I live in El Cerrito, California, and I often drive through the adjacent city of Richmond. One of the exits on Interstate 580, along the way to the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge, is Harbour Way. Yes, that’s Harbour, spelled the British way, not Harbor. It’s the name of a street, coined in that form for some reason or other, and the freeway sign reflects it faithfully.
It’s the same way with Centre (not Center) Street in Lower Manhattan, New York. In English, one does not change form or spelling of proper names. If a woman’s name is written Katherine or Kathryn, we don’t change it to Catherine (or vice versa), any more than we would change Antwan to Antoine (or vice versa).
But I am now reading the American edition of a novel by Tana French, titled Broken Harbor. The original title was, of course, Broken Harbour. It is not about a harbor that’s broken; it’s about a murder that took place in a locality that was once called Broken Harbour. The title is, in other words, a proper name, just like that of Tana French’s previous novel, Faithful Place (the name of a street). Why in the world would an American publisher (in this case Viking) change a place name in a novel that takes place in Ireland, not the United States?
I have written about this before, in connection with the Americanization of the texts of the novels of Ian Rankin, which I called yanking so that I could title the post “Yankin’ Rankin.” The process ranges from routine changes of spelling to significant word changes. The extreme was reached in the retitling of Fleshmarket Close by its American publisher (Little, Brown) as Fleshmarket Alley. Now, close is a Scottish word that means, more or less, alley. But Fleshmarket Close is, for God’s sake, the name of an actual alley in Edinburgh. (Tana French’s placenames are fictitious, not that it matters.) If an American tourist tried to find the place and asked someone for the location of Fleshmarket Alley, they might have a hard time getting the information.
As Elizabeth George has shown, it doesn’t have to be this way. She is American, and has gone through several American publishers (Bantam, HarperCollins, Dutton), but they all respect her chosen British usage and even spelling; the only things that marks her original editions as American is the punctuation (double rather single quotes, period before end quote, closed em dash rather than open en dash).
For myself, I prefer to read the original British editions, if I can get them, or else American ones that leave the text intact. Just as I prefer Chinese food cooked by Chinese for Chinese (something that El Cerrito has plenty of) rather than Chinese-American. There’s something about the flavor (or flavour)…