Trust Me, I’m a Linguist

Each language has its own logic, sets of rules and exquisite weirdnesses. If something looks strange to you in the translation, it may be due to such idiosyncrasies rather than a translator’s mistake.

For example, in French there is a hard space in front of certain items of punctuation such as question and exclamation marks, colons and semicolons, and quotation marks. Also note that the latter look like this: « » and not “ ”, unless this is a quote inside a quote. In German, nouns are capitalised and the first quotation mark sits at the bottom, not at the top like in English.

Time and dates are another thing to be aware of: 4.30 p.m. in British English is 16h 30 to the French, and note that a.m. could be interpreted as the abbreviation of après-midi, which means afternoon. Just like American and British formats differ, so do other countries/languages have their own conventions. And why not? After all, there are no universal rules.

These quirks are not negotiable, I’m afraid. After I had translated a website into English for a French client, I noticed that they had added those hard spaces before some of the punctuation. I contacted the client and explained that the rule was a peculiarity of the French language and did not apply in English. The client duly went back and undid their changes.

Those language-specific conventions may clash with your in-house typographical guidelines, but bear in mind that not respecting them will make your text look wrong to your foreign readers. If you plan to publish many documents in another language, it may be an idea to work with your translator on a set of guidelines for that language.

There can also be local differences. For instance, a French client once told me that his spellchecker said that I had misspelt words such as “colour” and “travelling”, that it should be “color” and “traveling”. I suggested he switched his spellchecker to British English. There were no more “mistakes”. Equally, Spanish Spanish and Mexican Spanish, and Swiss French and Canadian French are not the same.

If you think there is an error in the translation, by all means do ask your translator and they will happily explain – or fix it, if applicable. However, please do not tinker with the text as you will likely add mistakes rather than remove any. Check with your translator first and trust their expertise.

punctuation

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