Note: This article was published in the October 2016 issue of the Translation Journal
Punctuation is generally seen as trivial by many people. It is not usually taught when learning a foreign language. In fact, many grammar books do not even mention it. However, a translator should be aware of its importance. Punctuation can have a semantic function, changing the meaning of a text depending on its place inside it. In many cases also, one language would use certain punctuation signs where another language would use others. This article will explore these differences.
Although the three languages presented here have some punctuation rules in common (regarding brackets, apostrophes, periods), they also have enough differences in the use of punctuation to present certain challenges for translators, such as the ones regarding the quotation marks, the comma, and the dash. The punctuation rules that differ from one language to another are not prescriptive; however, their misuse can be considered negligence, or even a grammatical error, especially when translating academic articles. This article deals only with American English, as there are also some differences in the use of punctuation between British English and American English. The French language is the one used in France. Only the main differences in the use of punctuation signs between the three languages will be emphasized, and only their most common usage.
Before getting into details, it must be said that the most visible difference between French and the other two languages is that generally, there are spaces (that don’t exist in American English and Romanian) around several punctuation signs – the quotation marks, the exclamation and question marks, the slash, the semicolon, and the colon (Ramat and Muller 2009, 89). With that in mind, let us continue with a description of the main differences for each of the punctuation signs that might present difficulties for translators.
The Quotation Marks
It is considered standard in American English for other punctuation signs (such as periods and commas) to be placed within quotations (Chicago 6.9; Trask 1997, 103-104). General exceptions to this rule are the colons and semicolons (Chicago 6.10). The primary quotation marks in American English are the double inverted commas (“ ”). In French, the quotation marks (« ») are written with a space after the first and before the second. For quotes within quotes, American English generally uses single inverted commas (‘ ’) (Chicago 13.28, Trask 1997, 99-100), French uses double inverted commas (“ ”) (Ramat and Muller 2009, 94; Riegel, Pellat, and Rioul 2015, 156-157), while Romanian (the primary ones being „“) uses the French quotation marks (« »), but without the spaces (Stan 2015, 53; Popa and Popa 2015, 450).
- American English: “Low hemoglobin and hematocrit values in active women may not represent true anemia but may instead represent ‘sports anemia,’ also referred to as ‘dilutional pseudoanemia.’” (Harris 2005, 57)
- French: « Il est possible qu’une baisse de l’hémoglobine et de l’hématocrite dans les femmes actives n’indique pas une anémie réelle, mais une “anémie du sportif”, appelée aussi la “pseudo-anémie dilutionnelle”. »
- Romanian: „Este posibil ca valorile scăzute în ceea ce privește hemoglobina și hematocritul din femeile active să nu indice anemie propriu-zisă, ci «anemia sportivului», cunoscută și sub denumirea de «pseudo-anemie diluționară».“
The quotation marks in American English are also used to indicate dialog, encompassing each spoken sentence (direct discourse) (Chicago 13.37, Trask 1997, 95). In French, in the last few years, the most used method to indicate dialog is through dashes (Ramat and Muller 2009, 95; Riegel, Pellat, and Rioul 2015, 161). In Romanian, there are no quotation marks („“) for the dialog (which is indicated also by dashes) (Stan 2015, 58), but only to indicate that the characters are thinking or speaking to themselves (direct speech) (Popa and Popa 2015, 450).
“Were you there?” she asked.
“I was,” he answered.
— As-tu été là ? lui demanda-t-elle.
— Oui, répondit-il.
— Ai fost acolo? întrebă ea
— Am fost, răspunse el.
Or, speaking to themselves/thinking (direct speech):
„Am fost acolo“, gândi el. (“I was there,” he pondered)
The comma is probably the most versatile punctuation mark in all three languages. Several differences in its use stand out between French, Romanian, and American English. In the case of the conjunction “and,” for example, all three languages have cases where a comma can be put in front of it, to make the sentence clearer (Trask 1997, 15; Riegel, Pellat, and Rioul 2015, 148-151; Popa and Popa 2015, 444). However, in French and Romanian these cases are rarer (Riegel, Pellat, and Rioul 2015, 148-151), and they generally do not put a comma before “and” (Ramat and Muller 2009, 107; Stan 2015, 85). In clearer words, usually in American English the comma is put before “and” when there is not a connection between the two words.
- American English: soccer, hurdling, and long-distance running
- French: football, course de haies et course de fond
- Romanian: fotbal, alergare de garduri și alergare de fond
Contrarily, there is no comma before “and” when there is a connection.
- American English: The Who, The Beatles, and Simon and Garfunkel
- French: The Who, The Beatles, et Simon et Garfunkel
- Romanian: The Who, The Beatles și Simon și Garfunkel
American English would also use a comma in cases when French and Romanian would use a colon – e.g., when an enumeration follows, or an example, or in direct speech.
- American English:
- Example/enumeration: Bob likes sports. For example, soccer, hurdling, and long-distance running.
- Direct speech: He said, “What are you doing?”
- Example/enumeration: Bob aime les sports. Par exemple : le football, la course de haies et la course de fond.
- Direct speech: Il dit : « Qu’est-ce que tu fais ? »
- Example/enumeration: Lui Bob îi plac sporturile. De exemplu: fotbalul, alergarea de garduri și alergarea de fond.
- Direct speech: El spuse: „Ce faci?“
French and Romanian use a comma in separating decimals in numbers (Ramat and Muller 2009, 79; Stan 2015, 92). Romanian uses sometimes a period or a space to separate every three digits (or nothing, leaving the digits grouped together), while French uses a space (Ramat and Muller 2009, 79). American English generally uses a period to separate decimals and a comma to separate the digits (Chicago 9.20).
- American English: 8,791,123.55
- French: 8 791 123,55
- Romanian:791.123,55 or 8791123,55 or 8 791 123,55
The Dash (—)
As stated in the Quotation Marks section, French and Romanian use the dash also to indicate dialogue, while American English uses quotation marks for that. There are other American English uses for the dash instead of different punctuation signs used in French and Romanian, such as (Note: there are no spaces before or after the dash in AE):
- American English: “Other diseases common in old age—cancer, stroke, and heart disease—may lead to more severe consequences in a person with Alzheimer’s disease.” (Sims 2002, 140).
- French: « Autres maladies communes à la vieillesse (le cancer, l’accident vasculaire cérébral et des maladies cardio-vasculaires) pourraient conduire à des conséquences plus graves dans le cas d’une personne avec la maladie d’Alzheimer. »
- Romanian: „Alte boli obișnuite pentru vârsta a treia (cancer, accident vascular cerebral și boală cardiovasculară) pot duce la consecințe mai grave, la o persoană cu boala Alzheimer.“
- American English: The two substances are bactericidal—that is, they kill bacteria.
- French: Les deux substances sont bactéricides, c’est-à-dire, elles détruisent les bactéries.
- Romanian: Cele două substanțe sunt bactericide, adică distrug bacteriile.
- American English: “This treatment is for smaller abscesses in relatively less dangerous areas of the body—limbs, trunk, back of the neck.” (Polsdorfer 2002, 14)
- French: « Ce traitement est pour des abcès plus petits, dans des zones relativement moins dangereuses du corps : les membres, le tronc, la nuque. »
- Romanian: „Acest tratament este pentru abcese mai mici, în zone relativ mai puțin periculoase ale corpului: membre, trunchi, ceafă.“
- American English: “In five years of basketball, I didn’t ―” He stopped in mid-sentence.
- French: « En cinq ans de basketball, je n’ai… » Il s’arrêta au milieu de sa phrase.
- Romanian: „În cinci ani de baschet, n-am…“, și-a întrerupt el brusc vorbirea.
The ellipsis is also used as an interruption in a quote, to mark a fragment is missing from a citation. French and Romanian put it in brackets – round for French (Riegel, Pellat, and Rioul 2015, 159), and square for Romanian (Stan 2015, 64; Popa and Popa 2015, 451). American English does not (Chicago 13.48).
- American English: “Ipratropium bromide … and atropine sulfate are anticholinergic drugs used for the treatment of asthma.” (Robinson and Granger 2002, 120)
- French: « Le bromure d’ipratropium (…) et le sulfate d’atropine sont des médicaments anticholinergiques utilisés pour le traitement de l’asthme. »
- Romanian: „Bromura de ipratropium […] și sulfatul de atropină sunt medicamente anticolinergice folosite pentru tratarea astmei.“
As final words, it can be said that a translator’s work is all about details. If a translated text does not “sound” or look right after a second (or third) close reading, then the translator might want to take a look at the punctuation. You can never be too careful, and you don’t want to leave a bad impression to your client.
Of course, this article is by no means exhaustive. For highly detailed explanations regarding the use of punctuation in each language, I would recommend the titles listed in the References and the Further Reading sections. They are not the only ones that could help you, but they do represent a good starting point. Good luck!
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The Chicago Manual of Style Online, 16th edition. 2010. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. (http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/16/contents.html) Retrieved June 7, 2016
Harris, Sally S. 2005. “Anemia.” In The Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport, vol. 1, edited by David Levinson and Karen Christensen, 57. Berkshire Publishing Group LLC.
Polsdorfer, J. Ricker. 2002. “Abscess.” In The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, Second Edition, vol. 1, edited by Jacqueline L. Longe and Deirdre S. Blanchfield, 14. Gale Group.
Popa, Ion, and Marinela Popa. 2015. Limba română: gramatică, fonetică, vocabular, ortografie și ortoepie. Ed. a 2-a, rev. în conformitate cu noul DOOM. Bucharest: NICULESCU.
Ramat, Aurel, and Romain Muller. 2009. Le Ramat européen de la typographie. Dijon: Editions De Champlain.
Riegel, Martin, Jean-Christophe Pellat, and René Rioul. 2015. Grammaire méthodique du français. 5e édition, 2e tirage. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Robinson, Richard; Jill Granger. 2002. “Allergies.” In The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, Second Edition, vol. 1, edited by Jacqueline L. Longe and Deirdre S. Blanchfield, 120. Gale Group.
Sims, Judith. 2002. “Alzheimer’s disease.” In The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, Second Edition, vol. 1, edited by Jacqueline L. Longe and Deirdre S. Blanchfield, 140. Gale Group.
Stan, Mihail. 2015. Ghid ortografic, ortoepic și de punctuație. Bucharest: ART.
Trask, R.L. 1997. The Penguin Guide to Punctuation. London: Penguin.
The Associated Press Stylebook. 2015. New York: Basic Books, Kindle Edition.
Butcher, Judith, Caroline Drake, and Maureen Leach. 2006. Butcher’s Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders. 4th edition. Cambridge University Press, Kindle Edition.
Casagrande, June. 2014. The Best Punctuation Book, Period: A Comprehensive Guide for Every Writer, Editor, Student, and Businessperson. Potter/TenSpeed/Harmony, Kindle Edition.
Strunk Jr., William, and E.B. White. 1999. The Elements of Style (4th edition). Longman.
Abbadie, C., B. Chovelon, and M.-H. Morsel. 2003. L’expression française écrite et orale. Grenoble: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble.
http://www.orthographe-recommandee.info/ – Informations sur les rectifications de l’orthographe française. Retrieved June 7, 2016.
http://www.nouvelleorthographe.info/ – Tout savoir sur les rectifications de l’orthographe. Retrieved June 7, 2016.
Beldescu, G. 1995. Punctuația în limba română. Bucharest: Procion.
Drincu, Sergiu. 1983. Semnele ortografice și de punctuație în limba română: norme și exerciții. Bucharest: Editura Științifică și Enciclopedică.
Graur, Alexandru. 1974 (Reprint 2009). Mic tratat de ortografie. Bucharest: Humanitas.
Rădulescu, Ilie-Ștefan. 2012. Greșeli de punctuație în limbajul cotidian: exemple critice comentate. Bucharest: NICULESCU.