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Punctuation

Punctuation has to rank as one of the items we deal with most frequently when reviewing documents. Oftentimes the text we receive is inconsistent in its application of punctuation, particularly so when it comes to numbered lists or a series of items with bullet points. (Do you end each sentence with a period? Or do you use a semi-colon? Or nothing at all?) You especially encounter inconsistencies in long documents where there are a number of lists.

One gets the impression that the people who draft a document assume that the folks doing the typesetting or desktop publishing will 'fix' the problem(s). In our experience, reliance on the design and desktop publishing process for catching and fixing errors is problematic. Graphic designers have to rank the worst for spotting and correcting such problems. It really comes down to having a proofreader catch these errors or problems.

Another common problem is with the use of commas. A comma in the wrong place can really alter the meaning of a sentence. There are plenty of examples in the book authored by Lynne Truss, titled "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation". Remove the comma in the title and you're left with "Eats shoots and leaves" -- a totally different meaning, to be sure.

Once a document is in translation, punctuation problems can easily get amplified. Punctuation is all about context as Lynne Truss' book demonstrates so clearly. And of course, most of us have heard stories of how punctuation issues have cropped up in the Courts; situations where the interpretation of a legal agreement hangs on the placement of a comma or a period. Small wonder we have a Disclaimer of Liability that applies to all of our work (see our Business Terms of Service). It's gotten to the point where insurance companies have a stake in such matters... but I digress.

"Issues" aside, when it comes to translated text, this is one area where the use of punctuation varies little from one language to the other. Though of course, there are exceptions. One of the biggies between English and French is in the use of quotation marks, a little “thingamagig” referred to as « Guillemets » as in entre Guillemets (those little double-arrow ‘thingies’) -- and mind the spacing please. It's enough to drive proofreaders and desktop publishers batty. Not to mention people who work on websites and have to fish around for the right HTML code for all of these things.

The French page relating to ponctuation on the Wikipédia site provides a great overview of "la ponctuation française". However, the MULTI dictionnaire de la langue française is the authoritative reference on French punctuation and its entry on ponctuation is somewhat at odds with the information found on Wikipédia.

By the way, two handy reference sources we use a lot for finding HTML codes for all of the esoteric foreign language punctuation and accents are on the Penn State website for Teaching and Learning Technology. The first page lists HTML Special Entity Codes (letters with accents, foreign characters, currency symbols, math symbols, and other punctuation, e.g. &, ®, ©, etc.). The second page has a whole section devoted to HTML equivalents for French accents. Very handy resource.

For more information on the topic of punctuation, there is an excellent overview and history of the whole subject (as it relates to the English language) on the Wikipedia website.

See also Lynn Truss' definition(s) of punctuation in the CILFO Eats, Shoots & Leaves posting.

Speaking of Accents

Accents, officially referenced as diacritic or diacritical marks, are signs added to letters in order to indicate a change or inflection in pronunciation. An accent affects the accent, as it were.

Accents are quite common in French and Spanish. However, the use of diacritical marks in English is uncommon; accents in written English invariably appear in words that have been assimilated from other languages, French and Spanish for the most part. The French expression "raison d'être" is a case in point (note the circumflex on the 'e'). One very common word, though often spelled (incorrectly) without accents in English, is the word résumé. Think of how you pronounce the word and you immediately get the idea of how accents affect pronunciation. Enough said.

The challenge in translation is to make sure that accents are being used and used correctly. Though uncommon for native language speakers, accent errors do happen, usually mistakes of omission. Errors occur more frequently in texts produced by non-native language writers. An omitted accent or, worse yet, an accent on the wrong letter, simply screams out for attention to a native language reader. Not good, that!

Accents are one of the big reasons why a non-native language French speaker should not be proofreading material in French. The same rule would generally apply to non-native language translators.

I could go on ad nauseam on this topic, but the subject is well covered in minute detail on Wikipedia if you're inclined to delve into it further. On the very same page (at the bottom) there's also a useful review of typography terminology.

See also:

• Basic Proofreading Guidelines

• Website Localization

• Quality Translation Buying Guide

• Going Global

• Machine Translation

• Translation Memory

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