Translation, Translation Culture

Beware! Man-eating grapes: The Challenge of Punctuating Translations

punctuation in translation

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“Well, I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

— Excerpt from “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” by Lynne Truss

Punctuation errors may be funny at times, but when it’s your business those errors may lead to a lack of trust and credibility, time and money, or worse.

A Closer Look at Punctuation

Punctuation is used to craft syntax, define pacing, and create nuance. When it is used improperly, it can wreak havoc on your translation. The main elements of punctuation in the English language are the period, comma, apostrophe, semi-colon, colon, quotation marks, hyphen, and parentheses. It is critical that the “in English” is understood because, while some of these marks are used in other languages, they are not all used in the same place or way, and they are not the main marks in many languages.

When even minor changes in punctuation change the entire syntax of a sentence, it is imperative that mistakes are not made. Consider the humorous anecdote, punctuation saves lives: let’s eat, grandma versus let’s eat grandma. When there are so many complications in a single language, it is easy to understand why so much care must be taken during translation.

In the west, periods mark the end of sentences, separate dollars and cents, and are used in abbreviations. Commas are generally used to create rhythm in a sentence, isolate elements, set-off phrases, delineate items in a list, and separate elements like cities and states or days and years.

Quotation marks enclose the words of a direct quotation and can denote a special item such as a title or piece of artwork.

In the international world, these items are not always the same, nor are the rules for their use. The period and comma are standard in most countries, but in Spanish, all punctuation goes outside of the quotation marks or parentheses. In French, there in an inverted question mark or exclamation mark at the beginning of the sentence as well as at the end.

With numbers, times, and dates, punctuation gets more complicated, even among the western languages. Consider:

Is it Euro 1,0 Mil or Euro 1.0 million? They are the same.

Euro 1.000.000,00 is the same as Euro 1,000,000.00 and Euro 1,00 Euro 1,– and Euro 1.00 all represent the same number.

While this may seem to be just a matter of style, a misplaced or misunderstood punctuation mark could change the entire meaning of a document. Within mathematical and scientific texts or those texts which use the formulas from these fields, punctuation marks are even more critical as they not only delineate what needs to be done but the order in which processes are to occur.

A Look at the Other Side

English may rule the business world, but when translating to or from a local language, the rules of English do not always align with those of the other text. For example, many languages have accents and special characters which change the meaning of words. Complicating things, many of the punctuation marks from another language are not available in English. Consider the German letters (ä, ö, ü, ß). French uses several accents above and below letters, and the direction the mark is written matters. Further, French requires spaces before and after the punctuation marks. In some languages like Arabic and Urdu, the language is read from right to left and the question mark and comma are written backwards.

Other items that accompany punctuation marks are margins and indentation. Along with spacing, these are not trivial matters. An errant paragraph, an improper margin, even a missed space in a document could make the difference between approval and denial or worse.

An author does not need to be an expert or master of each and every punctuation rule in the source or target language, but your translator does. When choosing translation services, ensure your translator is not only an expert in the field with a solid grasp of both cultures, but that they have a native-level mastery of linguistics in the target and source languages.

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