certain collocations (calqued from continental European languages, cf. German vorsehen and French prévoir), and is also found in L2 translations of Polish przewidzieć, but is not recognised as standard usage in either British or American (cf. e.g. Gardner 2013: 38). A collection of such entries would enable L2 translators exposed to Euro English to recognise the questionability of such calqued usages.

Lastly, entry (5), concerning the English idiom ‘be on (a) par with’, incorporates corpus research and guidance derived from a recent online discussion on English usage (Hanna 2013). Such an entry would be just what the translator described above in Case 4 would require, to make sense of the conflicting feedback (the first instructor described in Case 4, as it turns out, was indeed a younger speaker of American English). A similar usage note added to an entry dealing with uznanie, considering the ‘extra e’ issue and providing advice derived from Peters (2004), would be similarly useful to the translator described in Case 2 above.

Answer 2: By drawing up summaries of thematic areas that are particularly prone to varietal differences, to serve as training materials and/or reference tools

Bilingual dictionaries might be useful to translators ‘in the heat of the moment’, while on the job and under pressure, but it would of course be better, if possible, to foster the necessary awareness in trainees at the training stage. One way to achieve this is through the sensible presentation of lexical and phraseological items arranged in thematic groups, to be used as training materials at various points in the translator training-curriculum. Thematic grouping is advisable because US/UK differences are known to be highly prevalent in certain thematic fields, such as medicine, chemistry, automotive terms, machine tools, clothing, child-rearing, education, etc. (cf. e.g. Davies 2007). Each summary could be used in various ways in translator training, as part of pre-class preparation, as an in-class warm-up, or as follow-up material. Moreover, each such summary could also serve professional translators as a quick-access reference, reminding them of what usage issues to keep in mind when working within a particular topic.

The thematic fields where US/UK differences are common fall into several different types. One type, exemplified by the fields of medicine and certain ‘hard’ sciences (e.g. chemistry), mainly involve differences of spelling and phraseology. A small fragment of a summary of relevant usage issues in each of these fields is shown below: 

Medicine Chemistry

anemia - (spelling) [US] anemia; [UK] anaemia

     (usage note: for international publications, US spelling recommended)

anestezjolog  - (spelling & pronunciation) [US] anesthesiologist; [UK] anesthetist

brzuch - kogoś boli brzuch - (phraseology) [US+uk] have a stomachache; [UK] have stomachache


nudność - mieć nudności - (phraseology) [US] feel sick to one’s / the stomach; [UK] feel sick
(usage note: US ‘feel sick’ = czuć się źle)

glin - (spelling and pronunciation)
[US] aluminum;
[UK] aluminium
(usage note: for international publications, US spelling recommended)

siarka - (spelling)
[US+uk] sulfur;
[UK] sulphur
(usage note: spelling with ‘f’ increasingly adopted by British scientists and international associations)


US/UK differences are here presented using the same kind of descriptor tag-set shown above, with the type of difference also explicitly noted (spelling, pronunciation, phraseology, etc.). Some usage notes (for instance recommending particular spellings for international audiences) are derived from Peters (2004) and other sources, others warn against potential transatlantic misunderstandings. Each of these two lists could be extended to cover (at least) the several dozen most important differences in each field.

In another type of thematic field, there are fewer phraseology/spelling differences but numerous differences of the disjoint lexis type, where there is often a clear-cut divide between one variety and the other. These include several technical fields (automobiles, machine tools, railways), as well as a number of ‘everyday’ lexical fields (clothing, child-rearing, food). In these fields, as well, lists of several dozen lexical items in the source language, linked to their usage issues and translation options in English, will help L2 translators be aware of the pitfalls concentrated in the particular field. Excerpts of two such summaries are shown below:

Cars Food

autostrada - [US] highway; [UK] motorway

benzyna - [US] gasoline; gas; [UK] petrol

świeca (zapłonowa) - [US+UK] spark plug; [uk] sparking plug

tłumik - [US] muffler; [UK] silencer

bakłażan - [US] eggplant; [UK] aubergine

cukinia - [US] zucchini; [UK] courgette

naleśnik - [US+uk] crepe (note: in UK ‘crepe’ suggests thin, savory dish); [UK] pancake (note: in US ‘pancake’ = much thicker, round dish, stacked);
naleśniki (z serem) (Polish menu item) recommended explanation: (cheese-filled) crepes folded into quarters

A comprehensive set of automotive-related differences, as sketched out here, would be a valuable resource for the translator described in Case 1 above – consistent use of the recommended US/UK descriptor tags makes it clear that this thematic field offers little in the way of middle ground. A comprehensive set of food-related differences, in turn, as sketched out here, would in turn be a valuable resource for an L2 translator trying to produce an English menu for a Polish establishment. If aiming for easy legibility to an international clientele, such a translator would be well informed enough to consider, for instance, translating bakłażany faszerowane as ‘stuffed aubergine (eggplant)’ or perhaps ‘stuffed eggplant (aubergine)’, recognising the disjoint US/UK divide. In addition, such a summary may provide recommendations for how to describe common items of Polish cuisine, such as naleśniki, for a solely British, solely American, or mixed / international audience.

In a third type of thematic field, US/UK differences are not so much lexical as cultural, being rooted in different systems (e.g. education systems, politics, legal systems, and public administration). Here a ‘three-way comparative essay’ style is a useful way to introduce and structure such knowledge – a few pages of explanation of how Polish, US, and UK systems differ in each case, possibly offering a range of near equivalents and loose equivalents, pointing out possible foreignising and domesticating strategies to be considered by the translator in getting domestic Polish concepts across in English (e.g. PL szkoła podstawowa ≈ UK+us ‘primary school’, US ‘grade school’)[3].

In all, the various kinds of summaries advocated here could be introduced intermittently throughout an L2 English translation curriculum. For instance, an ‘Education Systems’ summary of PL/US/UK differences, dealing at least to some extent with the regional variation in each variety, may serve as good preparatory material prior to an exercise in CV/resume translation, a ‘Politics’ summary prior to an interpreting exercise involving a recorded political speech, a ‘Clothing’ summary prior to an exercise pertaining to the fashion industry. Summaries of more technical fields, such as ‘Medicine’ or ‘Machine Tools’, might serve as background preparation for specific modules in technical translation.

Other such summaries would serve as good overviews in classes dealing with other types of English for Special Purposes, such as an overview of US/UK/Euro-English and Polish phraseology in a course dealing with EU translation (warning against the nonstandard phrases listed in Gardner (2013) and elsewhere), or a ‘Financial Reporting’ summary of US/UK/PL differences for a module on finance and accounting (drawn, for instance, from Bush 2005). Similarly, an overview of legal system differences, pointing out how possible English equivalents differ depending on the jurisdiction (such as Biel’s (2009) clear and concise three-way guide to one particular domain of company law), would help lay solid foundations for a course on L2 legal translation into English.

Each such summary would also serve professional translators as an off-the-shelf, quick-access reference, reminding them of what usage issues to keep in mind when translating on a particular topic.

Answer 3: Through materials for teaching grammar and punctuation, typically taking a three-way PL/US/UK comparative approach

We stressed above that US/UK differences involve not just lexis and phraseology, but also a sizeable number of both subtle and not-so-subtle variations in grammar as well as punctuation use. Within an L2 translation curriculum, many of these US/UK grammar differences can be most conveniently covered in conjunction with grammar-related lessons, ideally as early in the curriculum as possible. Differing punctuation tendencies, in turn, might be most conveniently covered in an early module dealing with written translation into L2 English, or general L2 English writing. In what remains of this paper, we will sketch out ways such US/UK differences might be presented in just three such cases: relative clauses, subjunctive verbs, and punctuation use with direct quotations.

Relative clauses and the attendant defining/non-defining distinction represent an important grammatical issue in L2 English. Polish trainees, for instance, are typically taught about how English relative clause meaning is affected by the presence or absence of commas and the interrelated choice of English relative pronouns which/that (as contrasted with the Polish relative pronoun który, which obligatorily requires a preceding comma). However, the importance of differing US and UK prescriptive tendencies for the choice of relative pronoun (which vs. that) is not always adequately presented. These tendencies are outlined in (6) below:

(6) Defining relative clauses

Polish example: te wyniki, które zmieściły się w przedziale 1-10

US tendency:

            the results that fell within the range of 1-10

(that strongly encouraged by style guides for all defining clauses, which frequently considered an error)

UK tendency:

            the results which fell within the range of 1-10

(that and which both accepted for defining clauses, but which often preferred in academic-style or technical writing)  

As shown here, there are somewhat opposing factors at work on either side of the Atlantic influencing the choice of which or that for relative clauses; a structured awareness of these differences would help the translator in Case 4 sensibly interpret the conflicting editorial feedback received on her translation (as it turns out, the first journal that the article in Case 4 was submitted to was indeed American and required American English, whereas the second was British and encouraged British usage, thus no error per se had been made). Alternatively, it perhaps might have prompted her to consider a more US/UK-neutral formulation from the very start (possibly: seeking an optimal exercise program to improve balance).

Similar tips on non-lexical US/UK differences could be productively grafted into grammar lessons pertaining to a number of other topics, such as the use of the mandative subjunctive, as outlined in example (7):

(7) Mandative subjunctive

Polish example: lekarz nalegał, by pacjent leżał w łóżku

US tendency: the doctor insisted that the patient stay in bed

UK tendency: the doctor insisted that the patient should stay in bed

(both forms are understood in either variety, but the ‘UK tendency’ form is considered much more formal-sounding in US, and vice-versa, the ‘US tendency’ form is considered much more formal-sounding in UK)

Information on these opposing tendencies will help L2 translators to make more informed decisions and to better understand their impact on text reception.

A final example of non-lexical US/UK differences that are best presented in such specialised materials is outlined in (8):

(8) Punctuation for quotations

Polish example: Nie ma mowy powiedział.

US tendencies: ‘That’s out of the question,’ he said.

(no dashes, double quotation marks, comma always inside)

UK tendencies: That’s out of the question’, he said.

(no dashes, single quotation marks, comma outside based on ‘logic’)

(note: The Polish rule that commas and periods (full stops) always go outside quotation marks, and the generally American rule that they always go inside quotation marks, are quite clear-cut and straightforward to apply. The generally British rule that commas and periods (full stops) go inside quotation marks ‘only if they naturally belong to what’s inside’ appeals to a certain sense of logic, and as such, leaves a bit more leeway for variation.)[4]

Given that Polish punctuation standards differ from both typical US punctuation and typical UK punctuation, such three-way Polish-US-UK presentation of punctuation standards and tendencies (noting also the degree of permissible variation within each variety) will help L2 translator trainees and translators follow a consistent punctuation style, complying with a client’s wishes or making educated choices on the client’s behalf.  

5. Conclusions

The problem of varieties of English is a complex one that cuts across numerous aspects of L2 translator training (syllabus design, overall curriculum, notions of specialisation, methods of translation evaluation, and so on). As we have illustrated here with a few case stories, L2 translators often have to contend with English usage issues that are largely, or at least partly, rooted in differences between English varieties. To make matters worse, such translators may receive conflicting feedback and guidance from instructors, editors, and clients. A wide variety of descriptive and prescriptive usage information is available, yet scattered through various published sources, online forums, corpora, etc., which may not be very practical for L2 translators to access or extract on a regular basis.

We have explored here how this wealth of descriptive and prescriptive usage information on English varieties, particularly the numerous insights derived from recent corpus-based work (such as Algeo 2006), could be recompiled and delivered to L2 translators and trainees in more ready-to-apply form. In view of the diverse nature of US/UK differences (and, for instance, Euro English peculiarities), we have outlined how this information may be productively presented in three different ways: 1) in bilingual dictionaries, by offering more sensible tagging of varieties and usage notes; 2) in the form of summaries of lexical, phraseological, and cultural differences in particular thematic fields; and 3) in the form of three-way contrastive notes on particular issues in PL-US-UK grammar and punctuation.

As was mentioned above, the present author is working on implementing these proposals in practice – in a training manual for Polish-English translators (Sax, in preparation), parts of which deal with the kinds of potentially problematic lexical fields, Polish/US/UK contrastive grammar points, and punctuation styles described above. One objective of these materials is to promote L2 translators’ self-revision skills, the aim of which is ‘to ensure that the target text is, at the very least, grammatically correct, stylistically fluent and in the correct register for the target audience’ (Kruger 2008: 45, also Mossop 2007).

In particular, we have tried to show here how access to or familiarity with such materials would have been useful to the L2 translators in cases like the four described above. However, materials of the types described herein might prove to be of wider application, useful not only to L2 translators, L2 translator trainees and their trainers, but also to L2 English learners in general, or even translators working into English as L1.

In closing, we can raise one open question for further consideration: Perhaps the ‘forked tongue’ metaphor used herein to describe English as a twofold (or manifold) target of translation might also apply to other languages with considerable geographic and varietal diversity as well (e.g. Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese), possibly giving rise to similar problems in L2 translator training?

Acknowledgements: I am very grateful to Łucja Biel, Barry Keane, Anna Król, Robert Lew, Tomasz Michta, Agnieszka Piskorska, Caroline Stupnicka, Douglas Willcox, Michael Wrennall, and the audience members at the ‘Methodological Challenges for Contemporary Translator Educators 2013’ conference in Kraków, Poland, for many insightful comments that helped greatly improve this paper. All remaining oversights are, of course, my own.


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[1] This guideline is given by many Elsevier journals, such as Thin Solid Films (Elsevier 2013). The present journal, InTRAlinea, similarly instructs authors of articles in English that ‘usages and punctuation should be consistently either English or American’.

[2] More on ‘ideal’ bilingual dictionary design for Polish-English translators, see Sax (2011).

[3] Some of the sources discussed herein, such as the initial parts of Davies (2007) or the admirable ‘Cultural Information’ section of Fisiak et al. (2011), do offer such expository material in a ‘two-way’ (US/UK) comparative model; these could serve well as a basis for developing the kind of ‘three-way’ (e.g. PL/US/UK) resource advocated here.

[4] See for instance Peters (2005: 455) for more detail on British editorial variation. A similar complex tale would have to be presented when explaining the transatlantic aspect of conflicting preferences for the use or non-use of the ‘Oxford comma’ in lists (e.g. X, Y, and Z as opposed to X, Y and Z). These two cases raise some similar translator training issues.

About the author(s)

Daniel Sax is an American translator, editor, and translator-trainer, based in Eastern Europe (primarily Poland) for the past 20 years. His professional work focuses mainly on translating and editing books by Polish and Russian academics and research papers intended for publication in top-quality journals. He teaches courses and workshops in Warsaw on the practice and theory of
translation, and has published papers on translation studies, lexicography, and pragmatics (Relevance Theory and information structure). More info on

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©inTRAlinea & Daniel Sax (2014).
"Translating Into a ‘Forked Tongue’:"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Challenges in Translation Pedagogy
Edited by: Maria Piotrowska & Sergiy Tyupa
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