It took the Olympics to prove it: Britain might as well be Middle Earth to most Americans. Only that could explain why NBC hosts told opening ceremony viewers to Google the identity of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, without a trace of irony. Or that, during the closing ceremony, I had to explain to American friends the pop group One Direction (Bieber in band form), “human poodle” Brian May (guitarist from Queen, anyone?), and the appearance of a giant phoenix above the stage (phoenixes live in Sherwood Forest with Robin Hood—or maybe I made that one up).
The last couple of years have seen the world turn its eye to more than one arcane British celebration doomed to make the country look quaint. See: the Queen’s Jubilee, when hundreds of Union Jack-clad campers waited by the River Thames in the rain to see the Queen pass by in a boat. Or the royal wedding, with its processions and hats and that fairytale kiss on the palace balcony. But there’s a difference between watching the Disney wedding and understanding its significance in a country with centuries of royal history, a difference American journalists like Lauren Collins of The New Yorker and Sarah Lyall of The New York Times have to navigate in their dispatches from London.
“Britain is really fascinating to most Americans, because it is so close to our own culture and yet it is so different,” says Lyall, the Times’s London correspondent, who wrote a book explaining British culture called The Anglo Files. “I think what people loved about the [Olympics] opening ceremony was how idiosyncratic it was. One of the nice things about Britain is how people are allowed to be individuals within society, and this was a totally individual production.”
For American correspondents, translating British culture sometimes requires a little prior study. “During the royal wedding, I had to brush up on what a commoner really is,” says Collins, who writes from London for The New Yorker. Collins says her readers love to learn about nuances in language, as with a certain British species known as the “chav,” whom she describes
as a “loutish young person who likes to wear designer clothes” (think Jersey Shore with Cockney accents). “Whenever I can import British phrases into my articles, my American readers always seem tickled by that,” Collins says.
There are things that don’t quite translate. Collins says director Danny Boyle’s homage to the National Health Service during the Olympics opening ceremony might have been “puzzling” to American viewers. “The largesse of the welfare state here can be surprising,” she says, to viewers in a country where healthcare is an ongoing political battle rather than a given.
Much of the need for translation comes from the fact that American readers know less about the culture and politics of Britain than most Brits do of the States, by virtue of the UK being a much smaller country. “You heard a lot here about how the Olympics was this transformative moment, a big confidence booster for the entire country,” Collins says. Exactly a year ago, Londoners locked themselves in their houses as their city burned around them in riots that for many epitomized the extent to which British society had fallen apart. “I don’t really know if Americans have that stereotype of Broken Britain, a place where nothing gets done,” says Collins.
“You can either attribute that to the fact that Americans do think highly of Britain, or the fact that they just don’t think of Britain as much,” she says.
Collins and Lyall rise above a reductive interpretation of British culture with the same tools they would use to write any story: by finding something that might resonate with American readers, and then using that to better explore the intricacies of the issue. Collins wrote a popular article about the Daily Mail in April, which she thinks got such a great reaction because many American readers were already familiar with the MailOnline. “I’m not sure it would have made such an impact if the MailOnline hadn’t been making such inroads in the States,” she says. “Maybe the answer is that you have to write about something really, really British, or really, really universal.”
Understanding any culture takes an investment of time that most American readers probably don’t make. “I’ve lived here a long time and it takes a while to get used to the irony, misdirection, humor,” says Lyall. “You have to get used to the fact that you can’t suddenly go and confide everything you ever thought or did to someone you just met at a social occasion, the way you might in New York City.”