Translating punctation: an overlooked detail

March 8, 2024 by Alison Tunley

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Previously, this blog touched briefly on the importance of punctuation when reviewing translation work, especially the need to adapt punctuation style from the source language style to your target language. But this topic is worth revisiting in greater depth as it seems quite a few translators regard the typographical symbols in between words as outside their scope of work. But getting the punctuation right is essential for producing a high-quality translation.

There is no need to dwell long on straightforward orthographic punctuation differences. No translator is going to forget to convert the inverted question mark or exclamation mark used in Spanish to introduce a ¿question? or ¡emphatic statement! into the preferred style for their own language. Similarly, a translator working in English should be familiar with converting the guillemets used in some languages to mark «quotations» into the more standard “double quotation marks” or ‘single quotation marks’. In fact, entire treatise have been written on the issue of double versus single quotes, but that’s a subject for another day. And translators working on German texts will be well used to replacing the characteristic low-high quotation style „…“ with their own language’s preferred style. More subtle orthographic details such as curly versus straight quotation marks can often prompt heated typographic debate, suffice to say ensuring you adopt a consistent style within a particular text is a non-negotiable basic benchmark.

A thornier issue for the translator is the use of familiar punctuation marks in different ways between languages. And in this context, my review work suggests that translators are less confident in tinkering with the choice of punctuation. A recent flurry of German commercial and marketing texts in my inbox reveals a great fondness for breaking up sentences with an en dash or em dash, often rendered inaccurately in English with the similar-looking hyphen. This choice of punctuation is particularly common in headings „Unsere Produktneuheiten – tolle Schnäppchen“, which might be rendered in English with an intervening em dash, or just a simple colon “Our latest products — great bargains”, “Our latest products: great bargains”.

But German copywriters do not just deploy this punctuation style for dramatic, attention-grabbing headings, they sprinkle it throughout the text in a way that would not be found in an equivalent English text. The same is true for German use of the colon, which is used liberally to introduce new statements or to create an impact by breaking up the text. In most standard text, these bold punctuation breaks are best translated into English not even with an abrupt colon but with a mild-mannered comma. For example in the structure „Ob x oder y:“ followed by a main clause, English might well prefer “Whether it’s x or y, <main clause>”

Machine translation is particularly poor at handling these subtleties. In fact, in a recent passage I reviewed there were regular glaring punctuation faux pas that fell into the outright ungrammatical, such as a rogue comma introducing the words “to make your life easier” which had clearly slipped in due the German requirement to have a comma preceding “um zu” (meaning in order to). Machines should really be getting this stuff right, but the nuance of when an em dash might be better translated with a colon or comma is likely to require a human eye for a while yet.


Image: Pixabay

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